Billie Joe Armstrong is a Lyrical Genius
Are you prepared for some literary analysis/appreciation and hardcore fangirling? Buckle up, then. So, I've once again been listening to Green Day's entire discography on my drives home from work. I always start from the beginning and never skip an album or song, and I do this every few months. Anyway, I`ve always said that my favorite Green Day albums are Nimrod and Warning. Considered with the rest of their work, these two are definitely less of the iconic punk sound, they're definitely more laid back, with influences from multiple subgenres of rock. That is also why they're simultaneously the most punk records they could've produced at the time.
Nimrod was their 5th studio album, third with a major label, and the intent was to break the mold. They didn't want to be limited to punk's three chord progression, so each song was originally written for acoustic guitar. Now, I promised you some literary analysis/appreciation, so enough setup, let's dive into some lyrics! This won't be an exhaustive take on every single song, just some of the ones that stand out to me ("stop stalling!" I hear my readers shouting).
The second song "Hitchin' a Ride", has a great staccato sound and explores Billie Joe's struggles with alcoholism. I had been listening to it for years before I actually realized what the lyrics were saying. While not lyrically complex, the refrain "Troubled times, you know I can not lie/ I'm off the wagon and I'm hitchin' a ride" strike me as brilliant. It was actually my father who told me being "off the wagon" meant being drunk. This theme will return in Warning. In the next song, "The Grouch", Armstrong explores his fears of losing himself as he gets older, and gifts us the great phrase "six pack of apathy" and succinctly summarizes his fear in the chorus, "Wasted youth and a fistful of ideas/ I had a young and optimistic point of view". Actually, I've just realized this album was Armstrong writing about his quarter-life crisis, before it was cool. The way I've always interpreted the song is from the point of view of baby boomers to their children, to be honest.
Now, the 4th song on the album is an unabashed love song, definitely more in the veins of pop-rock than punk. Here's how it begins, and the chorus,
"We're living in repetition/ Content in the same old shtick again/ Now the routine's turning to contention/ Like a production line going over and over and over/ Roller coaster
Now I cannot speak, I lost my voice/ I'm speechless and redundant/ 'Cause I love you's not enough/ I'm lost for words"
Like, these lines are just such a perfect expression of love to me. Sometimes you just love someone so much and it seems impossible to express it in words so you just endlessly repeat yourself to your partner. Love as a roller coaster is also a classic expression that I assume dates back to the first roller coaster, and I love the way it seems casually thrown in just to complete a slant rhyme, but actually has lyrical meaning.
Now, I simply cannot discuss this album without talking about "Platypus (I Hate You)". Played hard and fast, it's the epitome of punk, and while perhaps not "genius", has my favorite string of insults, "Dickhead, fuckface, cock smoking, mother fucking, asshole, dirty twat, waste of semen, I hope you die HEY!" Just, enough said. As sourced from the fan run website Green Day Authority (which is the best website for all your Green Day needs), it's about Tim Yohannan, The co-founder of 924 Gilman, the punk club where they'd first cut their teeth. He was also a music critic and criticized Green Day for signing to a major label and being too pop for his liking. So it's absolutely a chef's kiss moment that one of their most punk sounding songs ever is about someone who didn't think they were punk enough, who had 86'd them from Gilman (hence the song "86" on Insomniac).
The next song, "Uptight", is about suicide. After being accused of writing about the topic just for clout, Armstrong responded with, “I wasn’t going to talk about suicide to a complete stranger in some artificial conversation. I feel a lot of responsibility writing about suicide in a song, and then people take it lightly because I won’t talk about my personal life to someone I’ve never met before.” (source) Just, take a look at these lyrics, "I woke up on the wrong side of the floor/ Made made my way through the front door/ Broke my engagement with myself./ Perfect picture of bad health/ Another notch scratched on my belt/ The future just ain't what it used to be." These lyrics come in slowly, a despondent tone in his voice, and to me, perfectly capture what it's like to be depressed while forcing yourself through the day. However, I wouldn't say it's a depressing song. The chorus is, to me, strangely hopeful, "Uptight, I'm a nag with a gun,/ All night, suicide's last call/ I've been uptight all night/ I'm a son of a gun" in that the narrator was clearly contemplating suicide but didn't go through with it. The increase in tempo also adds to this hopeful feeling.
