• Matthew Emerson

The Mythology of "American Idiot" Part Two: The Story of Our Lives

"I lost my faith to this, this town that don't exist!" (Jesus of Suburbia)

This is the second part to a series on American Idiot. If you would like to start from the beginning, click here.

When we last left off, we had just finished examining the three main characters of the album. In this post, we are going to explore the overall story of the album, and then, if Dan hasn't fired me by then, the final post will be an exploration of the major themes communicated in the story by the characters. Here we go.

This great American tragedy begins in a small town known as Jingletown, where Jesus of Suburbia resides. Actually, it doesn't start that way. As anyone would know, "American Idiot" is the first song of the album, and it's not explicitly stated as to who is singing it. Most attribute it to JoS, the musical does this, but it could be argued that this song simply represents the tone of the album. It's setting the stage that the rest of the album will be performed on.

The song is an obvious critique of Bush America, but we're going to pull back from its strict historical context and try to generalize, since there are plenty of people who love this album who were not even conscious during the Bush administration.

Obviously, the whole point of the song is that JoS doesn't "wanna be an American Idiot." Simply put, he doesn't want to be a part of the mainstream. He wants to be something of his own. He craves uniqueness in a sea of conformity. This is perfectly natural. None of us want to be nameless drones. This idea is the driving force that leads JoS out of Suburbia, but there is something deeper there too.

Billie Joe was being intentional naming the main character Jesus, and I don't think it was exactly for blasphemous intent. JoS is a Messianic figure. He wants to save his small, suburban town from this horrid culture that's infected the land. Lies, oppression, tyranny, etc. Insert the villain, but JoS represents all of us. He's a blank slate (kind of) that we can all project ourselves onto. We all have something we want to save. We all want to be ourselves and reject unnecessary conformity. The problem is the people of Jingletown don't want whatever salvation JoS is offering. He's "in a land of make-believe that don't believe in..." him. This is probably an unintentional reference of Scripture (but for all I know, Billie could be referencing it), that Messiahs are rejected from their hometown.

So, after wrestling with all these feelings, JoS decides that even if his hometown doesn't want salvation, he can at least save himself. So, he leaves the comfort of his home, and ventures to the city. The city in this album represents the wider world. The outside of your small-town bubble that so many people grow up in. It's exciting, and it's scary. When first arriving to the city, JoS is flooded with emotional and sensual stimulation. Being exposed to sex, drugs, parties, ideas, people, etc. It's absolutely overwhelming, and after a night on the town, he finds himself alone and depressed.

"Starry nights, city lights comin' down over me." (Are We the Waiting)

He realizes that just being in the city, or experiencing those things isn't enough. That just being in the city won't get him off his "boulevard of broken dreams." There is an interesting connection he forms between two songs. In "Jesus of Suburbia" he talks about how he "walks this line, a million and one f***ing time, but not this time," and then in "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" he sings, "I'm walking down the line that divides me somewhere in my mind." I believe this has to do with the internal moral struggle we all deal with. We have a line set within ourselves that we make a promise we won't cross. Be that to God, or ourselves, there is a set of inviolable ethical principles that we hold. A lot of times, when under stress, pressure, or depression, we like to dance around that line more than we should. It's like loss of hope is an acid that eats away at our moral integrity.

After wrestling with his loss of hope, it shifts to an even deeper issue: loss of meaning. In "Are We the Waiting," JoS struggles with both the absolute despair of losing purpose, and the tinge of excitement that comes with the ability to pursue a new meaning. During this time, he realizes that the "Jesus of Suburbia is a lie." This is crucial. As Carl Jung would state, this was the death of his current ego state, or in simpler terms, the present version of himself. This can be a very tumultuous time for a person. Leaving your comfort zone can be dangerous. Social roles and responsibilities you fulfilled there might not be available to you in the wider world. That doesn't mean you shouldn't venture forth; it just means you must be prepared to make sacrifices for the greater meaning.

Now, JoS doesn't deal with the death of his current ego well (we'll come back to this), and so he encounters (creates) St. Jimmy. Carl Jung believed in spirits, but not in the traditional sense. He believed that spirits were manifestations of different feelings/emotions in our unconscious, and sometimes they would bubble up and we could interact with them. That's the best way to think of St. Jimmy (or if you want to take a hardcore traditional route, you could call him a demon). St. Jimmy is who offers JoS an escape from this apparently meaningless and senseless world that he has found himself in. His answer? Sex, drugs, and parties. St. Jimmy represents the repressed anger and sadness that a lot of people nowadays are feeling. Anger at the world we've inherited and those who gave it to us. We feel depressed as if our life as no meaning, and so we turn to the sensual pleasures to numb ourselves against this nihilist hellhole we live in.

