It is possible that no band maintains a more complicated relationship with punk rock than Green Day. Ever since the group's breakout Dookie, its existence has been paradoxical, a flow chart that alternately asks, answers, and dodges questions about the grand concept of punk. According to the gang mentality of scene politics, bands who taste the forbidden fruit of the mainstream care not about their community. Green Day consistently cares too much, and has been hyper-aware of backlash throughout its career. In the name of punk, Green Day has done the following: buried Billie Joe Armstrong's voice in mixes, took Pansy Division on tour, created an overly aggressive sophomore album, wrote "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)," ironically used the word "faggot," and released a live DVD titled Awesome As Fuck. But none of these actions are as punk rock as adapting the 2004 album American Idiot into a Broadway musical, which is in town this weekend at the Peabody Opera House (14th St. and Market St. 314-241-1888)
A high school kid recently told me he does not consider Green Day a punk band because "punk goes against what everybody else is doing." Fallible at best (oh, to be young again), but this logic works in American Idiot's favor. I can think of few things further outside of the rock comfort zone than a musical. Yes, the paths have crossed -- Rocky Horror, Jesus Christ Superstar, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark -- but the rockers and the theater kids tend to occupy different lunch tables.
When the two co-inhabit, rarely is the result so effortless. It is not as forced as, say, The Who's Tommy. American Idiot (the album) is touted as a "punk rock opera" due to multi-faceted songs like "Jesus Of Suburbia," but that is not why American Idiot (the musical) works. The album is full of over-acting, smiles and tears obvious enough to be seen from the nosebleed seats. Its aggravations are open ended. Walking lonely roads, mourning the end of summer. At times it says nothing, but add some choreography and jazz hands and it says everything.
It may be shocking how well the music of Green Day fits the stage, but the success aftermath is no surprise. American Idiot in its various forms has won Grammys and Tonys. It has sold fourteen million albums and raised millions of dollars in tickets. Eight years after the record's release, it still seems vital. With a dying industry that is not as friendly to bands as it is to solo pop acts, I wonder if American Idiot is the last rock band phenomenon we get. If so, it couldn't have realistically happened to a better band; can you imagine St. Anger (the musical)?
Nobody can call Green Day unambitious. Its career is defined by big leaps and curious decisions. American Idiot (the musical) is the most accurate summary of the band's ambition in the present tense; it's definitely more honest and effective that the derivative follow-up album 21st Century Breakdown. It keeps one of the most important bands in rock relevant, without aesthetic compromise. Behind American Idiot is immeasurable drive and experimentation and risk. It doesn't get much more punk than that.