Skipping ahead several songs, we cannot discuss this album without addressing the pink elephant with the feather boa in the room, "King For a Day". A ska-punk tale of a cross dresser (and I do assume there is some autobiographical truth from Armstrong in these lyrics), performed live it has become an entire set piece, complete with costumes, and yes, feather boas. It's something you need to see, so here's a performance from '98. There's higher quality performances, but this one would've been during their tour for Nimrod, and I hadn't seen it before. Just uh, if you don't want to see Billie Joe in a leather thong, stop watching when he starts unzipping his pants. This is not the only song from Green Day to put queer sexuality front and center. The song "Coming Clean" on their major label debut Dookie is the story of Billie Joe accepting his own sexuality. Look at this absolutely beautiful quote from an interview with The Advocate in 1995, "I think I've always been bisexual. I mean, it's something that I've always been interested in. I think people are born bisexual, and it's just that our parents and society kind of veer us off into this feeling of 'Oh, I can't.' They say it's taboo. It's ingrained in our heads that it's bad, when it's not bad at all. It's a very beautiful thing." Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that my favorite musician is a bisexual leftist who clearly struggles with anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Last, but certainly not least, we must talk about it, the song that became synonymous with everyone's graduation, the song you listened to when your high school boyfriend broke up with you, the song that played at the end of the last episode of Seinfeld. I'm talking about "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)", of course. An acoustic ballad originally written in '93 about an ex-girlfriend who joined the Peace Corps, it was left off Dookie because it didn't fit with the rest of the songs. Naturally, with the more experimental and diverse sounds of Nimrod, it was right at home.
Here's a sample of the lyrics, in case you've somehow escaped this song in the last 25 years, "So take the photographs/ And still frames in your mind/ Hang it on a shelf of good health and good time/ Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial/ For what it's worth/ It was worth all the while". This song really does perfectly encapsulate bittersweet moments of moving on while appreciating the memories. The idea to include strings on the song came from longtime producer Rob Cavallo. I highly recommend giving the music video a watch if you've never seen it. If you want to know the other songs about this ex-girlfriend Armstrong can't seem to forget about, see "She" on Dookie (1994), "Stuart and the Ave" on Insomniac (1995), "Whatsername" on American Idiot (2004), and "Amanda" on Tre ('2012).
Also, response to it brings us my favorite quote from bassist Mike Drint, "This is a real beautiful song, who cares what people think? So we just went for it. Long term thinking, you know? Punk is not just the sound, the music. Punk is a lifestyle. We're just as much punk as we used to be. Putting this song on the record was the most 'punk' thing we could do!" (I cannot find an original source for this, it's just listed under the 'song meaning' on Green Day Authority)
Whew, okay, we've finished with one album! As I'm writing this, Wix tells me it's currently a six minute read, but let me tell you, it was not a five minute write!
Released in October of 2000, Warning is the first of Green Day's albums to have songs with overtly political messaging. The opening title track of album has always struck me as a sarcastic callout of a society obsessed with "stranger danger" and keeping children sheltered from the world. Remember, the '90s brought us Tipper Gore and parental advisory labels on albums with "explicit content". The '90s brought us the coming wave of "superpredators" who, shockingly, never materialized (violent crime has been dropping since I was born in '93, essentially). Here's some lines from the second verse, "Caution: Police line, you better not cross/ Is it the cop, or am I the one that's really dangerous?/ Sanitation, expiration date, question everything./ Or shut up and be a victim of authority". It's really an acoustic call to arms, to not sit back and quietly accept society as is. So it's not as much the literal words here as the meaning behind them. Also, a note on the sound, that my dad will likely appreciate: go listen to the opening of "Picture Book" by The Kinks, a band that is a known influence on Green Day. Now listen to the opening of "Warning". This amount of borrowing will pop up again later.
Anyway, moving on to the third track, ""Church on Sunday", which is one of my favorites. It's a love song that captures the reality of daily life in long term relationships, and I think the sentiment expressed in the lyrics is absolutely beautiful. The lines that really stand out to me are as follows, "I'm not getting any younger as long/ as you don't get any older/ I'm not going to state that yesterday never was"; there's just something about that impossible promise that epitomizes staying in a long term relationship. Then there's the central question asked in the chorus, "If I promise to go to church on Sunday/ will you go with me on Friday night?" Which is just such an innocent question that feels straight from a '50s sitcom, if you ask me.
Let's bring up a song I wasn't even thinking of mentioning, but it does actually fit well within the album's casual indictment of American capitalism and consumerism. The song is "Fashion Victim", and you're not likely to know it unless you religiously listen to Green Day like I do. Here's a link to the full lyrics, but here's a highlight, "So when you're dancing through you wardrobe/ do the anorex - a go - go/ cloaked with style for pedophiles as the credit card explodes". If that isn't a call-out of the fashion industry and marketing towards children, particularly young girls, I don't know what is. Once again, it's not the literal lyrics, but the story behind them.
