Green Day launched its new American arena tour on Thursday night as only they can, screaming through an impossibly wide-ranging set that had thousands of fans jumping, moshing and stage-diving at Chicago’s Allstate Arena for well over two hours. But if the band has recovered from last fall’s meltdown that delayed the rollout of its ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! trilogy, it has yet to transcend the temptations of its own knee-jerk left-wing politics.
The show had a tinge of nostalgia to it, conjuring memories of Green Day’s celebrated performance at the Aragon Ballroom in December 1994, immortalized as MTV’s Jaded in Chicago special. (I remember friends coming to high school the next day with broken toes from the mosh pit, which seemed to engulf the entire venue for much of the show.) Green Day clearly loves Chicago, and the love is mutual, among fans young and old.
Green Day had a retro sound even when the band crashed onto the national stage two decades ago, reviving punk for a generation overwhelmed by the lethargy of grunge. It still has that fighting rebel spirit, combined with a quiet countercurrent of reverence for rock and roll’s heritage that is evident in the band’s riffs and melodies, if not its lyrics.
On Thursday evening, the band featured some of its new songs, which hint at a return to the playful irreverence of the early 90s releases, before unleashing old favorites like “2,000 Light Years Away” (apparently at the crowd’s request) and “Longview.” The latter featured two crazed fans shoved onstage to lead the last verse. One was summarily dismissed for failing to remember the words. The other, a portly fellow, nearly lost his wide pants as he clambered over the apron, but then rocked out to wild approval.
So far, so good–until politics got in the way.
Green Day’s sympathies are no mystery. The band provided a soundtrack for opposition during the Bush era. The protest anthem “American Idiot” led the way, accompanied by ballads such as “21 Guns,” and a cover of the Skids song “The Saints Are Coming,” which became a vehicle for criticism of the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Dissent paved Green Day’s path back to commercial success–including a Broadway version of the American Idiot album.
The band’s politics alienated some potential fans–including the late Andrew Breitbart, who tweeted a month before his death: “Please, God, No: Green Day’s American Idiot Musical coming to LA in March. Hideous heaped upon top of hideous.”
Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong lived down to that reputation on Thursday, interrupting a punkish cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” to tell the crowd: “Marriage equality for everyone!”
Agree or disagree, it is odd to be told by a punk musician to conform to a political view that has long been the default in the arts industry and is today the official policy of the White House.
A short time later, when Green Day launched into the 2000 hit “Minority,” it was hard to take the band as seriously anymore. They sing, “I want to be the minority,” but that clearly is not true, even if they still believe they are fighting the “moral majority.”
Suddenly, it hits home for a conservative fan: the enemy in “Know Your Enemy” is you.
What was once fashionable dissent has now become the very propaganda drumbeat the band railed against in “American Idiot.” Their tour is called “99 Revolutions,” for example, after an Occupy Wall Street-inspired song on ¡Tré!–a catchy tune with lyrics that sound at times like Obama campaign slogans. “A common cause and a call to arms/For the health of our daughters and our sons” could almost be the tagline for Obamacare.
If “21 Guns” predicted today’s crisis among American conservatives–“Your faith walks on broken glass/And the hangover doesn’t pass/Nothing’s ever built to last/You’re in ruins”–then “99 Revolutions” captures the cognitive dissonance of the American left, which insists on a posture of dissent even though it has achieved unprecedented power.
The tragedy is that Green Day could transcend two-dimensional politics. Songs like “21 Guns”–not performed in Chicago–have a universal appeal. The band’s zany humor defies musical and political categories. It pays homage to the past–a conservative impulse–while retaining a fresh punk sound for a new generation.
Yet Green Day still crashes to earth with its trite lefty political conformity. A good show–but the fans deserve even better.