Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Suburbia & the Hero's Journey


Over the last two weeks I've been listening to Green Day's American Idiot album relentlessly. It is quite awesome. I haven't gotten this into an album in probably over a year.

If you're not aware, American Idiot is a so-called "concept album" or "rock opera" or consistent story in which each song is related to the whole. The overall setting is American suburbia. And who better to tell this story then Green Day?

I don't know much anything at all about the people in the band, at least no more than I did in 7th grade (when Dookie was all over the place). In a sense, it seems Green Day is the exact same band they were back then. It is cool to know that they made it out of the 90's... along with Pearl Jam, can we say the same about anyone else? Maybe, but I cannot think of anyone.

Anyway, it seems that Green Day has somehow transcended time. I mean that in the sense that they sing about suburbia as if they're American teenagers. They haven't lost the memory the inner-sense of "what its like." This is the same feeling I get when I read book 5 of Harry Potter... JKRowling, it seems, remembers 100% what its like to be a confused, frustrated, and angry teenager.

And so it is the same with Green Day. They've got to be 10+ years older than they were when Dookie came out, but when it comes to the voice from which they sing -- "age" doesn't matter.

American Idiot has made me realize a few things.

First, it has brought to my immediate attention how stories permeate all things human. From cooking to music to sports to poetry and everything in between -- it all has to do with stories. Take Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, for instance. For me, this song tells a story. I imagine a guy walking around a lake, his mood and thoughts and internal feelings being expressed by the haunting beauty of the song. (Perhaps I choose this Romantic era peice of music because it is so far removed from contemporary stuff -- that is, we're able to see it more clearly for what it really is).

Same deal with sports. The process of a single play, a single game, a single tournament, a season, or a career -- it is all a story. In recent weeks/months I've grown to learn that sports fandom (as far as I'm concerned) has to do with being in the midst of the story as it unfolds. Its recognizing, realizing, and seeing the universe unfold. In a very real sense, it is another example of the universe becoming aware of itself (and the intrinsic beauty found therein).

Cooking -- same deal. Each meal, each ingredient, and each bite has to do with a story, great or small. Poetry -- same thing. Writing -- yeah. And on and on and on. I could write about this forever, but the bottom line -- it is the overall story of American Idiot which makes it the great album it is.

Second, American Idiot has provided me with another cultural example of the mythological "hero's journey" told precisely. This has nothing to do with whether or not Green Day did this onpurpose -- when it comes to mythological themes and motifs and all that, the "intention" of the artist is thrown out the window.

I would love to write pages and pages about this, supplimented by tons of research, but I have better things to do. So what we have now is this quick post before lunch. With what remaining time I have, let me generally recap the Hero's Journey sequence of events as it pertains to American Idiot.

Joseph Campbell, in his most to-the-point summation of the Hero's Journey, describes it as "a departure, a fulfillment, and a return." It is a process that unfolds -- a leaving some place, a finding (or not finding) of something, and a bringing it back (succcesssfully or unsuccessfully). These "places" where these "departures" and "returns" happen -- don't be forced into thinking they're concrete places (like this desk or that bathroom). Indeed, they can (and often are) real and tangible places, but they're not limited to the realm of the geographic. Thinking about it like this can be harmful.

American Idiot tells the story of a character who starts out in suburbia. Suburbia could be anywhere from Columbia, MD to Encino, CA. The exact suburb doesn't matter. Point is, he is unhappy. He is unhappy with America ("redneck agenda", etc) and he is unhappy with the place he is stuck (the suburbs). As is often the case in the Hero's Journey, the Hero is somehow in a society/place that is not fulfilling... something is missing... something is wrong. And he has to go out there -- leave the known world behind -- cross the threshold into the unknown.

If the first track ("American Idiot") sets the stage for what is wrong, it is the second track ("Jesus of Suburbia," I believe its called) that expresses his boiling-out-of-the-pot frustration -- which leads to action. If there is one lyric from this song to sum this part of the journey up, it would be: "To run, to run away / To find what you believe." The threshold is approached with enthusiasm, confidence, and seeming readiness. It will be crossed and nothing can hold him back.

The third track ("Holiday") describes the postiive mood as the threshold is crossed. Tremendous energy in this song! Sample lyric to sum it up: "This is the dawning of the rest of our lives... on holiday." The fact that he sings "the dawning of the rest of our lives" goes to show that the threshold is being crossed with no reservations. There is no looking back. There is no mixed feelings or regrets. He is leaving the suburbs for good, if need be. It is worth that much to find a meaningful way to live. So he goes to the city (as it says in one of the next songs).

...And there, he finds more emptiness (track 4 -- the Blvd of Broken Dreams). Everything is not seeming to be as perfect as he thought it would be. It looks like there is a lot more to learn. The answer will not be found quickly or easily. The internal emptiness he had with him in the suburbs is still there. Perhaps it was not the subrubs that were the problem... perhaps it was something inside. A great Arab Proverb -- "it is not the long road ahead that wears us out, but the pebble in our shoe." The rest of the album is about him figuring this out. Sample lyric: "I walk a only road, the only road that I have ever known."

