A 21st-century breakdown of 21st Century Breakdown

14 Dec

I’m revisiting Green Day’s newest concept album (It’s not a rock opera. Tommy is a rock opera. The Wall is a rock opera. This is a concept album.) about the characters Christian and Gloria, who may or may not be extensions of Jesus of Suburbia and Whatsername from American Idiot. I’m not sure why. It probably won’t be a track-by-track review of it. I’m just sort of putting down thoughts here.

Let’s start with the title. 21st Century Breakdown. Is this supposed to mean that they’re breaking down the 21st century, that the 21st century has broken down, or that a breakdown in the 21st century is somehow different from a breakdown in the 20th century? Clarity (and punctuation) is your friend, Billie Joe Armstrong.

Act I – Heroes and Cons

Song Of The Century – Playground rhyme with a static effect over it. I can’t figure out what the static effect has to do with the rest of the album. maybe as a tie-in the to switching channels audio snippet at the beginning of East Jesus Nowhere? Still, it seems like a throwaway effect and unnecessary. Partly due to the fact that I can’t figure out what the switching channels snippet has to do with anything else on the album.

21st Century Breakdown – Title track, standard Green Day fare. Billie gets autobiographical again.

Opening lyrics: “Born in to Nixon, I was raised in Hell / A welfare child where the teamsters dwelled / The last one born and the first one to run / My town was blind from refinery sun.”

I could write a dissertation on these lines alone.

First, “Born into Nixon, I was raised in Hell”. President Richard Milhous Nixon, 1968-1974. Billie Joe was born 17 February 1972. Fairly obvious. What I don’t understand was (other than his father’s death) why he thinks his childhood was so crappy. By all accounts from his siblings, up until Andy died, he had a pretty good life.

“A welfare child where the teamsters dwelled” Oy. Despite what he seems to want everyone to believe, Billie Joe was never on welfare. His mom had a steady job when he was growing up, and she still works. Plus, he had an older brother Alan who also brought in money for the family both before and after Andy died.

“The last one born and the first one to run” Billie Joe is the youngest of six children and he left home when he was about 17 or so, while his brothers and sisters went to college and finished high school. Not much to interpret here.

“My town was blind from refinery sun” Also relatively simple to understand. Pinole is just a few miles away from Humboldt, California, a town notorious for oil refineries.

“My generation is zero / I never made it as a working class hero” The first part is a reference to the dubbing of the current generation of kids as Generation Zero, akin to naming the kids of the first part of the 90’s as Generation X. He’s veering away from autobiographical in this line and trying, perhaps, to introduce the character of Christian. It’s not working. The second part has duality to it. There’s the obvious shout out to Green Day’s cover of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, but there’s also the reference to the fact that one, while the band was struggling to make it big, Billie tried to work regular jobs and just couldn’t hack it and two, to quote him directly from Bullet In A Bible, “I am Green Day.” Being in a band in the only thing he knows how to do, and he couldn’t get a regular job and be a blue-collar stiff like the rest of us.

(You can find more out about “Generation Zero” here in an 2007 article from the San Francisco Chronicle. Coincidence? I think not.)

I’m going to skip ahead here to the first bridge of the song. Not because there’s more symbolism, (okay, there is a little) but because I find it curious.

“We are the class of the class of 13/ Born in the era of humility / We are the desperate in the decline / Raised by the bastards of 1969”  The class of 13, 2013, will be populated by kids born in 1995. Billie Joe’s first son was born in 1995. His wife, Adrienne, was born in 1969. Kind of puts a different spin on that lyric, to me at least. But Billie’s not talking about himself, or his son, this is supposed to be about Christian. Maybe. Billie switches back and forth so much; it’s hard to keep up.

So far, this is not feeling as concise as American Idiot. Plus, I’m pretty sure the intro of this song is ripping off The Who. Like 80% sure.

Know Your Enemy – To say this song sticks out like a sore thumb is an understatement. This song sticks out like a sore thumb with a blinking neon sign pointing to it and a mariachi band soundtrack. I mean, if it’s supposed to be like Gloria’s manifesto or something, put it on the album AFTER Gloria has been introduced as a character. Personally, I feel it sticks out SO bad, I generally skip it. I only included it this time to, well, rant about it. It’s repetitive as HELL. “Do you know your enemy / Do you know your enemy / Well, gotta know the enemy / (unintelligible vocalization)” What enemy? Could you give us a clue? Also, “Well violence is an energy / So gimme, gimme revolution!” Sure, Billie! Can you tell us what we’re supposed to be revolting against?

Sadly, not the last song that makes no damn sense on this album.

