American Idiot (Green Day) - Song Tutorial

By Lisa Thai and Michael Brown
American Idiot - Single Cover

Written by all three members of Green Day, and co-produced by Green Day and Rob Cavallo, "American Idiot" dared to criticize the state of America and its people after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks. Referring to such issues as paranoia, propaganda and the media, the song demands the American people to reflect on the downfall of their nation's image. The song saw success all around the world, and thus aided greatly in increasing the band's fame and image on the international stage. Here, we hope to provide users with an in-depth analysis of the song, and in turn increase understanding of the song's key ideas and deeper meanings.

1. Lyrics
2. Context
3. Subject Matter
4. Mood/Emotions
5. Purpose/Themes
6. Techniques, and how they have been employed to draw a certain response from the audience, and to aid in conveying key themes or ideas.

1. Lyrics

Don't want to be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation under the new mania
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Well maybe I'm the faggot America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Don't want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/greenday/americanidiot.html

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2. Context

Released on the 14th of September, 2004, Green Day’s outstanding single “American Idiot” peaked highly on charts around of the world, and is even credited by some for reviving the bands career. The song itself is situated on an album carrying the same name; an album which would see a new genre of music be born. The album “American Idiot” has been labelled by the media and other music buffs as punk-rock opera, and the single and first track “American Idiot” is its opening. Being a punk-rock opera, each of the albums tracks relate to each other in some form or another and are set out in linear time progression, with the main themes presented dealing with the nature of individuality and rebellion. It tells the story of a young individual who is trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs, and just like a story his journey has its ups, its downs and an inspiring ending – which are all presented throughout the albums tracks. The story and album opens appropriately with the song “American Idiot”, in which the confused individual presents to us his evaluation of the society around him.

The song itself was released in 2004 during the heated presidential campaign in which George Bush was re-elected, 3 years after America was brought to a standstill as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks and just 1 year after the Bush administration pushed forward with the invasion of Iraq without approval of the United Nations. It was heated times for the American people as thousands were forced to stare terror in the face and as a result, those in control, the Bush administration, were now open to criticism regarding how such disaster could happen and of course their solution to the problem. This solution came in the form of the invasion of Iraq, commonly known as the war on terror, which was, and still is, fuelled by a propaganda campaign on the home front. This war on terror changed the image of America forever, and persuaded by the propaganda tactics of those above, most if not all Americans have accepted it. Although the song does not directly mention the Bush administration or any government affiliations for that matter, the statements “Don’t want a nation under the new media” and “welcome to a new kind of tension” indicate a forced change in society’s mood and views, a change one would assume is invoked by those in power.

“I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” indicates the mood in relation to voting and political standards of the time. Within context, the “redneck agenda” refers to conservatism; the southern states vote for Republicans and the northern states tend to vote more progressive. The Republicans are very conservative, resist change and usually get their way within congress. By stating that they are “not a part of a redneck agenda” they are in turn putting across that they don’t want to be controlled by the wealthy conservatives who use propaganda/media to get their way; the conservatives who are in control; therefore referring to the Bush administration.

“American Idiot” was written and co-produced by all 3 members of Green Day, and in turn their personal opinions and attitudes inevitably appear throughout it. For example, one of the issues raised by the band within “American Idiot” is that of gay rights, and how those within such minority are unaccepted and ridiculed by society. The lead vocalist, main lyricist, and guitarist of Green Day, Billie Joe, has a direct relation to this issue, as he had in fact grown up with a gay uncle in his life. Billy Joe accepted his uncle for who he was and the way he wished to live his life, and eventually established a strong connection with him. Green Days desire to express this issue within American Idiot is evident in the statement “Well maybe I am the faggot America”, which effectively emphasizes the out casting nature that Green Day is claiming the American society in fact has towards homosexuals, simply because they are different.

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3. Subject Matter

“American Idiot” is a powerful song critical of American culture and politics for deceiving the population. It goes on to put across the notion that Americans are blind to the fact that they are being controlled by the wealthy conservatives, assumingly the Bush administration, through the use of media/propaganda. Green Day is accusing the bulk of today’s youth of being a bunch of conformists; that the media owns the people and that these conformists are basically “idiots”. The lyrics put across the notion that through the lies that the media presents them, America has become a country based on fear, hence the statement “sing along to the age of paranoia”. It is through the spreading of this irrational fear of otherness and change that the Conservative powers can do what they like, allowing them to gain public support and set the agenda for political discourse. “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” refers to the notion of resisting such behaviour. “all across the alienation” refers to the instance of instead of bettering the lives of the American people, serious discussions turn into whether candidates are for/against homosexuality, whether they are religious etc., hence the term alienation.