At this point, we're well past the threshold. The main character did not instnatly find the life he thought he would, but he is out there and not about to go back. I am not familiar enough with the rest of the album to continue as I've been, but the general journey is certainly visible from what I've seen.

Track 5 -- ("Are We the Waiting?") is the characters internal affirmation ("we are") that the great meaningful life we're all inherently promised may not come instnantly. It might be right around the corner or 80 years away, but life is still going to remain painful in all of its ways. The realization that life is sorrowful is blatantly mythological. Hero is getting used to this new phase of the journey. And from this new-found calm, action will arise...

Track 6 -- "St Jimmy" -- another infusion of energy. He is in the city now, and ready to find whats out there, even if it takes a while. This new energy is good, and even necessary, but it isn't enough just yet.... again, he burns out...

Track 7 -- "Give me Novacaine" -- dealing with mroe tough times, trials, and tribulations. When we think we've got something figured out (track 6), the pitfall is to think th at all problems will go away. Not the case. There will always always always be more problems. Realizing this is important. But once its realized, it allows true progress to be made. And it comes in the form of a girl.

Track 8 / 9 "She's a Rebel" / "Extraodinary Girl" -- I like both these songs, but they say the exact same thing (at least, I think). But who cares -- the point is that Hero has found inspiration. The inspiration is not the posession of the girl (as Hero believes), but more what the girl represents -- a coming-together (integration) with the unrealized opposites within. Jung had a term for this -- the anima figure. It is frequently (always?) represented by the opposite sex. It is us chasing down the half of us we've yet to realize. Think Trinity in the Matrix. Think Marla Singer in Fight Club. Think Leia in Star Wars. This concept is sort of fluid, but it is certainly prevelant here.

Now, a danger when it comes to inspiration -- we can get caught up thinking that the thing that inspires us (the girl, in this case) is equal to the inspiration itself (which is intangible). Track 10 is called "Letterbomb" and is my current favorite. "She said I can't stand this place I'm leaving here today." The girl left him. ANd he mistakenly freaks out -- he doesnt realize that the true treasure that he found was in himself, it wasn't her.

Track 11 -- "Wake me up when September Ends". I read that this song supposedly isnt directly related to the story (it has to do with billy joe's loss of his father when he was a child). But the tone of the song fits perfectly to the story -- life has once again tossed the world upside down. "Wake me up when its over," it seems to say. When will it be over? Will it ever be over? Change is rough... perhaps St Jimmmy didn't learn that lesson well enough. Or perhaps none of us have and never will.

Track 12 -- Homecoming. I dont know this one at all yet. But the story part of it is clear -- he comes home. This is the return. It might not be the return he hoped for, but you canot escape the return. Just like death. Life itself is the biggest Hero's Journey we can fully witness. Departure -- we leave the womb. Fulfillment -- we live life, decide what we're looking for, and maybe find it. Return -- we go back into the womb (tomb). The cycle. The return is unescapable, ALWAYS. The tighter you grip sand (trying to avoid the return), the more sand slips through your fingers. Chug all the beers you want, but you're 100% to return to being sober eventually. You get high now, you'll be low later. Inescapable.

Track 13 -- "Wahtsername" is final musings on this girl and the last song on the album. I dont know this song well enough to provide context yet, but ther eis one curious lyric at the beginning. "Thought I ran into you down on the street / Then it turned out to only be a dream." Okay, maybe he saw h er but it was really a dream. Or maybe not. Maybe he thought he saw her again -- which means, maybe he got a glimpse that this inner-treasure/inspiration still exists as potential within himself. But, then he realized she was gone and that "it couldn't have been that good-feeling" (the inspiration), so it is written off as a dream.

Bottom line -- the album/story ends on sort of a low note (for the Hero). Things didn't work out as he hoped. He didn't get the victory he expected. And often this is how the Hero's Story turns out -- he returns to the village, only to find the gold he collected turned to ash. This is the equivalent of anyone of us thinking we've got it all figured out (with an artistic endeavor, say) -- but the public hates it. What went wrong? Is it my fault or is it there fault? The answeer is always different. But there is hope for the Hero, just as there is always hope for us all.

In close, this album is a suburban epic. If know of no peice of cultural creation/art that speaks more to the life that myself and millions of others lived (and are living). It is the subtle keywords that make it what it is -- "7-11" "parking lot" "ritalin" "mary jane" "i dont care if you dont" "grafitti in the bathroom stall" "shopping mall" and so on and on and on. ANd who better to tell this story than Green Day. Hail to them!

So there we go. My rush through. Like I said, maybe one day I'll come back to this and do it more justice, but for now this is going to have to do.

8 comments:

Haeresis said...

Funny thing is, these guys really are who they say they are. I've known Billy Joe and Mike since we were in High School in Pinole, which is more or less the armpit of northern California. They've been the same band since ninth grade, come to think of it. (although they've gotten better, thankfully!)

What's really weirdest is having a guy you used to get high with turn up in your kids video games...!

skip wiley said...

that is awesome! thanks for the commment.

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