Friday, May 7, 2010

American Idiot and Godwin's Law

Something about American Idiot's appearance last week on The Late Show with David Letterman has been bothering me.

Granted, since I haven't seen the Broadway musical I was watching it out of context. But because the performance was designed to entice potential ticket-buyers I think writing about my reaction is valid.

Just to let you know where I'm coming from, I bought American Idiot when it was released in 2004. I'm not a Green Day fan but it was getting a lot of attention and I was curious. I'm not sure I ever listened to the CD all the way through.

On The Late Show, the cast sang "Holiday" and it was performed in such an energetic way that I was really getting into it, even though I had no idea who these characters were and I couldn't make out all of the lyrics.

Then I heard someone shout some words I did understand, and it stopped me cold: "Sieg heil to the president gasman." And a few verses later, something about broken glass and "kill all the [insert antigay slur here].

Now, I understand that it's punk and it's supposed to be about disaffected kids and rebellion and anti-establishment. Maybe it fits the character. As I said, I was hearing it totally out of context, as I imagine many viewers were.

All I know is, it was shocking to hear a Nazi salute in the middle of a rock 'n' roll song performed by an energetic cast of twentysomething Broadway actors on national television. Maybe because I'm Jewish and probably older than the average American Idiot fan, it made me uncomfortable.

And honestly, it would make me uncomfortable in a Broadway theatre. How should I react? One minute I'm caught up in the music and the next minute I'm stopped cold. Should I clap and cheer? What about the people around me clapping and cheering? Would they understand my unease or would they just be oblivious to the words and their meaning?

To me, it just seemed like Godwin's Law in action. Once you start throwing around Nazi comparisons, you've lost the argument. You're simply doing it for shock value.

And I wonder if a song that used a racial slur would have gotten past the CBS censors as easily as one with an anti-gay slur. To me, they're equally offensive. It's a horrible, hurtful word that's thrown around far too easily.

Green Day says "Holiday" is an antiwar song. I guess the "president gasman" is supposed to be George W. Bush. Call me old-fashioned but I'm one of those people who believes that only the Nazis should be called Nazis. Otherwise, you're demeaning their victims and trivializing what they went through.

It'll be interesting to see whether this is the song that the Best Musical nominee performs on the Tony Awards.


Linda said...

I really liked that scene in the show because it's so energetic and features the ensemble, but you're right, for somebody who hasn't seen the show, those lyrics would be a turnoff. I'm surprised it wasn't censored. Come to think of it, seeing it in context doesn't help much, because the characters aren't really developed. I'd be curious to get your reaction if you ever see the show, but I know you are concerned about the noise and having now seen it I can tell you that is extremely loud.

JK said...

I have to agree with Linda's comments. She is exactly right. As are you about the gay slur getting past the censors, but if it was the "n" word, forget it! Not only would it be censored, the fact that it was would make the news.

And, Esther, you have the meaning of it down pat. It is anti- George W. Bush and his anti-anything that isn't on his agenda politics. While I understand (and agree with) your sensitivity to throwing around Nazi terminology and imagery, I think, in the context of the show, which is overwhelmingly anti-media, even while it dominates the design of the show (the media churns out American Idiots), those images are apt ones, considering how the media and other governments have literally called GWB a "Nazi worse than Hitler."

And I, as a gay man myself, am sensitive to those slurs. But in the context of the show, which is clearly pro sexual ambiguity at the very least, it makes sense. It may be unPC to use those words in public forums, but the very people they are criticizing use it and similar slurs in every day usage. Sad but true.

I think it is disturbing, and that is the point. But they are using the terms in context of the people they are criticizing - turning their own words and ideologies against them.


Esther said...

Hey Linda,

I think I'm more afraid that the lyrics "wouldn't" be a turnoff, that we've become so desensitized to language - calling people Nazis who clearly are not - that they don't even bother us.

I agree with what you said about "Holiday." It's energetic and I was getting into it. But that sieg heil just jumped out at me. And it came totally out of the blue, without warning.

Anyway, who knows when/if I'll get to Broadway again so it could all be a moot point! I still love John Gallagher Jr. though. :-)

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Your explanation makes a lot of sense. I know you have to understand the motivation of the characters, why they're saying what they're saying. But I don't think that context came across on a 3-minute appearance on Letterman.

The question is, do people who hear the lyrics understand what Green Day is trying to say or do they just think it's a cool song by a cool band? I don't want those words to lose their power to disturb us.

JK said...

An interesting question. I think we'd all be surprised to find out how much the Green Day following does, in fact, pay attention to the lyrics. The night I attended, the kid behind me was explaining IN DETAIL to his mom (I'm guessing - he looked like her)what the original album was all about. He was trying, I think, to get her ready for the language and the potential violence (it was a preview, I'm sure he had no idea what to expect).

I think all of us may be overlooking something kind of obvious about the presentation of "Holiday". And that is the performance by Theo Stockman, the actor who sings those lyrics. I've seen the show, and he doesn't stick out quite that much, but even so, he is a very creepy, disturbing presence (just as he was in HAIR). I think he, like a few other cast members needs to seriously think about how they pull focus and grandstand, especially now that as each show passes they are further from Michael Mayer's direction.

Unknown said...

I too bought the album soon after it was released because so many of my friends were raving about how "genius", "groundbreaking", "current" and "creative" it was. Those 4 buzzwords seemed to show up in conversations on the album where I went, so I caved and bought the album To this day the album remains one of my favorites, and I'm not even sure I could fully articulate why.

I think that any performance on a talk show is very disjointed and so far disconnected from the rest of the show it is trying to sell, that those brief appearances which once used to excite me now make me cringe and I turn the channel.

Your thought on this piece being the vehicle for those watching to buy tickets is spot on -- and I agree that the lyrics are not only better in the context of the show -- but more importantly (in my opinion) in the context of the album American Idiot.

I have not seen the Broadway production yet, would love to, but also feel that it would be a similar feeling I have whenever I see a movie adaptation of a book. It will probably have some great moments and be good entertainment, but cannot possibly be better than its source.

Esther said...

Hey Jeff, that's a good point about the actor. Until you mentioned it, I didn't think about the fact that I was watching it on TV and it's a completely different perspective. I could see his face close-up and probably hear him better than I would if I were seeing him onstage. It probably made him stick out more.

Interesting about the kid and his mom. I don't know, maybe the characters and the music do speak to a generation younger than mine.

Esther said...

Hey Meg, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Yeah, I'm often disappointed by the stage or movie versions of books I've loved, so I know what you mean. I'd much rather read the Harry Potter books than see the movies. I enjoy the depth of a good book.

I have seen other clips from American Idiot. I liked the MTV special and I liked "Wake me up when September Ends," which the cast performed on Live with Regis & Kelly.

On the one hand, I can understand why they picked "Holiday" for Letterman. Like Linda said, it's energetic and it features the ensemble. But on the down side, it may not be the most understandable out of context.

Anyway, I hope you get to see it!