The song is putting across the idea that America has become a country bound by its media; with the people believing anything that is broadcast through it. This is in a sense also mocking the American citizens and their inability to question, and distinguish, the truth from what they see and hear in the press everyday; hence allowing them to be controlled by it.

In the third stanza, the band makes a noteworthy comment on the issue of gay rights. By stating “Well maybe I am the faggot America”, they are effectively bringing up the notion that such minority is still not accepted within mainstream society, and are therefore out casted for being different. It is interesting to point out the use of the word “faggot” as a substitute to many less offensive words that could have been used in the same way, which one would at first assume has been used purely for extra emphasis or effect. The word “faggot” is of course a derogative, and offensive, term used to describe people of homosexual nature, and has been used within the song to not only point out the separation such group has from mainstream society, but also to show the constant, if not regrettably normal, ridicule and degradation that American society has allowed them to endure on a daily basis.  

Within the context of the albums punk-rock opera, which this song is essentially apart of, the main character, who we would come to know as Jesus, is crying out an anthem for the world to hear, in which he describes his hopeless and miserable state being stuck in the conformist, deceived society that is America. He is frustrated and alone, feeling as if there is nothing he can do to change it.



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4. Mood/Emotions

The mood presented in “American Idiot” is that of anger, frustration and a sheer sense of hopelessness in terms of getting across to the American people. The issues being presented to the listeners are of truth to the writers and the songs persona, and the opinions raised are generally not those which are adopted by mainstream American society. As a result, most Americans who hear this song would at first simply reject the views and ideas posed to them, which according to the song is actually because the American population is oblivious to the idea of being controlled by the media which they have come to love and aspire to. It is because of this “blindness” that the song is sung in such an angry, frustrated tone. The songs persona feels alone with his individual views and opinions of American lifestyle, and simply cannot comprehend why those around him do not share them too; instead of allowing themselves to become conformists to the media.  Such a tone emphasizes the struggle that not only the persona, but also the band has in “getting through” to their listeners, which also represents the citizens unwillingness to see things from an individuals perspective. By stating “I don’t want to be an American idiot” and “We are not the ones meant to follow”, the band and the songs persona are showing their reluctance to conform, and are also venting their frustration and disappointment in those who so easily will. Green Day wishes for its listeners, in particular the American people, to adopt a defiant stance on the issue, and therefore become individuals by not having their beliefs and values corrupted by media and propaganda.

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5. Purpose/Themes

Green Day’s main intention behind writing and co-producing the track “American Idiot” was to set up a stage from which they could openly criticize and ridicule the American government, and the society that blindly follows it. The writers aimed to inform their listeners about the current state of American society, and to do so they blatantly outlined and mocked the controlling nature of those in power through the use of media and propaganda, and of course ridiculed how so easily the people below these powers conform to such way of life. This notion was as strong as ever when the band decided to write “American Idiot”, with the Bush administration using a fierce propaganda campaign to gain approval for its invasion of Iraq. The song suggests that the Bush administrations influential rule through the use of media has allowed their objectives to easily gain acceptance amongst the American people, and in turn they continue to use this tactic to corrupt the beliefs and values of mainstream society. In the midst of the songs contemptuous nature, significant themes are raised such as the harshness of individuality, the Americans inability to question, the use of fear to control and of course how the media basically owns the people. The theme regarding the harshness of individuality is clearly evident in the verse “all across the alienation”, in which the band is referring to how those who choose to be different are mocked and ridiculed for it, and as a result of this a great division amongst American society has been created. It suggests that the American people will openly criticize a person based on a mere first impression, which in turn emphasizes the unacceptance of anyone different. “American Idiot” is an attempt by the band to make the American people aware and realise the severity of these serious issues, and encourage them not to just simply conform to being an “American Idiot”.

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6. Techniques

...and how they have been employed to draw a certain response from the audience, and to aid in conveying key themes or ideas.

Green Day’s “American Idiot” is a powerful song which presents to us the bands perspectives on the many issues faced by American society today. The lyrics are carefully written to create a certain impact, in which many useful techniques are employed to draw a certain response from the audience and to aid in getting across the songs key messages or themes.

