#193 – Green Day – Dookie (1994)
October 9, 2013
A lot of people, if they’re lucky, have a year of their lives they can point back to as the year–the period on the calendar that corresponded, more or less, with the peak of one’s youth. And even if a lot of the day to day experience of that year was squandered on being miserable over the unfulfilled yearnings–specific and nonspecific–of adolescence, it’s still hard not to look back and remember more acutely the giddy, good feelings of that time–the sense of freedom mingled with belongingness, a feeling of exuberance and love, also specific and non-specific. For me, that year was 1994. This album came out in February of that year, and was one of the year’s big records. And yet it had nothing to do with the circumstances of my life that were just then taking shape. In fact, this was the first time I ever heard it.
One of the defining elements of that year for me was that I fell in love with a band called Phish, probably just about exactly the week this record came out. They were (and are) a “jam band,” and are viewed in the popular imagination as the successors to the legacy of The Grateful Dead. Musically, the two groups are actually quite different, but what is relevant to this conversation is the sense of Phish as a “hippie” band, even if their connection to that bygone cultural movement is tangential at best, and its followers loath to self-identify as such. Similarly, as far as I can tell, Green Day was and is a “punk” band, or at least one who drew on some version of the sound and aesthetic of that bygone cultural moment as an organizing principle.
It’s possible that I missed being a fan of this music by a mere matter of days. Not long before, I had flirted with an interest in various punk-related musics, and as the year began, I was ideologically unmoored from any one type of music and its concomitant lifestyle commitments. It so happens that some persuasive person in my life caught me at the right moment, and sent me in the aesthetic direction that, in conjunction with certain associated substances, would eat up much of the rest of my youth. And yet I suppose it could just have easily been this record that caught my ear, and sent me in another direction entirely.
Looking back, the whole thing seems kind of arbitrary and sad. Not to get all political sciencey about it, but it does evoke a sense of the expressions of youthful rebellion being codified and preselected for their essential toothlessness, and lack of real threat to the dominant social order. I chose (or had chosen for me) allegiance to one watered down version of a previous generations’ cultural upheaval, now safely inert and void of any real revolutionary fervor. And the same could be said of someone who fell in love with this music instead, just with a different generation’s neutered and stuffed revolution in its place.
Listening to this album for the first time nearly twenty years later I found it…fine. It expresses an easily identifiable, somewhat privileged species of discontent, to the tune of songs that cleave closely enough to the formula of catchy, guitar-driven pop to be almost completely inoffensive. I’m not a great lover of distortion for distortion’s sake, but their version of it is tame enough not to rattle my cage too severely. The bassist has a nice, snappy sound and propulsive quality to his lines. The singer bugs me, especially if I think of his stupid spiky hair and eye makeup–the irritating pointlessness of his aesthetic choices–but I’ve heard (and seen) worse. I would never seek out the experience of hearing this album again, but to accidentally encounter it again would not be unduly painful or difficult for me.
The problem is that all this basic inoffensiveness becomes almost offensive after a point. I have no great love for the punk movement and its music, and would be the last person to mount a passionate defense of the purity of its aims. But I can acknowledge, amidst my aesthetic wariness, a certain admiration for the destructive fervor of the movement–at root, a desire to reshape the world through music. This music feels like a sad and almost cynical simulacrum of that energy–a borrowing of the surface trappings without any of the life or death urgency of the real stuff. Their concerns seems confined mainly to watching TV, getting high and being bored– all of which I can identify with, but don’t particularly feel moved by hearing about. It’s music about inertia that doesn’t seem capable of generating anything beyond…more inertia.
But of course, the music I loved in my youth is subject to similar complaints–it seems to endorse the generic trappings of a “hippie” lifestyle without any real investment in the peace and love and social upheaval part of the equation. There’s no great desire to change the world embedded in their songs. In some sense, they are thematically even more vapid, since Green Day’s ersatz punk music at least manages to express something resembling angst, whereas Phish’s songs are in the main an articulate sort of nonsense, expressing nothing at all beyond a stoned, prep schoolish sort of goofiness. In their defense, I will say that the music is much more elaborately crafted, and that the band’s business model does actually cleave to a much more “underground” approach that is not reliant on mass media or the blessings of the powers that be. Indeed, to the extent that I heard of Green Day at all back then, I would have sneered at them for being too radio-friendly and mass market-directed for my lofty tastes. I would also note that punk music (the real stuff), effectively undermined the hippie agenda to such an extent that for a band like Phish to express, even obliquely, the kind of peace and love rhetoric that would have tied them more concretely to the original movement would serve only to invite even more ridicule than they already regularly endures.
None of that stuff really matters, though. I’m just continuing to express my allegiance to one subset of quasi-nonconformity over another. What’s more acutely sad to consider is that there actually was a real and vital music based revolution taking place at the same time I was grooving to Phish, and others were moshing along (or whatever) to the drivel on this record. As far as I can gather, hip hop was entering its golden age at the time, and some of the best and most enduring records of that genre came out in this very same year. It was a living, fresh musical frontier, happening in my lifetime–in my youth no less–and yet at the time, I had absolutely no interest. And even today. armed with the knowledge that I should have been paying more attention to that stuff, my interest is more theoretical than heartfelt.
These two decades later, of course, hip hop has become the dominant medium of mass musical culture, and its once revolutionary ingredients now underpin all sorts of soulless commercial twaddle. One hopes that somewhere, there is some newly revolutionary sound being made, and that enough people are sufficiently unanesthetized to hear it, and to keep the ball moving forward. Looking back at my own youth, I must concede that I did nothing to advance the vanguard of music with my patronage. For most of my life, I’ve clung to the superiority of musics that belong to my father’s generation. During the brief period I expressed heartfelt, life changing (or at least lifestyle changing) devotion to a contemporary band, it was one whose aesthetic was similarly backward looking. I don’t know what the next great revolution in music and culture will look or sound like, but I fear that by the time it crosses my desk, I will be far too old to make any kind of sense of it at all.