Age of Hysteria: Appreciating Green Day's 'American Idiot' 15 years later


For a brief moment in the 1990s, the concept of Gen Y hung around. It, loosely, applied to those born between 1985 and 1995. It applied to a group of folks who probably missed grunge entirely (unless they went to bed in plaid onesies analyzing the lyrics to Nirvana's "Polly" -- which would have been pretty bad parenting based on both subject matter as well as the fact that falling asleep with headphones on is a choking hazard).

Growing up in Gen Y was often confusing, as somehow we were unable to claim ownership of both Kurt Cobain as well as Miley Cyrus.


For a little while, we were distinctly unlike our Gen X counterparts, having not seen the Challenger explode while sitting in a classroom. At least until we weren't…

But this isn't an essay about things that happened in September 2001.

Through the years, Gen Y was scooped up into a larger millennial umbrella, essentially wiped from the generational log, which, in reality, couldn’t be more fine and less of an issue, as generational bickering often comes off like that edgy senior that decides to flip off the crowd as he walks across the stage on graduation night.

This, also, is not an essay about the millennial labeling, nor toast, nor crushing student debt. 

This is, however, an essay about Green Day and “American Idiot” — an album the band released in September 2004.

Off the top of my head, there isn’t a ton I can think of that older generations would give Gen Y folks credit for experiencing or doing. It has been, for the most part, quite the opposite (see: placing sect of populace in larger generational grouping.)


And who can blame them?

If I had to guess what Boomers remembered fondly about childhood, I suppose I'd say: that thing where your mom turns the porch light on to call you back for supper and then you go outside and wash that dinner down with a gulp from the garden hose, Led Zeppelin, and... lax DUI laws?

If I had to guess what Gen Xers remembered fondly about childhood, I suppose I'd guess: Matt Dillon's movie career, Pearl Jam, and... unironically enjoying the first iterations of reality TV?

Have you ever seen “Dazed and Confused” or “Singles”? Those movies rock! Everyone involved gets to die before the oceans boil.

Here's what Gen Y gets to claim: Pogs.

For those who don't know: pogs were a collectible fad toy similar to the fidget spinner, though it did not spin. It was, instead, a cousin to the game 52-card pickup. The user was duped to participate, willingly, in a game that created a mess by use of joyous violence. The last step involved picking up after oneself.


(Not mentioned: Constant war, concerns about privacy and cyber security, the ethics of procreating called into question by the notion that Miami could be underwater within — too soon? Disturbingly soon?)

(Gen Y may also get to claim that unnecessarily sad animated Pokemon movie -- but they'd have to check with Gen Z first.)

(People wonder why 20- and 30-somethings hang onto the U.S. version of "The Office" with such vigor. It came out, they had fun in college, and Bill Nye came out of retirement to go on Netflix to remind us that climate science is overwhelming, and John Krasinski didn't even get to be anyone's Matt Dillon! He did a Benghazi movie like really soon after that! And after that he did a show called "Jack Ryan" which is kind of like Benghazi: the TV series!)

(Oh fuck, is the Middle East our legacy?)

(This isn't an essay about things that happened in 2001.)

You can imagine the joy Gen Y folks felt when Sept. 2004 rolled around and Green Day released "American Idiot."

This one was ours. (College kids probably felt the same about “Maladroit” at the time of its release, and would likely defend it with similar gusto.)

Blink-182 and New Found Glory had filled our ears with something called pop-punk, sure, but this was a legitimate legacy act our cooler older cousins talked about. This was fucking Green Day, man.

But the facade crumbled pretty fast. Before long, the title track appeared in a "Madden" game. The punk record was commercially successful, making it decidedly less punk. Something like half the record made it to the radio. The tracks that weren't on the radio were 9-minutes long. This wasn't an affluent California punk diary about popping pills in your bedroom. This was a well-constructed rock opera. It was... a big swing.

The songs “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” were legitimately difficult to avoid based on radio play alone.

And at the time, Gen Xers couldn't help but continue to remind us that they preferred Green Day's earlier work.

Imagine going to your first major league baseball game in the early 1900s at the end of the Dead Ball Era and spending an entire 9 innings listening to your older cousin go on and on about how good Honus Wagner used to be.

(Those same older cousins loved to slip you stuff like "The Blue Album" and open your eyes to Weezer for a few pure years before "Make Believe" dropped in 2005, setting you up for an entire adulthood of answering for Rivers Cuomo's late-career decision making.)

I distinctly remember a kid in my 6th grade class even informing me he preferred "Dookie" over "American Idiot." He even had a T-shirt with the "Dookie" album artwork on it that he fucking wore to school.

Remember that fictional kid that went to bed analyzing the lyrics to "Polly" by Nirvana? This was essentially him, except I could only imagine him kneeling at the side of his bed starting his evening prayers with: "Do you have the time to listen to me whine?"

It was, in a word, difficult to avoid hot Green Day takes in the years to come.


In defense of the pop culture scraps that Gen Y was dealt, I will make these basic claims: “American Idiot” is very good, and it was more punk to completely shift gears and successfully pull off a soaring rock opera than to continue to come out with iterations of “Dookie,” writing 2-minute songs into your 50s about how mushy your brain gets when you take pills.

This month, Sept. 2019, "American Idiot" turns 15. It was one of the albums Gen Y folks have had to defend enjoying through the years, particularly after it was turned into a moderately successful musical.

(The other three are Good Charlotte records (just kidding (well, one of them is.)))

I ask only that you, for a quick second, shove your international super hits up Matt Dillon's butt and go listen to "Whatsername" while driving somewhere. Try to envision a young person unironically enjoying “Wonderwall” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” before that mashup version on Limewire ruined both songs for good. Try, just try, to think of a time where a song about heroin (“Novocaine”) could be released and just be a song about drugs (like Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine”) and not a less fun reminder about the perils of the American opioid epidemic (like Manchester Orchestra’s “I Can Feel a Hot One.”)

Essentially, try to think about the first record you owned, how bad it probably was, how good it probably is, to you, for very different reasons, how stupid you were, how stupid you are, and how ugly your face is.

(Sorry for that last one.)

In 1994, it was cool to listen to Billy whine about nothing during the Clinton years. It was really fucking cool.


A decade later, it was somehow insanely less cool to comment on the state of things (as a punk act) and that became even less cool because releasing that record *checks notes* went very well for them. 

Gen Y folks got a few 9/11 records, this obviously being one of them. And then we weren’t Gen Y anymore.

To those younger than us, best of luck.

To those older than us...

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ENDING: Boomers keep reading. Gen Xers scroll a bit.

...congrats on the sperm version of you swimming fast enough to grow up and popularize suburbs.


...congrats on the sperm version of you swimming fast enough to enjoy "Reality Bites" in theaters.

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