This life is rough on JoS. He begs that someone just "give me novacaine." He knows that this lifestyle is killing him, but he truly believes that there's nothing better out there. "Jimmy says it's better than air." This is JoS at his most hopeless; this is the bottom. There is nothing more out there, nothing to be lived more, and no hope of saving anyone, especially himself. All we can do is numb ourselves to our horrid life, which Dr. Jordan Peterson has described as "a fatal disease."

But then, in walks Whatsername. The song "She's a Rebel" is honestly fascinating to me. The song changes speakers in the middle of a sentence, which makes the lyrics feel as fast and as charged as the tempo. "She's a rebel/she's a saint/she's the salt of the earth and she's dangerous." JoS and St. Jimmy are arguing as to what Whatsername even is. Is she a blessing or a curse? St. Jimmy rightly sees Whatsername as dangerous, why? Because Whatsername represents beauty. Now, most of you are probably thinking, "beauty isn't dangerous. I'm not scared of a rose bush," but really consider this. Truly beautiful things reveal how ugly certain things are. It's why attractive people are intimidating. It's why when in art class at school you'd be scared to sit by the talented people. They didn't actually threaten you, hell they might have been your friends, but when you saw their art, it revealed everything your art was not. Whatsername bursts into JoS's life and reveals all the beauty that is missing, and that scares and threatens St. Jimmy, who has moved from spirit to basically JoS's new ego-state.

The next two songs are the highs and lows of love. JoS and Whatsername explore their love for one another, but JoS is not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for Whatsername and she is forced to leave him. She opens herself up to him, and loves him truly and completely, in vulnerability, but he does not reciprocate. He's too tied up with his own narrative of the Messiah and the Saint. Once again, he finds himself trapped in his own story, attempting to be its writer. Which, while we are in some ways in control of our life's story, we are not always its author.

It's Whatsername, who as far as we can tell came to the city for the same reasons as JoS, that realizes that the city does not have the answer to meaninglessness. She writes this all to JoS in a letter, and leaves, never to be seen again.

After this, JoS mourns this loss. Which in real life, this song ("Wake Me Up When September Ends") is really about the death of Billie Joe's father, but he also made it work for the story. Anyways, JoS becomes perhaps even more depressed than when he was begging St. Jimmy for novacaine. This leads the listener to question, when was it that JoS lost his meaning? When he gave into hedonism, or when he lost the person that showed him authentic love?

Or, better put: Is it better to of loved and lost than to of never to of loved at all? (Looking at you Tennyson)

It's this emotional crisis that leads to the final crescendo of the album. After an unspecified amount of partying and losing himself to drugs and hedonism, St. Jimmy commits suicide. Or, put differently, JoS willing kills off St. Jimmy, unlike earlier in the album where the loss of his identity as JoS brought him to hedonism. JoS resolves within himself that the only correct thing to do at this point is to go home. Now, does he go home the same man that he started out? Of course not! The world has changed him, and this great exploration of himself made it for the better. Is this not the hero's journey? Now, he is no longer a fresh-faced kid that knows nothing of what he's talking about trying to save everyone. Now, he is a hardened man who has seen the world and can now come home and impart experiential wisdom to those he so deeply wanted to save.

This finally leads us to the final song of the album, where JoS receives closure over the time spent in the city, and his failure with the one called Whatsername. At the end of the song, JoS sings "and in the darkest night, if my memory serves me right, I'll never turn back time, forgetting you but not the time." What an emotionally charged last line, and what an important lesson to learn and communicate. We cannot change what happened to us, but we don't have to let it dominate us. We can forget it, but not the time. We can get rid of all the sadness and negativity surrounding an event, and just use it for our betterment. That can be easier said than done, especially when applied to truly horrific acts, but it is a way to heal from it.

Now, why did I just go over all of this? Well for one, unsurprisingly, I'm going to claim that this is a great example of a modern-day hero's journey. Secondly, this is all our story. We all grow up and become disenfranchised with how things are. We're baby-faced and inexperienced, but there's something in our gut that tells us something is wrong. So, we leave the safety of our home to save it. We cut our teeth in the real world, far from the protection of familiarity, and God-willing we come back empowered to make a difference thanks to our experiences. We experience love, and loss, and make stupid decisions. This album presents a picture of the modern-day hero. Something we're all called to be (Chapter of the Day does not condone hedonism), and the world desperately needs.

Sorry for the extra-long post this time, I wanted to give the entire story a thoughtful treatment. Next, we're going to look at some of the major themes developed in the album (in perhaps a more concise manner than this).

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