Written By Tanya Elder from @GreenDayMind
A few years ago, I was talking with a fellow Green Day fan about the countless arguments people have over whether Green Day is "punk," is "punk enough, is "power pop," is "pop punk," is "rock" or "punk sellouts." Musically difficult to place, whatever 'genre' you put them into, certainly doesn't stop people who attempt to place them into a neat and tidy box. Comments and conversations about the topic over the Interwebs and in person boggle my mind, as do the constant arguments people have over what defines punk (Unique lifestyle? Cutting-edge community? Extreme individualism? Blood, sex and booze? Straightedge? Distinctive political ideals, fashion?), who is eligible to be called punk (Live the lifestyle to its fullest? Is professing an affinity enough?), or who is qualified to listen to it or even attend shows. A punk once told me that punks don't even call themselves punk anymore!
I continued talking with my friend as I got hotter and madder and more animated about the topic, and I said: I don't understand why people dissed Green Day so much in regards to their "punkdom." The band professes love for an eclectic variety of music, but as people, it's obvious that they are Northern California punks at heart. I harped, "these guys are punk to their soul, and because of them, fans of Green Day are exposed not only to the band's back catalog--whose foundations are punk and pop--but also hundreds of bands that they express deep, undying 'bro-love' for. They're like... like... a gateway drug to the history of punk!!!" She chuckled at that phrase and I had to laugh because I said it so adamantly.
I'm comfortable in the darker reaches of theater and music, and while I wasn't a music punk growing up, I certainly was a theater one, so in the battleground of "who can be a punk," I understand the sentiment. During college, I studied experimental theater, a form of extreme theater that breaks the traditional limits of the fourth-wall stage, trashes the boundaries of formal speech and struggles as a non-commercial endeavor. I'm a bit anti-Broadway, anti-big Hollywood, and blockbuster TV (though I confess, I follow all three), wishing for smaller, more intimate settings among a community of like-minded souls struggling with the world through an art form that's not sanitized for mass consumption. That theater can be raw, loud, and brutal (but mostly just out there and different) and many who professed their undying fealty to it stumbled when the time came to make a living if an opportunity arose to act in television, film, or more traditional theater. Or, others like me dropped out while some made it to the big time, but feel truly at home in small, indie shows and quirky parts. I snarled at those who wanted to make it famous, though I never begrudged them the hard work it took to remain in acting or the major or minor success they achieved. Why bother with that? After all, I dropped out for stability and they pursued what they loved. Who's the bigger "sellout" now?
Unscientific proof that Green Day is a gateway drug to punk history is Billie Joe Armstrong's speech inducting Iggy Pop and The Stooges into the 2010 Rock Hall of Fame. He gets a little shy and nervous when he has to pull a piece of paper out and read it, but one of the great highlights of the speech was his smiling, awkward enthusiasm. You could feel how much he loved Pop and how damned happy and excited he was for the honor of inducting The Stooges into the Hall of Fame. He rattled off a list of about 70 bands in 70 seconds that considered Pop and The Stooges inspiration, including big punk boys and girls such as The Clash, The Replacements, Devo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X, Blondie, Bad Brains, and Dead Kennedys to smaller, more obscure bands (outside punk circles) like Die Toten Hosen, Blatz, and The Slits. He acknowledged that Iggy Pop and The Stooges influenced rock and new metal bands like Metallica and funnily enough--Guns N'Roses--who Green Day inducted into the 2012 Rock Hall of Fame. Lastly, he named his own band, Green Day, as part of that long list. In other words, everyone is influenced by someone and Green Day, whether punk or pop, influences the people who listen to them.
In 2010, Billie Joe was featured on the cover of Out Magazine. It's a great print interview with a blog-only additional set of questions. Billie Joe was asked "what it means to be 'punk rock.'" He focused mainly on the punk community and what comes out of that community.
ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE 'PUNK ROCK' -Billie Joe Armstrong, Out, Popnography, March 19, 2010.
"That's like a 10 part answer. I think of it as something that you need to have of your own. For me it's about community. I think it's kind of spiritual in its own way, because people fight over it so much and the meaning of it. It's a sense of self-discovery. But also a new set of ideas and a new poetry, a new music that you discover that you notice that no one else is really into, or goes against what other people are normally into. It's like you're free to be an individual and taking on new ideas and challenging old ideas. I think it has a lot to with burning down the establishment to create something new. But at the same time, you find relationships within that too. It's something that's supposed to empower you. It's about starting something new. Part of the problem with a lot of punk rock is that people believe that it's supposed to be one thing, the bare bones of music again. It's kind of in my DNA in this point."
When I keep my personal experiences in mind, I balance out those times when I think to myself, "Yes, maybe Green Day sold out," but I always come back to the thing they love the most: the music. I missed out on a lot of music during the 1980s and 1990s, as music took a backseat to theater. In 1994, I dropped out of music "scenes" after the death of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana had a huge impact on me and with Cobain's death--in addition to my being in graduate school, working hard from 1992-1999 to enter a new career and attempting to hold onto my love, theater--brought an enormous sadness over me as another musician or performer that I admired bit the dust by drugs or suicide. For me, Green Day re-opened a gateway of music from multiple coasts and varying interior areas from around the world. Thanks to their DNA roots, I've reconnected to favorite bands as well as a slew of newer ones. I've learned of enclaves of punk communities that I vaguely had heard of, and the political and lifestyle force of punk in other countries and continents. I think a lot about punk music and punk communities in general, the sounds, the people, and the relative freedom instilled in the community.
It wasn't until 2000 when I got settled into life that I started concentrating on music again, and when I decided to follow Green Day and write about their 21st Century Breakdown tour, as I learned more about the music that informed their lives, the more I kicked myself for not knowing more sooner. Then again, I'll always remember riding on an NYC bus when I heard the strains of "21 Guns" coming out of a set of earphones. In the seat in front of me was a little girl, probably around 9, blasting the song and singing along with it, which usually bothers the hell out of me on a bus or subway. But in this case I thought to myself, "Wow, she's listening to Green Day so young," and I wondered where the band would take her on her musical life and journey. Everyone starts somewhere.
I'm not a "punk" and I acknowledge that even Billie Joe, in the highly-anticipated documentary on the history of California punk, One Nine Nine Four, notes that not everyone can live the distinct lifestyle; that even 924 Gilman Street, the epicenter venue of NorCal punks who banned the band after they made it big, should reserve the right to determine who plays there. Personally, I don't care if you argue about the meaning of punk until you turn blue and drop dead. All I know is that I don't know but one thing: it's the music that forms the community, whether you're in the heart of that community or the periphery. Stop arguing over every little thing and remember a sense of community, both near and far. Maybe even embark on a refreshed endeavor to 'burn[ing] down the establishment to create something new' again in music and life, if for no one else than that little girl on the bus, listening to "21 Guns," potentially heading anywhere. Next thing you know, she'll discover "Longview," will get hooked on the song and want to learn more of its origins and antecedents, like it was some kind of gateway drug to the history of punk.
[note]A version of this piece originally appeared on the blog, GreenDayMind.com, in 2010.
Follow Tanya on twitter @GreenDayMind for her updates related to Green Day and other artists[/note]