Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why hast thou forsaken me?

Why hast thou forsaken me?: An Analysis of Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia”

By Grant S. Robertson

Written June 2005

At over nine minutes long and in five clearly delineated sections, Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” is more of an anthem than simply a song. The second track on the latest album, Idiot America, – from one of America’s most popular and longest surviving bands with gutter punk roots – one might assume this composition is nothing more than another rant against standard American culture and society. Commonly believed to hate all of American culture and everything it stands for, this segment of society – large enough to fill venues across the country – is too important to ignore. In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom laments that America ’s youth use modern music to isolate themselves from the rest of the world (68) and that this isolation will leave them deaf to the rest of the “great tradition” of culture that is available to them (81). But is it a two way street? Could it be that society is giving young people plenty of reason to plug in and tune out? If adults invested a little time to tune in and discover what this music is saying, perhaps a bridge could be built between the generations.

A quick glance at an album cover or even reading through some lyrics may not reveal all that is available to us. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in his 1990 article "2 Live Crew, Decoded: Rap Music Group's Use of Street Language in Context of Afro-American Cultural Heritage Analyzed", there are often coded languages that develop within cultures or sub-cultures. A form of coded language, not discussed by Gates though, appears as a sub-culture within almost every culture in the world. This is the language of music; what the voices, tones, and rhythms are telling the listener at an almost subconscious level. Sweet melodic tones mean happiness, low tones played slowly convey a hint of sadness, while even lower discordant tones often symbolize anger. Reading the codes within both forms of language can be an extremely powerful tool to help us bridge this gap of understanding.

So who is this new Jesus? Well, he’s certainly not perfect (IV.9) having come from a broken home (V.14) that was potentially violent as his claim to be “…the son of Rage…” (I.1) seems to indicate. His reference to “Brad’s (sic)” (I.14) could even be slang for the never ending series of boyfriends that some single mothers subject their children to. He feels that he doesn’t really fit into society; belonging, instead, to the “None of the Above” (I.3) category. On top of that he is kept hyped up on soda pop and calmed down by Ritalin (I.4) hinting that his caregivers don’t really accept him for who he is. When he tells us that, “No one ever died for my sins…” (I.5) he is letting us know that no one has really done anything of significance to help him either. So he sits around zoning out on television (I.12) and drugs. (I.16-17) But there is some hope of salvation for this new Jesus. He knows “there’s nothing wrong with…” (I.8) him and he is exactly “…how [he is] supposed to be,” (I.9) at the very least.

At just over thirty, with children of his own, Billy Joe Armstrong, the writer and lead vocalist for Green Day, can’t be our guy. He doesn’t fit the bill. Maybe he did during his own youth but not any more. So, again, who is this new Jesus? With more than thirty references to “I”, “me”, or “my” spread throughout the lyrics one might feel safe in assuming that this Jesus was a single individual; and a pretty self centered one at that. Subtle clues, however, point to the possibility that this “I” may be a collective. Throughout the song, various musical styles are used to convey special meaning. In this first section a standard pop rock beat, the most popular by far according to Allan Wells’ report "Popular Music: Emotional Use and Management" (108) gives us our clue that this Jesus may be a rather large collective. More than a “we” or a group of individuals, this “I” speaks with one voice and one mind.

A collective Jesus has to live somewhere even as he/it exists everywhere. The title is quick to point out that our Jesus lives in Suburbia. This is backed up by references to 7-11 parking lots (II.2) and shopping malls (II.14) where suburban kids tend to hang out. What better place for a collective Jesus to live than a collective location in a “… town that don’t exist” (V.5) “at the center of the earth” (II.1). Everywhere and nowhere.

The world has not been kind to our collective Jesus either. Though it hasn’t crucified him or thrown his disciples to the lions it has done something far worse but much more subtle. After all the suffering the first Jesus endured leading up to and during his crucifixion, he only complained about one thing. Many Christians believe that when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) it signifies that his God has left him alone for the first time in his life. To be forsaken or denied acceptance can be the cruelest thing one being can do to another. And our new Jesus certainly feels forsaken by the entire world. He was taught a motto that turned out to be a lie (II.3) and when he followed the signs misleading him to nowhere he found himself in the City of the Damned (II.10). A lost child with no one who really cared (II.11-12). So, in the final analysis, it seems our new, collective Jesus just happens to be the disenfranchised youth of suburban America .

A common theme among these young people is that they just don’t seem to care about anything. The way they dress in sloppy clothes, the vacant stare on their faces, the ever present headphones playing music that often carries the same message: “I don’t care!” Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” even has an entire section specifically devoted to it. However, a deeper analysis reveals something entirely different. The first line is actually the phrase, “I don’t care if you don’t.” repeated many times. Speaking to those who have abandoned him, our collective Jesus sings this line in a sing-song, rather mocking voice accompanied by music that is energetic and danceable. If played at a night club or rave this would be the section that gets people jumping up in the air. When people dance around while speaking in these mocking tones you generally get the idea that they don’t mean what they are saying.

The last phrase of this line reveals how the Jesus truly feels. After the mocking tones his voice suddenly shifts into a low growl. “I don’t care!” (III.1) he screams, accompanied by low guitar riffs and plenty of distortion. This shows how incredibly angry he is; and you don’t get that angry when you really don’t care. The entire rest of this section is sung in this same angry tone with a voice distorted to sound almost demonic. Even the handwritten lyrics for this section in the liner notes are written using a bold marker with letters almost four times larger than all of the rest of the song. It seems he is intentionally protesting far too much in order to drive home the point that he really does care. Being the central section of the song, perhaps it is also the central message: The disenfranchised youth represented by this new Jesus do care and it is really hurting them to be considered worthless outsiders by the American culture just for being different.

So what does our disenfranchised collective Jesus do? What’s the solution to his problem? Not being mature enough to deal with his problems rationally, he simply runs away (V.3&6). Not to a completely different city; but to the parking lot of the nearest 7-11, to the shopping mall, and to his headphones. Anywhere away from the family and the world that has rejected him. In this isolation within a crowd he listens to music which, on the surface, repeats exactly how he feels while subliminally saying what he can’t quite find the words to say himself: “Please just accept me for who I am.”

While the disenfranchised youth of suburban America may not be taken seriously by their more hardcore peers, the gutter punks; are being ignored by their parents; and pretending that they just don’t care about any of it; their choice in music sends a different message. They aren’t buying the cultural motto being pushed out to them. They do feel disenfranchised, ignored, or even forsaken just for being different and believing an alternate set of truths. They don’t hate the American culture but they do hate the way they are treated by it. Finally, despite their protestations, they do care and it hurts them to be considered worthless outsiders just because they are different. So their solution is to shut down and tune out. American culture needs to pay attention as this can become a problem in and of itself. As more and more youth in all segments of society are turning to escapism through drugs or music they are less involved in providing the solutions that they themselves will need in only a few short years.

Works Cited

Bloom, Allan. "Music." The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon, 1988, 68-81.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. "2 Live Crew, Decoded: Rap Music Group's Use of Street Language in Context of Afro-American Cultural Heritage Analyzed." New York Times. 19 June 1990: A23.

Green Day. “Jesus of Suburbia.” American Idiot. Reprise Records, 2004

Solomon, Jack. "Masters of Desire: The Culture of American Advertising." Signs of Life in the USA : Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 4th ed. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 120-171.

Wells, Alan. "Popular Music: Emotional Use and Management." Journal of Popular Culture. 24.1 (1990): 105-117.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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