¡Viva La Gloria! – Now we meet Gloria. Right? Well, actually we do. Gloria is some kind of punk revolutionary, waging war against that still-unknown enemy. Gloria sounds like a very cool character.

Before The Lobotomy – We meet Christian. Not! Are we really to believe Christian had a lobotomy? Or did someone Christian know get a lobotomy? What the hell is this song about anyway? I’m lost.

Christian’s Inferno – Blatant Network ripoff! Just sayin’. Or at least it sort of was. Kinda dissolved into crap by the first chorus. The second verse comes back to that Network-y vibe, but the choruses…Wow. Total crap. Shoulda let Mike sing it. Nah, never mind. It’s fine as Billie. Using Mike’s perfect Devo-like voice on this crap song would make it even worse. Are we really supposed to believe Christian’s some sort of badass like Gloria? At least Gloria has a mission. Sounds like Christian’s just a destructive little snot. Anarchy for the sake of doing something anarchistic. Whoopty-doo. ‘Some people just want to see the world burn,’ eh, Billie Joe? “Toxin in your reservoir/ and then return man to ape” Oh, wait, is he The Joker? This was The Joker’s first crime in the Batman comics…

Last Night On Earth – Not to be confused with the epic awesome song by U2 from their 1997 album, Pop, of the same name. Nah, this is a sappy, ridiculous ballad, Billie (finally) singing as Christian to Gloria. “If I lose everything in the fire / I’m sending all my love to you” I’m guessing this is supposed to be a reference to the previous song, meaning if Christian loses everything from being a self-destructive little snot, Gloria should know that he still loves her.

End of Act I. What have we learned so far? Well, Gloria’s a revolutionary badass, like Saint Jimmy from American Idiot. Christian’s even more useless than Jesus of Suburbia, though it seems he desperately wants to be JoS. Also, Billie can’t make up his mind about whether or not he wants to be autobiographical or not or whether he’s singing as Christian or not. Not the best start to an album.

Act II – Charlatans And Saints

East Jesus Nowhere – Let’s start with the title. Remind you of anything? How about: “Jesus filling out paperwork now / At the facility on East 12th Street”? Too bad it has nothing to do whatsoever with Jesus Of Suburbia, unless this song is supposed to be sung as him, and he’s become some sort of evangelical street preacher…

I really like this song, so, of course, I’m going to deconstruct it.

“Raise your hands now to testify / Your confession will be crucified / You’re a sacrificial suicide” Guess what, kids! Religion is bullshit and your life means practically nothing! Have a nice day. “Like a dog that’s been sodomized” Wait, what? WHAT?! There are other words that rhyme with “crucified”, and Billie, you, of all people, should know not to take lyric ideas from Tré Cool. That’s the only place I can think a lyric like that could possibly come from, the depths of Tré’s burnt-out, random-ass, sex-obsessed brain. Tré doesn’t have the best track record with dogs, but that’s a story for another day. “Stand up! All the white boys / Sit down! All the black girls” You racist bastard. Billie or JoS? You decide. “You’re the soldiers of the new world” Let’s keep up our theory that this is another appearance of Jesus of Suburbia, for shits and giggles. JoS is recruiting young men for…the same war Gloria’s fighting? Is this the same good fight Saint Jimmy was fighting in American Idiot? Has Gloria taken up Jimmy’s mantle? Can we get some fucking clarity here, Billie Joe?! And we’re only on the first verse!

ONWARDS! “Put your faith in a miracle / And it’s non-denominational / Join the choir we’ll be singing / In the Church of Wishful Thinking”

So this starting to make sense if we think of it in the terms that Jesus of Suburbia is hosting some sort of congregation or tent revival. I wish there was a better delineation of when it’s the congregation singing to JoS or JoS singing to them. It doesn’t really work if Mike’s singing background vocals to JoS, then does the same to add another voice to the congregation. You need Tré and a Jason or two helping out. Or even double-track yourself, for fuck’s sake. Something. Also, are Christian and Gloria at this fete? If so, how are we supposed to know? There is nothing in the lyrics to suggest that.

“A fire burns today / Of blasphemy and genocide / The Sirens of decay / Will infiltrate the faith fanatics”

So Jesus of Suburbia is a street preacher of atheism? Interesting.