Heck, am I just going to accidentally talk about like, 80% of the songs again? That was the fourth track, and this next one is the fifth. There was definitely more going on with this album in terms of writing songs that had characters living in self-contained stories, which becomes a definite theme in Green Day's later work. "Castaway" has another one of my favorite lyrics, "A conscientious objector to the/ war that's in my mind". It's no secret that Billie Joe suffers from panic attacks/anxiety, and that's such a succinct metaphor to describe that mental anguish. The next song is also great, if you enjoying stories in your song lyrics. I'm not going into it, but it's called "Misery".
Alright, track seven (we're halfway there!). "Deadbeat Holiday" opens with "Wake up.....the house is on fire/ And the cat's caught in the dryer/Philosophy's a liar when/ your home is a headstone" First off, the part about the cat is apparently something that happened to a cat Billie Joe had named Zero. so uh, there's that. It's another one of those "life sucks so might as well enjoy what I can" songs that go with the general theme of the album. Here's the second half of the chorus, if you don't see what I'm talking about, "Deadbeat holiday- celebrate your own decay/ There's a vacant sign that's hanging high/ On a noose over your home". It also blends perfectly into the following track, "Hold On", another melancholy but hopeful song. Here's the chorus of that song, "When you lost all hope and excuses/ And the cheapskates and the losers/ Nothing's left to cling onto/ Gotta hold on/ You got to hold on to yourself." It's another simple, acoustic-led song that's about just treading water to keep your head above it. Sometimes, the only person you can rely on to get through something is yourself.
Okay, track 10. Shout out to my father again, we've got another song borrowing from a classic. Here's just a small sample of the lyrics, "Downtown lights will be shining/ On me like a new diamond". If lyrics devoid of melody aren't enough for you, here's the music video. I think I must've realized this song is based on the riff from Petula Clark's "Downtown" from 1964 before actually reading that fact. For those of you unfamiliar with the classic, it's delightful, give it a listen. Armstrong has never been one to shy away from borrowing from music that he listened to as a child or formed his musical influences. That's really the main reason I brought this one up. We're almost done, I promise!
"Minority" is absolutely one of my favorite Green Day songs to sing too loudly and probably off-key. It's overtly political, inspired by the fear that Al Gore would lose the 2000 election (interesting that they released two albums within weeks on George W. Bush being elected each time...). It's equal parts aggressive in-your-face guitar mixed, surprisingly, with accordion, which really lets the vocals take center stage. Here's the opening lines/chorus, "I want to be the minority/ I don't need your authority/ Down with the moral majority/ 'Cause I want to be the minority." Notice the mention of "moral majority", that Reagan era Christian Right moral panic fear mongering, I've always loved that line. The song ends on acoustic guitar, and fades perfectly into the final song on the album.
"Macy's Day Parade" is probably the music video I've seen the most, because I share it every Thanksgiving, without a hint of irony. I think it does really well to sum up the themes of the album and makes a good bookend with the opening title track. It's another indictment of American consumer culture. Musically, it reminds of folk songs and feels Bob Dyaln-esque. Here's the opening lines, "Today's the Macy's Day Parade/ the night of the living dead is on its way/ with a credit report for duty call/ it's a lifetime guarantee/ stuffed in a coffin 10% more free". Remember, this was written in 2000, before black Friday deals meant literally shopping on Thanksgiving day, before it was routine to expect people to get into fights and be trampled over the newest flat screen TV (I mean, they didn't even have flat screen TVs in 2000...). The song does bring the album to a quiet, hopeful resolution with, "Because I'm thinking about/ a brand new hope/ the one I've never known/ cause now I know/ it's all that I wanted".
I thought I'd be clever instead of using the boring word "summary". Have I convinced you that these are Green Day's best albums? Have I at least gotten you to listen to them if you hadn't before? That's a success in my book! Have you now seen Billie Joe Armstrong in a leather thong and don't know what to do with those feelings? Anyway, major shout-out to https://www.greendayauthority.com/ for having such a well organized website where I could easily find lyrics, song meanings, and quotes! Been visiting their site since the American Idiot days and it's to them I owe my obsessive knowledge of the band. If you actually read all the way through this post, I applaud and thank you, truly. This is the longest post I've written, completely indulging my special interests. Plus, upcoming posts are going to decidedly less fun to write, so I needed this. Bye for now!