Quarantining The Past: Green Day’s ‘Insomniac’ and Cognitive Dissonance

    Green Day has become, for better or worse, one of the most ambitious rock bands working. We’ve seen them go from the concept album in American Idiot to the epically huge concept album on 21st Century Breakdown and now, in 2012, they’re releasing a trio of albums. We’ve already seen Uno!, and next week will see the release of Dos!, and December will see Tre! come out. It’s a string of ambitious, and sometimes great, if unsurprisingly bloated albums.

    But we’re not really talking about the merits of Uno!, or anticipation for its two follow-ups to come. Instead, when we talk about Green Day we talk about Billie Joe Armstrong entering rehab after an outburst on stage in Las Vegas.  It’s a curse-laden rant in which he, now infamously, claims “I’m not Justin Beiber, you motherfuckers” when the band’s set gets cut short at the IHeartRadio fest to leave room for Rihanna and Usher to play a longer set. 

    Armstrong’s frustration is understandable and, since his outburst is apparently tied to some very real addiction troubles, the hope is of course that Armstrong gets a speedy recovery. The incident, though, does reveal a bit of cognitive dissonance in what Armstrong thinks his band is and what it actually is. Green Day is a big arena rock band, a major-label group that gets slated to play these sorts of festivals and appears on TV shows and benefits from it as much as, in this case, they got hurt by it. They’re not the independent rock group that paved their own way, that has earned the right to respect, that has been around (and by around, we mean part of popular music) since 1988. 

    But this misunderstanding is not entirely Green Day’s fault. In fact, if you look back at Insomniac, their second major-label record, you can see where we turned on the Green Day from Dookie, where we may have bought the record but we also quickly dismissed it. Even though it may be a better record. It doesn’t have a “Basket Case,” but it’s also got a far better follow-up single (“Brain Stew” kills “When I Come Around”), and “Geek Stink Breath” may not have the sweet bassline “Longview” had, but it also gets at the same depravity without the juvenile humor of the Dookie standout. There’s also the excellent “Armitage Shanks” and “Bab’s Uvula Who?”

    Is it remarkably different from Dookie sonically? No. But who cares? It’s got beefed-up guitars, Mike Dirnt knocks out some sweet bass lines, and Armstrong strings together power chords as well as anyone in pop-punk. And yet, though the album went double platinum, it quickly disappeared. The singles didn’t take off like they could, and in the end Insomniac, despite it sounding like the best Green Day record since Kerplunk!, lived in the shadow of its predecessor, an album made possible not because it was so damn good, but because the market for alternative rock was high.

    Which is all to say that we collectively gave in to marketing and took a good album and made it seem great, and then took the equally (or more) solid follow-up and shrugged our shoulders. This reaction may be what shaped Green Day’s trajectory. They did not, make no mistake, want to go back to the minor leagues. But Nimrod, the album that followed Insomniac in 1997, started as a progression of their punk sound, with great songs like first single “Hitchin’ a Ride,” “The Grouch,” and “Nice Guys Finished Last.” But we all latched on to late-album ballad and high school graduation required listening “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Yes, Green Day wrote and recorded it. Yes the label made it a single, made it a big video, all that. 

    But what does it say about us that we ate up a middling ballad on an otherwise solid rock record? What do you do, as a band, when you make the songs you want and people shrug, you take chances and people ignore them, and then you play it safe and people go crazy? Granted, there’s an ego behind all of this. Apparently, not being a huge rock band wasn’t an option for Green Day. No wonder they left behind the vibe of the early Clash for the Who on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown

    Still, even when they took those chances, we latched on to the mid-tempo chug of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and the much livelier title track. What we didn’t talk about was the impressive “Jesus of Surburbia” composition. By the time we get to 21st Century Breakdown, the break from who Green Day was and who they would be going forward seems to be clear. That album feels both big and safe. It’s a lot of songs, but nothing really distinguishes itself. And yet, we bought a whole lot of copies. We forgave them the overly long victory lap they took on American Idiot (they made it a broadway musical, for God’s sake), and made it number one in the charts.

    There’s two sides to this, of course. We dictated to Green Day what would keep them popular, and they capitulated. It’s not that they did it with bad music, either, but at least part of the misunderstanding about who they are — and how close they are to the likes of Justin Beiber — belongs to them. But Armstrong’s outburst also speaks to the conservative nature of popular music fans as a group. We don’t really want different. We want to be told what to want in ways that make it seem like our decision. In Green Day’s case, the band seems to be responding to a decision fans and marketers came to about them. And this started with Insomniac. What got them in the game, no matter how they honed it, no matter how good the songs, it just wasn’t good enough.

    It’s enough to give you an identity crisist as a band. Which is where the cognitive dissonance comes from. We can blame it on the disconnect that comes with fame, or with Armstrong’s own personal issues, but that’s only part of it. We shoulder some responsibility here, in how we see these bands, in what we deem acceptible, and in the arbitrary way in which we turn on sounds. Any maybe if we’d approached Insomniac on its own merits, instead of seeing it as a failed Dookie II, maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about motherfuckers thinking Green Day was Justin Beiber. With expectations long gone, go back and check out Insomniac. It’s better than you remember. And that “Walking Contradiction?” Sure, it’s Armstrong, but it’s probably us too.