“Oh bless me, Lord, for I have sinned / It’s been a lifetime since I last confessed / I left my crutches in “The river of a shadow of doubt” / And I’ll be dressed up in my Sunday best”

Ok, traditional Catholic confessional. Reference to the familiar passage of  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the river of a shadow of doubt…” I don’t know the rest of it, and I don’t know where it is in the Bible. I’m no religious scholar. It’s turned slightly on its head because this individual follower (noted only by the lyrics, no discernable change in Billie’s voice.) had to use crutches. Okay. Sunday best, more church references. Possibly a veiled mention of a funeral? The “Valley” passage is traditionally read at funerals…

“Say a prayer for the family / Drop a coin for humanity / Ain’t this uniform so flattering? / I never asked you a goddamn thing”

References: “The family that prays together stays together”, dropping a coin (or a dime, Billie Joe) is another term for snitching on someone. Not sure what this means in the context of this song, other than it rhymes. Snitching for humanity? WTF? The uniform is a reference back to the “soldiers” line earlier in the song, I’d imagine. The last line…your guess is as good as mine.

“Don’t test me / Second-guess me / Protest me / You will disappear”

O…K. This is out of left field. Even if we’re wrong about Jesus of Suburbia being a street preacher and this is a song about his flock, this sounds like the words of some despot leader. Mood whiplash in a song like this.

“I wanna know who’s allowed to breed / All the dogs who never learned to read / Missionary politicians / And the cops of the new religion”

Uhm…Yeah… What the hell, Billie Joe? The song sort of made sense up to that point. I honestly don’t know what to make of it anymore.


Peacemaker – Obviously, this song is sung from the point of view of a terrorist. Why? Who is the terrorist? Where did he come from? Why isn’t he ever mentioned again? Is he…Achmed The Dead Terrorist?

Silence! I Kill You!

Epic wordplay in this song. I’m not gonna get into it, as much of it is simply homophones and is obvious in the track itself. The Detroit reference made me giggle. Why? Detroit and Michigan have the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country. And I’m an asshole.

Last Of The American Girls – More wordplay. Billie, you have restored my faith in your lyric-writing. I don’t think this song is about Gloria. I don’t see how it could be, with the description of Gloria Billie gave us previously. Sort of a Foxboro Hot Tubs vibe here.

Murder City – Reputedly, the last song written for the album. It shows. I like the play on Detroit’s nickname of Motor City. We get more info about Christian: he’s a whiny pussy. “Christian’s crying in the bathroom, and I just wanna bum a cigarette.” Damn it, Billie, are you singing as Christian or are you singing about Christian?! Make up your damn mind. At least in American Idiot, you stayed in character, goddamn it. And why is Christian crying? What the hell happened? Argh. If you’re not singing as Christian, are you singing as yourself? And are you hanging out with the young revolutionaries, or are you another character now? I’m going to slap you, Billie Joe Armstrong.

¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl) – Starts with a sort of “Misery” vibe. Ah, WARNING: I love you, WARNING:. More about Gloria, obviously. Seems to sort of trash her. Has Christian discovered a side of Gloria he doesn’t like? Or are you telling Christian about Gloria’s darker side, Billie? Whoever lettered your liner notes for this album has no sense of grammar. Just sayin’.

Restless Heart Syndrome – Oy. I don’t know why, but I really don’t like this song. Could be that it’s another crappy ballad. I mean, I get what he’s saying about the overmedication of America. I dunno. I don’t see what this has to do with Christian and Gloria. Are you off your medication, Billie Joe? “You are your own worst enemy / Know your enemy”. I get it. It’s supposed to tie into “Know Your Enemy.” Ah. Right. Uhm…no.

End of Act II. What more have we learned? Jesus of Suburbia is back (?), Peacemaker is an awesome fucking song, if completely random. Christian is a pussy. Gloria’s not all she’s cracked up to be, and Billie needs his pills.

Act III – Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Horseshoes And Hand Grenades – Now this is the snot-nosed, rude, loud Green Day I love. Where have you been all album? Nice Van Morrison snippetry at the end. Picked it up from Bono, didn’t you? Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.

The Static Age – More of the Green Day I love. We seem to have forgotten completely about Christian and Gloria at this point, and, shock horror, the album is better for it. This song would fit well on Insomniac.

21 Guns – Another ballad, but at least this one doesn’t suck. Title is an obvious reference to the 21-gun salute that fallen soldiers get, I imagine. I…I love this song. I am a fangirl. I hang my head in shame.

American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria / Modern World – Annnnnnnnd we’re back to static-y playground rhymes. Not a bad song, reminds me of Know Your Enemy and it’s just kind of blah. I much prefer the second half. Why? Mike Dirnt gets a lead vocal. That and that half of the song is better. More wordplay and a more Green-Day sound in general.

See The Light – Yay, more ripping off The Who! I always thought Prosthetic Head was Green Day’s Her Majesty, but this one has surpassed it. It does not belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere else on the album either. Can’t figure out what it has to do with the album. It’s just sort of there. Album totally could’ve ended with Modern World. I mean, my last thought as this song fades out is, “You ripped off The Who! Pete Townshend should kick your ass.”

This, of course, is all just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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