Performance Date: 07.21.10
St. James Theatre
I tried to make this post on Green Day’s American Idiot about narrative, but it didn’t work. I was probably over-reaching or maybe I was just tired, but either way, I came off sounding like a first year grad student talking out her ass to her Freshman Lit students. Making up all kinds of definitions, generalizing based on hunches gleaned from personal experience, blathering about narratives of plot, personal narratives, and cultural narratives. It was all pomp and no circumstance, and before I got too far my Yada Yada Yada ref threw a yellow card and I had to toss the whole thing out. So Instead, I will tell you this:
In 1994 and 1995, I listened to Green Day’s breakthrough album “Dookie” on a constant loop. I was a sophomore in college. The album made me feel punk when I was decidedly suburban, which I think is an exact reflection of Green Day’s place in the cultural landscape at that time. I knew that Green Day was about as lightweight as you could get in the punk universe without completely ejecting from it, but that didn’t matter in the slightest. “Dookie” made me feel rebellious, alienated, and edgy, and that was exactly what this nineteen-year-old Dean’s List student from Palo Alto needed. Listening to Green Day made me feel that there was more to me than met the eye.
In 1998, my friend Sally took me and twenty of our coworkers to see the musical Rent in Reno. She had been a devoted fan since the first national tour kicked off in her college town and had already seen the musical some 15 times. By the time our caravan of twenty-somethings left that fair city, I was similarly hooked. The central anthem of the musical, “No Day But Today,” twanged a chord in me that I still find hard to describe. Top notes plucking the exuberant yearning of my inner infatuation-addicted teenager – Roger loves Mimi but he’s afraid! – and bottom notes thrumming more philosophically to themes of choosing innocence in the face of cynicism, and optimism in the face of pain. Over the next few years, I too saw the musical nearly 15 times.
In 2001, September 11th happened and so began many years of me struggling to comprehend what the f*ck was going on in the world. In the immediate aftermath, I could not saturate myself deeply enough with the images and stories from the attack. I watched the news obsessively, thirsty for and yet horrified by each new video that captured another perspective on the explosions, the billowing plumes of smoke, the people falling, the streets below. In those few days, the television felt like a tribal elder passing on a history that I was duty-bound to remember. But that quickly changed. I soon learned that the TV was not to be trusted, even as my dependence on it deepened, and that nobody on TV was to be trusted either.
This post is about narrative after all. These three narratives from my life explain perfectly why American Idiot resonated so successfully with me, despite the musical lacking a strong theatrical narrative to tie Green Day’s songs together. Traditional narrative (the story of what happens) isn’t the only way to engage an audience. Reflecting an audience member’s personal narrative (the story of me) or a cultural narrative to which she feels attached (the story of us) can work just as well. Hearing the tight harmonies and driving percussion of Green Day’s music blaring from the stage connected me to that nineteen-year-old trying a new identity on for size. Appreciating the rocking-out performance style and multi-level scaffolding set that American Idiot shares with its predecessor Rent connected me to the exhilaration of that long dormant rock musical addiction. Seeing a wall of television screens replay the imagery of this past decade’s media history, hearing the lyrics of political dissent and social unrest, and watching a projection of a skyscaper's worth of loose leaf paper blowing in the air – these experiences clearly connected me with our country’s journey in the years since 9/11. None of these elements from American Idiot tell the story of what happens to the characters on stage, but for this individual, they do tell in part the story of me and the story of us. And that kept me engaged.