Between the Grooves: Green Day – ‘American Idiot’

Part social commentary and part fictional narrative, Green Day's American Idiot came out of nowhere and impressed with its biting political subversion, exploration of teenage angst, love, and uncertainty, and perhaps most importantly, brilliant structures, transitions, and overall cohesion.

American Idiot
Green Day
21 September 2004

13. “Whatsername”

American Idiot essentially ended with “Homecoming”, as Jesus of Suburbia’s journey came full circle and found its resolution. He didn’t become the rebellious punk antihero/savior he set out to be, but he was able to find solace in himself and the world in which he lives, accepting that life is meant to be screwed up and scary, yet ultimately full of possibilities too. However, it’s precisely those unfulfilled prospects and vague uncertainties that shape who we are and perpetually haunt us, nagging at the backs of our minds for answers that will never come.

Typically, this lack of closure results from a failed romance. After all, just about everyone has their someone who got away, and we may never fully understand what happened. For Jesus, it’s Whatshername, an anarchistic flame who held onto his heart “like a hand grenade”. Back in August, she sent him a “Letterbomb”, saying, “I can’t take this town, I’m leaving you tonight”, and he spent the rest of the year missing her (despite projecting acceptance and emotional progression on the surface). Appropriately, it’s now New Year’s Day, and despite moving on with life in many other ways, he can’t help but “wonder how Whatshername has been”.

Musically, “Whatshername” is arguably the most straightforward song on the disc. It begins with a steadfast beat and stilted guitar riffs. This combination, matched with Billie Joe Armstrong’s rather monotone and exhausted verse delivery, suggests that Jesus is emotionally numb. Expectedly, things become more electrified and biting when the chorus hits, and the way the guitar lines mimic the vocals is subtle but highly effective. It’s here that Armstrong really piles on the sense of regret and defeat with his voice, making it sound like Jesus is trying to convince himself that he’s moved on even though he knows he hasn’t. Again, It’s not the most intricate or varied arrangement on American Idiot, but it is among the most touching and visceral.

Of course, the lyrics to the song are what really drive home the sentiment. Really, Jesus’ words speak volumes about how one deals with such heartache, so just about every listener can put him or herself into his shoes. He begins by addressing Whatshername in his mind, admitting he “thought I ran into you down on the street / But it turned out to only be a dream”. He then tells us how he’s dealt with the loss: “I made a point to burn all of the photographs / She went away and then I took a different path”. Afterward, he utters a modest yet crushing reflection: “I can remember the face but I can’t recall the name / Now I wonder how Whatshername has been”. It’s in this instant that we learn that his entire story has been a flashback (since he’s always referred to her as Whatshername).

He goes on to remember how she “disappeared without a trace” (or a proper goodbye), as well as wonder if “she ever married old Whatshisface” (thus, he’s jealous that someone else got to be with her in the long run). Following this, the chorus kicks in, which is when he (unsuccessfully) tries to defy his emotional weakness by denouncing her memory: “Remember / Whatever / It seems like forever ago / The regrets / Are useless in my mind / She’s in my head”. Finally, he issues one last decree—”And in the darkest night / If my memory serves me right / I’ll never turn back time / Forgetting you but not the time”—that conveys an abundance of complex feelings. As with anyone we love and lose, we’ll never be able to recapture the time we spent together, but we won’t be able to forget it either. The person may fade away, but what he or she represented never will.

“Whatshername” is a masterful way to end one of the few sonic masterpieces of the last decade, as it leaves both its central character and its listeners with a sense of longing that will never be resolved. It’s often said that the best art reflects what it’s like to be human, and this track (as well as all of American Idiot) certainly does that. Along the same lines, the best art is timeless. So while the LP’s political commentary is certainly of its era, its social commentary and representation of teenage angst, romance, and outcry are inarguably universal. That’s why it hasn’t lost a shred of reputation or power since it came out. American Idiot will continue to be revered and discussed for years to come, as it’s undoubtedly one of rock’s greatest and most essential concept albums.

+ + +

This series originally ran weekly between September to November 2014. We have combined it into one article for ease of reading.