It’s been five years since Green Day’s American Idiot took the world by storm, capitalizing on anti-Bush, anti-American sentiment to sell over 5 million records. Their newest effort, 21st Century Breakdown, follows American Idiot both in form and content. It is a concept album of massive proportions (18 songs!) preaching a Marxist gospel of despair and revolution. But instead of directing his anger at America, Billie Joe Armstrong has set his sights upon modern Western culture in general.
Musically, 21st Century Breakdown generally covers territory previously explored in their past albums: echoes of Dookie, Insomniac, Nimrod, and Warning can all be heard throughout. Yet 21st Century Breakdown ingeniously blends all these together to produce an anthology of punk that equals, if not surpasses, the brilliance of American Idiot.
But the real heart of 21st Century Breakdown are its consistent apocalyptic-themed lyrics. The rock opera loosely follows the story of two young punks on the brink of the end of world and dawn of a new age. What is this world that is ending? It is a world marked by: economic imbalance -“Coca Cola execution”, war – “She wears an overcoat for the coming of the nuclear winter”, political oppression – “, and religious belief “I threw my crutches in ‘the river of a shadow of doubt'”. The old world is coming to an end and Green Day calls all to arms, to “fight fire with a riot”.
Green Day does not strictly speak of corporate despair, but of also personal loss and desperation. In the song, Restless Heart Syndrome, Armstrong admits “I’ve got a really bad disease. It’s got me begging on my hands and knees. Take me to emergency ’cause something seems to be missing.” The song Before the Lobotomy speaks of hearts “washed in misery, drenched in gasoline,” rain that “had washed away all these scatter dreams,” and laments that “when the sky is falling down it burned your dreams into the ground.”
But what separates 21st Century Breakdown from your run-of-the-mill punk angst is the hope for love in the midst of despair. In Last Night on Earth Billie Joe surprisingly sings “My beating heart belongs to you. I walked for miles ’till I found you. I’m here to honor you. If I lose everything in the fire, I’m sending all my love to you.” This refrain of love is found interspersed between the fits of rage and revolution. The end of the world will bring love and hope. As the theme song says:
“Sing us a song of the century, That sings like American eulogy. The dawn of my love and conspiracy, Of forgotten hope and the class of ’13. Tell me a story into that Goodnight. Sing us a song for me”
What strikes me most clearly about this album is how freely the lyrics associate Christianity with the corruption of the powers-that-be. When he speaks of “missionary politicians” or “blasphemy, war and peace” it’s almost intentionally ambiguous whether he’s speaking of a political Christian leaders or Christian politicians. The offense of Christianity for him is not the Savior of the world and giver of an unmerited love, but it is Christianity’s marriage to a cultural ideology which he sees as destructive. Armstrong’s target is not Christianity, per se, but rather its popular expression in the public square.
The irony of 21st Century Breakdown is, for all its explicitly anti-Christian sentiment, there is much that Christianity can glean from this album. For starters, despite its self-righteous tone, it speaks honestly about the tragedy of life: “Like refugees, We’re lost like refugees. The brutality of reality is the freedom that keeps me from…Dreaming.” Billie Joe sees this tragedy both externally (western civilization) and internally (“I am my own worst enemy”). He hopes for a time when the ills of the world will be purged – a notably Christian concept. Most importantly, in the midst of social and personal upheaval Billie Joe sees genuine love as the only hope. Love is found in the midst of the ruins of life. Billie Joe hopes to replace a world of corruption, deceit and violence with one of love.