The Mythology of Green Day's "American Idiot" Part 1: The Characters
While I may not look like the type (for those that know me), I have a profound love for punk music. My father raised me on southern and classic rock and my mother on 80s hair metal. When I entered middle school, my best friend at the time introduced me to my now favorite band, Green Day. That was like opening Pandora's Box. From there I discovered Blink-182, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Dead Kennedy's, etc. Punk music became my musical language.
Now, I must confess, I'm probably one of the most straight-laced, good Catholic school boy you'll meet, and yet I LOVED Green Day's music. From 39/Smooth to Revolutionary Radio, their music connected with me in a way no other had. They "got it" as I used to say. Somehow these bay area punk rockers were able to write lyrics that connected with both the skater punks and the rosary saying school kids. Which now has me asking, why? How can an early-2000s punk album speak so universally to people of such different backgrounds and beliefs? The answer, my dear readers, is because it is mythological.
Classic stories such as the Greek Myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Christ's parables, etc. are all classic in the sense that no matter who reads them, from whatever culture, it speaks to the reader. There is something so deep in them that it unites us as human beings alone, not as Africans, Asians, Europeans, or what have you. Carl Jung identified this as the collective unconscious of humanity. This weird, pseudo-mystical mind that we all shared as members of the human race (though now this mysticism is now being shown to be actual fact as evolutionary psychology continues to develop as a discipline). American Idiot is a modern day mythological tale. It is our generation's heroic journey. It is an album that's trying to answer how to deal with the intense feeling of purposeless young people had been feeling. With that background, let's dive into this. To appreciate the overall story, we need to understand the characters.
1. Jesus of Suburbia (not to be confused with the one from Nazareth): JoS represents us. He is the main character. He grew up in a small suburban (thus Suburbia) town in America during the tumultuous time that was the late 90s and early-2000s. He and the rest of his friends from his town feel lost. Although, unlike his friends, he refuses to remain that way. He endeavors to leave his home, in the album referred to as "Jingletown," and go to the big city to find himself. This is the basic premise of the hero's journey. Either be need or fate, the hero is thrust from his comfortable home and sent into the big wider world. We all live this life. We all must take our own rings and head to Mordor with them. JoS is no different. He's going to leave this town and go find the purpose and meaning that he and his friends most desperately desire.
2. St. Jimmy: Okay, if my interpretation of the album is correct, and the musical is correct, St. Jimmy is not real, in the physical sense. St. Jimmy is a spirit, at least in Jungian terms. St. Jimmy is a manifestation of JoS's shadow. The shadow is all the parts of ourselves (good and bad) that we've repressed from our consciousness, and repressed into our personal unconscious. St. Jimmy is the womanizing, drug using, party animal. He is the Nihilistic Hedonist in all of us. He could also be seen as the devil on our shoulder (or angel depending who you ask). When JoS enters the big city, his entire worldview is challenged and shattered. The feeling of meaninglessness and lack of purpose in this ever-growing world intensifies and finally births St. Jimmy. He is presented as one of the answers to the purposelessness this album sets out it investigate. St. Jimmy appears to JoS and shows him the ways of the city, and introduces him to all of the vice necessary to numb the pains of existence, or so JoS thinks.
3. Whatsername: The love interest of the album, and not only that, Whatsername is JoS's archetypal woman. Now, what does that mean? Carl Jung said that every man (and the reverse is true for women but JoS is a male so I'll speak in these terms) through his romantic experiences and upbringing, creates in his head the archetypal woman, or in Plato's terms, the ideal. The woman of all "womaness." The thing by which all women are held to. The best way to explain this is with trees. A pine tree and an oak tree are both trees, yet they are different and neither are "perfect" trees. Yet they all contain "treeness." This is what led Plato to say that outside of this world there is a realm of the perfect that contains all treeness ever, and through our knowledge of the ideal we can understand this world. That's like a really basic overview and any philosophy major that reads me may crucify me. Anyways, Jungian archetypes act very similarly, except they live in the unconscious, and not the ideal. We all do this. Think back to your first real love. Even if it's one other people made fun of you for. Our first loves profoundly impact our emotional and relational development and set a standard by which we judge our future ones. And whether or not this archetype is positive or negative also has effect on what we do in our relationships.
It's JoS's love for, and eventually loss of, Whatsername that finally wakes him up from the drug and alcohol infused stupor he is trapped in. It's Whatsername's "Letterbomb" that finally makes him give up St. Jimmy. Whatsername is to JoS as Beatrice was to Dante. Whatsername shows that we need something from outside of ourselves to save us. To break into our mess and lift us out, even it it may hurt a bit. JoS falls head over heels in love with her, yet St. Jimmy is horrified of her. She too falls in love with JoS, but perhaps the threads of fate are just not there.
I could go on and on about these people. It's these three characters that get dropped into this eye-linered emo punk world that we all remember and love, and it's these characters that we connect to that allow the mythological tale of American Idiot to speak to us so profoundly and deeply. In the next part of this post, I will be examining the story itself, and what it tells us about ourselves as we watch the characters go through their journeys.
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