A commonly used technique in song writing, which is clearly utilized in the creation of “American Idiot”, is that of repetition. Throughout the song, there are many lines which the band has deliberately repeated, such as “Don’t want to be an American Idiot” and “all across the alienation”. This technique has been used to emphasize these words and the significant meanings which are attached to them. Though they may also be repeated for the sake of gathering interest for the song and its tune, its main use is really to highlight the songs main points and the meanings which it has of course been constructed to convey. In this instance, it is to portray the Americans as “idiots” who are ignorant to the major issues around them, affecting their everyday lives. An entire stanza has been repeated in the song **point to chorus** which is aimed to emphasize and ridicule the helplessness and confusion which is being represented in the American citizens and their ignorant actions to disregard reality; whether this be because of the medias controlling nature or not.

The band also makes use of strong metaphors within “American Idiot”, in particular when needing to describe American society and its people. One of these strong metaphors is clearly evident in the second stanza, where the statement “All across the alien nation” is made. The words “alien nation” have been used to describe the land of America, and to emphasize the great division that exists within its society. In America there exists a diverse range of social groups, and Green Day is referring to them as a whole to an “alien nation”. The word “alien” is conveyed as something completely different and foreign to us, which is in most cases unaccepted by mainstream society. Using this as a metaphor to describe the lack of connection within American society is a very powerful tactic in highlighting the issue. The bands reluctance to use a less imposing metaphor in this situation, such as “stranger” rather than “alien”, indicates the strong stance that the group holds on the issue.

Green Day have been very careful of word choice whilst writing “American Idiot”; clearly recognizing that each word is in fact important if they wish to make a significant impact on their listeners. As a result, these cleverly composed lyrics are incredibly successful in mocking the Americans and their, from the bands perspective, stupidity in allowing themselves to become such blatant conformists. An example of such specific word choice is clearly evident in the third verse, with the band stating “now everybody do the propaganda”. Green Day used the word “now” in conjunction with “do” and “propaganda” to suggest that it is not uncommon for Americans to engage in, and allow their minds to be shaped by, the use of propaganda. It is also suggesting that such a tool has become strongly embedded within American culture, to the extent that people will use it, and conform to it, without even knowing. In line with this, the band are therefore also mocking American societies inability to realise the extent to which propaganda is being used against them and how much it truly influences their day to day lives.

Another good example of such specific word choice can be found in the line “one nation controlled by the media”. The use of the word “controlled” is very blatant in informing listeners that Americans are being heavily influenced by the media, and as stated “controlled” by it. The word “controlled” is seen as very superior and commanding and as so, America, being on the other end of it, is evidently controlled by the idea. This in turn will perhaps anger American listeners, but alternatively it may cause them to realise this confronting truth, and therefore encourage them to see that their lives may be in need for a change.

Green Day have used figurative or symbolic language quite often in their song “American Idiot”, in order to represent certain things and comment on certain situations. It is an indirect way of communicating to their listeners; a tool which enables these listeners to interpret their own meanings from certain aspects of the lyrics. An example of the use of symbolic language is evident within the last line of the third stanza, in which the statement “and sing along in the age of paranoia” has been made. The key word used in this sentence is “age”, which symbolises and points out a particular time or perhaps era. A possible interpretation from the use of such word is one which criticizes the American people of the songs era, rather than any other. This, in turn, is saying that it is only the American people around the time of 2004 that are “idiots”, suggesting that 2004 and possibly still to this day, American society was within a state of paranoia. 

Another example of the use of figurative language within “American Idiot” is one which further criticizes the American people and their values. By stating “Television dreams of tomorrow”, Green Day is indicating how Americans have “television dreams” which are derived from the media, and are typically seen to be tedious let alone superficial. Such dreams are seen to be unachievable and unreasonable, which relates to how the Americans are being represented to think. That particular statement was designed to criticize how American aspire to typically unreachable and ludicrous goals, and of course how they are so easily influenced by what they see and hear in the media.

In all popular songs, the music and sound techniques have proved to be extremely important in capturing the listener’s attention. Green Day’s music is no exception to this, and such a notion is evident both in the melody and lyrics of “American Idiot”. Many of the lines in the song rhyme and are sung with a catchy melody. This is useful and creative in gathering the listener’s attention, and it also encourages them to interpret what is being conveyed and possibly distinguish a possible deeper meaning that could lye beneath the songs lyrical surface.

It is a combination of these techniques and the bands genius lyrics that allowed “American Idiot” to dominate music charts world wide, and hopefully in doing so Green Day fulfilled in their quest to wake Americans up from their “idiot”, conformist style of life; and in turn hopefully allowing at least some individuality in American society to prosper.

 

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