By Jim McCarthy Mar 15, 2012 0 comments

American Idiot and the New Meaning of Rebellion

As I multiple posted and tweeted, I saw the premiere of American Idiot in Los Angeles last night at the fabulous Ahmanson Theatre, and it was well worth the trip.  Really very easy to enjoy, probably especially if you’re a Green Day fan, and there are certainly plenty of those.

A couple interesting things popped into my head watching last night though.  First, I recalled this article from a couple years ago about our friend Jordan Roth, who brought Idiot to Broadway.  It was about how Jordan was bringing this new attitude toward content to the stage.  Wait, what am I saying?  Not to the stage!  To the whole theatre!  Here’s the part I recalled:

“Meeting with the Idiot creative team as the show was preparing to move into the St. James, he did not blanch when Christine Jones, the set designer, outlined her plan to “American Idiot-ify” the theater’s posh architecture. In fact, it was his idea, and her talk of transforming the public spaces into an ad hoc club with VIP rooms and photo booths elicited oohs, exclamations of “nuh-uh,” and fusillades of prayerful hand-claps. “That’s really hot!”—Roth’s highest compliment—was reserved for her idea of covering the lobby’s Venetian plaster with paint and wallpaper that theatergoers could scrawl on with chalk and Sharpies. Though this later led one chat-room habitué to write, “Thanks, producers, for making the St. James a slum,” Roth is determined to “remake the theater” in all senses. After Jones asked about the sign at the bar forbidding patrons to carry food or drinks into the auditorium, he said, in keeping with Jujamcyn’s new policy, “Let’s take that down. It will never be true again.””

On tour, of course, that same overall atmosphere doesn’t travel, but Jordan’s idea about ‘storytelling not stopping at the proscenium’ is a point that I remembered and that I always want you out there to remember.  It is perhaps the key to the healthy evolution of live entertainment in the 21st century.

The second thing about the show that struck me is that even though it’s pitched as a “young person’s” show, it’s really not.  Billy Joe and the rest of the Green Day gang are my age, more or less, and while we’re not old, we’re not 25 either.  In many ways, Idiot is a show not about millennials, but about Gen X’ers.  The MTV style quick cut TV imagery in the background was the zeitgeist of OUR youth, not today’s youth.  The idea of 50 TV screens on stage showing the endless flow of crazy babble from cable TV is an idea rooted in 1994, not 2012.  The zeitgeist of today’s people in their 20s is not owning a TV at all.

That’s not really a problem, just an observation.

In a similar fashion, isn’t it interesting that punk rock haircuts remain the eternal symbol of rebellion, without actually changing?  Compare Johnny Rotten in 1977 to Billy Joe a few years back, knowing that the characters on stage of this show are modeled, roughly, on his look:

And of course, Johnny Rotten (Lydon) could quite literally (and may in actual fact be for all I know) the grandfather of the young adults in the production last night.

What’s interesting about this to me is the cultural time warp we seem to be in where the symbols of rebellion themselves do not change.  If you wear a pink mohawk, now or in 1977, we get the message.

Is American Idiot successful at getting younger people into the building?  Yes, it is.  I witnessed it last night.

But it’s worth noting that they were there to hear the music and the message of a band made up not of their peers, age wise, but mine.

I posted a funny thing on facebook the other day (funny to me anyway) that came out of an actual experience of mine, taking my son to a late night rock show put on by one of his friends’ rock bands.  It was the typical wooden stage in a quiet part of town.  They played covers and a few originals.  They weren’t at all bad for eighth graders.

But paraphrasing what I posted, it was this.  If Baby Boomers had gone out late on a Friday night to see a friend’s band, they would have argued with their parents about it and stormed out rebelliously.  Gen Xers would have mumbled “leaving for a while” and walked out, and perhaps their parents would have taken note and said “Ok. Not too late.”

For millennials, it’s “Can you drive me to this concert?” And the parent says “Of course. I’m running the sound board. Should I bring my bass in case Noah can’t make it?”

In fact, there’s a similar moment in the show, where the main character mysteriously gets some money to buy bus tickets to the big city.  He says (paraphrasing), “I robbed my local convenience store to get the money…ok, I stole it from my mom’s dresser…ok, she loaned me the money.”  How big of a punk can you really be if your mom is financing your trip to freedom?

So is American Idiot a rebellion story?  Not really, and maybe it was never supposed to be.  But it does point out for me one of the subtleties about how the culture is changing and serve as a reminder that it’s easy to see visual cliches and make assumptions, but that under those assumptions is something deeper.

“Young people” are the victims of more assumptions about how they are and who they are than anybody when it comes to live entertainment marketing.  Idiot is a nice reminder that those assumptions are almost never safe ones, about anyone.

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