The Problem with American Idiot

July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm (Review) (, , , )

Broadway’s American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the best Green Day cover band concert you could ever imagine. The performers belt the record’s songs with theatrical ease, backed by an expert on-stage band. They transform solo tunes into duets and group numbers, adding new layers to the familiar music. Behind the performers, a magnificent set rises into the rafters, full of staircases and ladders and swings and wires constructed for the elaborate dance sequences that accompany the songs. Dozens of television sets mounted on the walls add an extra touch, displaying appropriate (or purposely discordant) images and mingling with the stage lights to dazzle the audience. It is, by all rights, an audio-visual spectacular of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, American Idiot purports to be more than a concert, and its successes on the musical front are met by equally great failures in the arenas of plot and character.

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “jukebox musicals,” musicals that construct a story around non-theatrical music from a particular popular artist or artists. Mamma Mia is perhaps the most famous example, mixing as it does a wholly original story with pop hits by ABBA. The story is actually lovely, but the music is so ill-fitting, and so antithetical to the needs of musical theater, that the play falls apart. The lyrics don’t move the plot along, and the musical sequences feel like jarring interruptions of the story rather than natural outcroppings from it. When music is not written for the theater, it rarely works in the context of a play.

Given this history, I was wary of American Idiot at first. But a number of factors differentiate it from the garden-variety jukebox musical. For one thing, it’s based on a concept album that always had some amount of narrative structure to it. For another, the play was conceived, and co-written, by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This isn’t the case of a nebulous outsider trying to squeeze an artist’s oeuvre into a play; instead, it’s more like The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical created by those who wrote the music to begin with. With these factors in mind – and with an explosive Tony Awards performance in my recent memory – I decided to give the show a shot.

(Spoilers for the play abound from this point on.)

But some of my initial reservations proved accurate. While American Idiot, as an album, does have a narrative structure, the songs are not inherently theatrical. The lyrics are both too repetitive and too complicated – and too abstract, in many cases – to really move a story along, because only viewers who have memorized the songs before attending the show can follow every word. I knew several of the songs in the production going into the play, but not well enough to figure out all the metaphoric intricacies of the lyrics in the moment. Musical lyrics can certainly be complex – just ask Stephen Sondheim – but Green Day’s songs lack a directness and strong narrative quality that songs written for plays need.

This problem was compounded by the fact that, unlike Mamma Mia, there are very few moments in American Idiot that are not musical. Characters say a few words between songs – largely in letters written to each other – but for the most part the play is the music, and that makes it very hard to truly grasp the narrative of the story. I’m sure that fans who have seen the play many times were able to get more out of the story than I did, but repeated viewings shouldn’t be necessary to understand a piece of entertainment that costs $40 or more each time.

And then there was the story itself, and the characters. While American Idiot, as an album, serves as a fascinating, complex indictment of the Bush administration and the problems of life in early 21st century America, the play is basically a story about how very hard it is to be a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied 20-something guy living in the suburbs. And while I’m not opposed to stories about people with that amount of privilege (if I were, I would have to discount about 80% of all Western media), the story told here only serves to highlight how ludicrously selfish and stupid its characters are.

The three protagonists – Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) – are long-time friends still living at home, spending all their time drinking and smoking pot and playing video games. Suddenly seized by the need to leave their “empty” suburban lives, the friends decide to move to the big city and see the “real world.” Unfortunately, Will’s girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) reveals she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay home to take care of the baby. Johnny and Tunny still follow through with their plan, but Tunny, depressed and aimless, winds up joining the army and going to Iraq, leaving Johnny alone to sink into a life of drug abuse. After the death of Johnny’s (possibly metaphorical) drug dealer, the loss of Tunny’s leg in the war, and the separation of Will from his wife, the three friends reunite in their hometown to close out the play.

The fact that I was able to describe the entire plot in that tiny paragraph says something about how thin the story is. It’s also impossible for me to give a fuller description of the characters’ personalities, because, since they’re only expressed through non-theatrical, poorly-functioning songs, they essentially have none, no matter how hard the (very competent) actors tried. The only character I felt anything for was Tunny, since his wartime trials and tribulations are much more serious and sympathetic than the completely self-inflicted, selfish misery his friends go through. But he still lacked any real personality, and I realized partway through the play that I only felt anything for him because I was mentally inserting details of Stark Sands’ military character from HBO’s Generation Kill.

Then there’s the play’s women problem. While the leads are all white, Johnny’s love interest, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Tunny’s war nurse/love interest, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) are women of color. Neither has any more personality than the leads, which I wouldn’t have expected, but unlike the leads, they don’t get the opportunity to express anything from their own point of view – they don’t even have actual names — and thus become little more than fetish objects for the men. This is especially problematic in one scene, in which Tunny hallucinates his nurse dressed in a burqa, which she sexily strips off to reveal a stereotypical midriff-baring harem costume. Not only is she a fetish object, but she’s a fetish object representing a stereotypical image of the very real women of the Middle East.

I’m a huge fan of RENT, and American Idiot, with its rock score, disaffected young characters, and drug-filled urban setting, has been called RENT’s spiritual descendent. But whatever RENT’s flaws – and I’m not blind enough to claim it has none – its cast features characters across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic background, and they all possess agency and express themselves through their own point of view. American Idiot has none of that, and the abundant privilege of its protagonists makes it extraordinarily difficult to relate to them, or believe their protests. The American government and culture they’re lambasting is harming them least of all the people that populate the country, and they’re completely unaware of the irony. They sing, “maybe I’m the faggot America,” symbolic of their inability to fit in, but it only highlights the fact that they do fit in – unlike the gay (or non-white, lower class, etc. etc.) Americans who are completely absent from the play. What works in Green Day’s album – which is, understandably, from the perspective of only one singer – comes off as blind and borderline offensive on the stage.

