21st Century Breakdown

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Despite everything Mark Carney’s been saying lately about the end of a recession, I think I’m more apt to agree with Green Day that we’re still in the midst of a 21st Century Breakdown.

Maybe it’s all the rain we’ve been getting in the nation’s capital lately, but I think I’m less apt to pronounce the bounce-back from one of the biggest hits our economy’s taken since 1929 and following. Optimism may have its place, but there’s a difference between optimism and ignorance. I think I’ll probably throw my lot in with Jeff Rubin before I put my faith in Carney. I’m not sure the worst of it is over.

We’ve squandered so much, and continue to do so at an ever-increasing rate. Perhaps it’s not all that far out there that this world’s going to shrink, that the resource wars will increase, and that things may get a whole lot messier. We may not be talking Apocalypse Very Soon, but we may need to think about the ways in which our excessive consumption is going to increase global conflict.

I know this is interesting and all, but maybe you’re asking, “but what about the rawk?”

I’ve been listening to Green Day’s new disc, 21st Century Breakdown, pretty much since the day it came out, and I’ve got to say, I love it.

I first encountered Green Day, listening to Dookie in my friend Joey‘s basement years ago. I was 14 and I was hooked. But something new happened with American Idiot. I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like there was more going on, more of interest. The band has grown and changed since the time I was 14, and I suspect that I have too.

Ever since first hearing American Idiot back in 2004, I’ve been wanting to exegete the disc, to pull it apart, maybe even preach a sermon series on the gospel according to Green Day. There’s so much good stuff in American Idiot, so many keen observations on suburban America. But I guess, five years down the road, it’s probably a bit too late for that now.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trawling the interwebs, and stumbled upon a review from Focus on the Family’s desk. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything more, but it always bothers me when reviews spend more time focusing on the “objectional content,” than what’s being said, and what it might say about the world we live in.Perhaps there’s some valid critique in what Billie Joe and the boys have to say.

So hey, when the new album’s cast of characters include “Christian” and “Gloria,” there might just be some room to examine Green Day’s brand of power pop through the lens of faith.

These are the cries of the anti-Springsteen, the working stiff gone wrong. These are the cries of a generation where the possibilities of class struggle are less assured “My generation is zero/I never made it as a working-class hero.” Sold out by parents and a world of greed, the walls of this propped up economic system are crumbling around us, and the result is the desperation of living in the uncertainty of the static age. And yet, perhaps it also brings some relief about leaving behind the life of the modern world.

But when you don’t want to live in that world, when you’re suspicious of its symbols and institutions (church, state, nearly every form of temporal authority) what’s left to turn to?

For Green Day, all of this leads to rage and action. This album points to issues that afflict our world, and does not provide easy answers. There is no Deus ex Machina device here (which is perhaps the problem the folks at Focus have). The reality is that in the end, easy answers will not come. But victory may be won – not by fairy tale endings, or being sucked up into heaven.

The simple answer Green Day proposes is that we must sing. And these songs call us deeply into the reality of anger, betrayal, unfilfillied promises and the boulevard of broken dreams.

There is a new song to be sung here, but the first passionate step is to recognise and to declare that all is not well with the world. Green Day knows the enemy, and responds loudly: “Bringing on the fury / The choir infantry / Revolt against the honor to obey.” Silence is the enemy. Silence prevents urgent and immediate action. In this chorus, Green Day rallies the troops, overthrowing the effigy of absolute power, contradicting those who claim absolute control.

I might be so bold as to say that these songs function as a prophetic energizing, a way of breaking us out of what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness.” It’s this consciousness that “leads people to despair about the power to move forward to new life.” And yet the role of the prophetic is to break through the numbness, to break through the silence and recognise that all is not well with the world (no matter what it’d have us believe).

This album not only draws attention to the malaise of modernity, but also to our tendency to languish in the hopelessness and disorientation caused by the crumbling of the world as we know it. When all that was solid melts into air; when the foundations start crumbling, what’s left to hold on to?

Anger and lament that call us out of apathy are a good place to start. Reaching out for others is a good next step. The redemptive move of this album is in a community of resistance. The solution isn’t merely about one person’s struggle against the world. Christian and Gloria are in this together with Billie Joe and the band. We’re invited into the choir infantry alongside them.

There are struggles, there is disorientation, and yet we too are invited to sing a new song, to call out against oppression, and to work together towards a new future: “I can hear the sound of / A beating heart / That bleeds beyond a system / That’s falling apart”

The words from the album’s penultimate track, “American Eulogy” finally bleed into sonic disorientation, static and confusion. But we are not left hanging there. As the static dissolves, we are invited into the closest thing Green Day has to a musical benediction. Crossing the desert of modernity towards higher ground, we’re left with hope even in the midst of darkness: “I just want to see the light / I don’t want to lose my sight / I just want to see the light / I need to know what’s worth the fight.”

So what is it that’s worth the fight? The powers would have us believe that modernity is worth the fight; that we need to fight for economic and military supremacy, for the bottom line, and another dollar. We need to fight for the supremacy of our way of life, and our religion. But perhaps there’s another hope on the other side.

Perhaps there’s hope in something other than these idols. Perhaps there’s hope beyond the silence.

Perhaps hope is to be found in a chorus of resistance, and the actions of those who have been energized by the story of another world, new possibilities and new songs. While this album may not necessarily leave us with the words to these new songs, perhaps we too have a role to play.

Freed from the numbness, aware of this world’s problems, perhaps it’s high time we wrote and started performing some of our own…

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

3 Responses to “21st Century Breakdown”

  1. Lisa

    Sweet exegesis for a great album, Rennster. I’m going to see them play on Wednesday!!

  2. Lisa

    aaaaand, I just read the Focus on the Family “review” – your article was a great counterpoint.

  3. greendaymind

    Ah, thank you, loved your take on 21st Century Breakdown. I love this album, and if you get a chance, watch the video to the single that’s been released on MTV Internationally (except for the U.S.) that you can buy on iTunes. It’s brilliant and captures that song perfectly. I’m heading to England to see them in London for the 5th and 6th times this year. Great concert, great energy, and a great way to collectively purge some demons from the 21st century, too!


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