Idiot Savants

Green Day's politicking is simple but effective.

Look out for fire and beer-drinking bunnies at Green - Day's upcoming tour stop.
Look out for fire and beer-drinking bunnies at Green Day's upcoming tour stop.
Gerard Way should have known the answer, but he asked anyway. "For how many of you is this your first show?" inquired the My Chemical Romance singer, sweating mascara, as he opened for Green Day at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena. Most of the 10,000-plus in attendance screamed loudly in the affirmative.

This came as no surprise. The arena was packed with boys in button-down black shirts and red ties, sporting the punk-rock-tax-accountant look of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. They ogled young girls in combat boots and skirts almost as short as the beer lines. Moms trailed behind, sweatshirts tied around their waists.

As the lights in the venue went down and heart rates shot up, the youthfulness of the audience certainly abetted the evening's headliners. Green Day took to the stage tearing into the title track of its latest, American Idiot, all curled lips and boundless 'tude. The band was greeted by a crowd far too young to remember the Who's Tommy, a similar tale of teenage disaffection and dystopia, which Green Day's latest borrows from.

But instead of Tommy's wicked Uncle Ernie, it was the "President gas man" who was on trial. With Armstrong acting as judge and jury, the twitchy, bug-eyed frontman led the audience in hooky agitprop custom-made for pogoing. "I want you to sing so loud tonight that every redneck in America hears you," Armstrong exhorted the crowd.

Where American Idiot too often settles for by-the-numbers rebellion ("We're not the ones meant to follow") and the kind of rote sloganeering that high schoolers scribble in their notebooks during detention ("Everyone is so full of shit/Born and raised by hypocrites"), the live songs had added resonance. And the crowd had a lot to do with it.

Sure, it's easy to gripe about Green Day's politics being reductionist -- the government and the media suck; television is the opiate of the masses, except when it's playing Green Day videos. But while this stuff may not galvanize subscribers to The Nation, it provides an entry into some semblance of social awareness for teens and 'tweens. It's social criticism on training wheels, easily digestible little shards of protest, which mainstream punk grossly lacks these days.

For the most part, the punk seen on MTV highlights boring, first-person narratives in which tattooed suburbanites gaze at their pierced navels and attempt to turn every minor personal tragedy into a major hit. The only thing these dudes seem to question is whether they'll make the cut for the Warped Tour this year (and trust us, most of them will). In this climate, Green Day's elementary but impassioned politics really do start to feel edgy.

Still, the band is in danger of pandering to its audience's adolescence. Before the group took the stage, a guy in a pink bunny costume chugged beer and led kids in dancing to the Village People's "YMCA." Armstrong enjoined the crowd to do the wave and even succumbed to the hoariest of arena-rock clichés: challenging one side of the venue to scream louder than the other. Give the guy a Harley and a beer gut, and he could be Vince Neil.

Green Day's over-the-top stage show reflected as much. Granted, punk rock is no stranger to arenas. The Sex Pistols toured some hockey rinks on their first -- and last -- American tour with their original lineup, and the Clash eventually got big enough to play stadiums. But up till now, punk bands tried to keep the trappings of arena rock at arm's length.

Yet Green Day seems intent on getting its Def Leppard on whenever the mood strikes. Songs were punctuated with exploding flash pots and five-foot plumes of fire. Armstrong repeatedly strutted out onto a ramp that jutted into the crowd -- an ego-stroking prop normally reserved for the likes of AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, and Bono. Considering that Green Day was mostly singing about societal ills, the antics seemed as incongruent as the MacNeil-Lehrer Report with dry ice and a bitchin' laser show.

By now, the members of Green Day have grown accustomed to having it both ways -- they're apathetic stoners one minute, political firebrands the next -- and this concert was no exception. Just when the arena-rock histrionics started to wear thin, the band deflated its larger-than-life presentation by inviting fans onstage to jam. Though they've done this act for years, it never loses its effectiveness, primarily because tearing down the barrier between the artist and the audience is what punk rock is all about.

As a handful of kids bounded onstage to play with their idols, everything started to make sense. Not only was Green Day serving up rebellion-on-a-stick, it was giving its fans the instruments and stage to act it out. "Bite my lip and close my eyes/Take me away to paradise," Armstrong sang earlier, during "Longview," the band's breakout hit. One look at all the beaming, 13-year-old faces, and it was clear that most of them were already there.