I hesitate to completely lambast the show, since, as I noted, the staging and technical elements, performances, and music are all spectacular. But without a strong story or characters to hang those elements on, American Idiot is little more than a sparkling, charismatic failure.

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Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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Searching for Truth in Teen TV

January 11, 2010 at 9:30 am (Analysis) (, , , )

I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages. It first popped into my head when I watched the phenomenal Freaks and Geeks over the summer, a new entry on my list of shows I’ve come to love ages after they were cut short by the whims of TV execs. The idea found a resurgence in my brain early this fall when I tried to watch Glee, a show that turned out to be very much not my thing, all expectations to the contrary. But it’s taken me until now to finally put it into words:

I yearn for a TV show that will reflect my own high school experiences.

Now, by “reflect,” I don’t mean that I want to watch my own biography play out on the television screen. That would be creepy and unsettling. But much as I love shows about teenagers, and much as I tend to overidentify with all characters who remotely resemble me in fiction, I’ve never found a show that speaks to my own history, to teenagerhood as I knew it. And I don’t think my group of high school friends was particularly anomalous. Despite not being TV pretty (and, really, who is?), we were, in many ways, the outcast underdogs everyone loves to root for, the weird kids and the musical kids and the smart kids who band together in the face of their own unpopularity – just like the characters on Freaks and Geeks, or Glee, or a dozen other shows past and present. But we didn’t fit the picture of normalcy that TV is so concerned with portraying, for two major reasons.

1.) My group of friends was too culturally diverse.

I adore Freaks and Geeks, but it’s hard not to notice, when watching it, that the cast is… extraordinarily white. I realize this is partially due to the setting (the Midwest in the early 1980s, rather than the cultural hodgepodge that was my own early 2000s central New Jersey). But the fact remains that the cast was entirely white, and that this entirely white cast – with, at best, a couple of token non-white secondary characters – is the norm for TV. With the exception of Canada’s Degrassi, I can’t think of a single Western show about teens that breaks this pattern.

I, personally, am white. I’m used to seeing people who look like me on teen shows. But when I can’t see my friends surrounding those images of me, leading lives just as complex and important as my own, it’s hard for me to truly identify with those images. My high school friends were Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian, in addition to Russian-Jewish and Italian and Polish and Irish and Greek and a dozen other European mixes. And we didn’t cherry-pick one person of each ethnicity to be a member of our group. My friends were affected by their racial backgrounds on a daily basis, but they didn’t exist as stereotypes or satires (I’m looking at you, Glee), or model examples to teach the white kids about diversity. If I found a show that gave people who look like my friends the leading roles, and someone who looks like me a supporting role, I’d be much more able to identify with that show than I would with one that made me the protagonist and whitewashed the supporting cast.

2.) My group of friends was too gay.

Between 8th grade and my freshman year of college, all but two of my (numerous) male friends came out of the closet as gay or bisexual. So did two of my female friends. I acknowledge that this makes my group a statistical anomaly; the population percentages shouldn’t produce this effect, even in a group of outcasts, especially since most of these people were friends before any of them had come out, so they weren’t actively seeking out a group of other gay people. I’m not asking for a teenage Queer as Folk — in fact, that would be a terrible idea, because it would make the characters’ sexualities the entire focus of the show. But is it too much to ask for a show with two or more gay characters who are friends and aren’t romantically involved with each other?

Gay characters in teen shows tend to be saddled with a few stock storylines – coming out, parental disapproval, gay bashing – and are otherwise relegated to the background. These stories are important, certainly, and common to gay teenagers’ lives. But why can’t these characters also participate in narratives that have nothing to do with their sexualities? Why can’t they simply interact with other characters, straight and gay alike, in stories that are about them without being about the fact that they’re gay? I may be the protagonist of my own life, but my friends are the protagonists of theirs, and they deserve just as much variety in their stories as I do.

And what of those romantic storylines? Teenage shows – hell, almost all popular narratives – tend to deal with romance a large percentage of the time. As a straight girl, I see pictures of my own romantic ideals all the time, but I can’t help being indignant on my friends’ behalf that they so rarely get to see romances that resemble their own in mainstream media – especially mainstream media about teens. When teen shows have a gay character, that character tends to be little more than a token who never interacts with another gay person or has anything more than an unrequited crush (even in Glee, which is a show about a glee club, for God’s sake), and when I see that, I lose all ability to connect with that show. That’s not the world I know.


I desperately want a show to exist that would not regard these two facts about my group of friends as impossibilities for mainstream television. I also realize, whatever my personal desires, that these are not my triumphs to hope for. Should a show appear, and succeed, with an authentically diverse cast in both race and sexuality, my friends are the ones who will really reap the benefits. It will be their victory, not my own, because they are the people who are really being hurt by this lack of representation. I remain a straight white girl.

But I know that the networks avoid these kinds of shows primarily because they think they’ll alienate the straight, white, middle class young people like me who they (wrongly, but consistently) regard as their primary marketing target. And if my personal experience is anything to judge by, they’re doing exactly the opposite: alienating even the viewers they privilege by refusing to portray the world in which those viewers live.

Make better, truer shows, Mr. and Ms. Network Executive, and viewers across the cultural spectrum will follow.

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