Sacred Cow Saturday: Green Day – “Dookie”

Punk rock has been around long enough  to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is Green Day‘s “Dookie.” Does the 1994 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Jason Stone will be defending and Carson Winter will be attacking.

Let the battle begin!

The Defense

I’m going to switch things up a bit here and start with a quick little quiz. The subject? Most important punk albums of the last quarter-century (so, after Suffer). Just for clarification’s sake, we’re talking “most important,” not “the best” or “my favorite.” You’ve got three seconds to consider your answer, then you’ve got to commit to one. Got it? Ready? Go!

One Mississippi…two Mississippi…three Mississippi…Okay, time’s up.

Three seconds isn’t a lot of time, is it? By design, this experiment forces you to go with your gut. We’ve all got different definitions of “important.” What you picked reveals a lot about who you are as a punk fan. Maybe you went with Smash for being the biggest-selling indie release of all time (seriously…16 million copies worldwide?!?). Maybe you went with …And Out Come The Wolves, for the way that it fused genres and brought the sort of street punk ethos into the mainstream in a way that hadn’t really been accomplished since The Clash. Perhaps you chose Dude Ranch or Enema Of The State because you like your pop-punk with a side of fart jokes. Maybe you march to a more underground, post-punk drummer (and take pride in your beard-growing skills), thus you picked Bivouac.

All of the above are legitimate, rational arguments. But if we’re viewing ‘important’ as a perfect storm of cultural impact at the time of initial release, long-standing legacy of musical influence, and how well an album withstands the test of time, perhaps the most compelling argument can be summed up in one word: Dookie.

Much like Nevermind teamed with the Tens and Badmotorfingers and Dirts of the world in effectively hammering the final nail into the coffin of the hair metal mistake of the 1980s, Dookie fired a serious warning shot to the grunge era that it was about to meet the same merciless fate, albeit in a far shorter time.

For those of us that came of age in the early 1990s and had allowed the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam to guide us to the back catalogs of bands like Hüsker Dü and Bad Religion and Social Distortion and Fugazi, Dookie hit at the perfect time. Due to the relative simplicity of the sound, Dookie was instantly accessible, drawing obvious influence from the Ramones. While the larger production budget provided by Green Day’s defection from Lookout Records to the greener pastures offered by Reprise added a noticeable level of polish to the sound, new producer Rob Cavallo did little to soften the earnestness and intensity of the music.

Lyrically, Dookie made (and continues to make) immediate, perfect sense. Post-adolescence is a by all means a volatile time for reasons that we could expound on ad infitum here. For those of us that grew up in the relative comforts afforded by middle-class suburban America, with our formative political years still in the far-off distance, many of us had little reason or desire at the time to “fuck authority” or “fuck the system.” We could relate to the sort of street/gutter punk subculture only at arm’s length. Drugs and booze hadn’t really entered the equation at that point, and many of us weren’t even all that adept at skateboarding.

We did, however, spend large amounts of time oscillating between states of boredom, confusion and, ultimately, apathy, and Billie Joe’s words mirrored many of our own experiences. He wasn’t preaching to us. He wasn’t trying to guide us toward enlightenment or salvation. He wasn’t concerned with telling us what (or how) to think or what to believe in. We weren’t getting answers as to why we suffered from the aforementioned afflictions. Rather, we now had a means of relating to, and reveling in, the shared experiences of our peers, a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for the post-adolescent crowd.

Self-discovery, self-hatred and self-pity abound on Dookie, but Armstrong and the gang  also possess enough of a self-aware sense of humor to keep from treading into emo waters. Dookie is more than just a garden-variety pop-punk album. With their years of serious artistic over-reaching still a decade away, Green Day would give us a few signs of things to come; mid-tempo and even acoustic moments that would be further fleshed out on the albums to follow. But the bulk of Dookie is high-energy, straight-forward punk rock. “Longview” and it’s bass line that launched ten thousand garage bands has epitomized teenage male boredom in a way that few other songs have, and became an instant classic in the process. “Welcome To Paradise,” “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around,” (my personal favorite) remain worthy of the same moniker almost two decades later. It has become de rigueur to offer mocking commentary on what Green Day have become, and maybe rightfully so. But the fact remains that Dookie remains as vital as it was in 1994, and, in no uncertain terms, remains one of the best, most important albums in the punk rock chapter of the annals of music history.

The Attack

There was a time, long ago, when I loved Dookie. Green Day was never a huge part of my punk rock experience, although I do profess to being thoroughly enraptured by American Idiot years after its release. In my experience, Dookie was always offered up as a consolation prize, a modest concession to a zealot unwilling to acknowledge recent failures. So yes, there was a time when I listened to Dookie and I heard a young band in their prime. They were simple, pure, and fun. So, what’s changed?

Me. I don’t like simple, pure, and fun anymore. I want complex, corrupted, and painful. So, it has come to pass that I don’t much care for Dookie like I used to. Now, that’s not to say I hate pop punk, in fact, a lot of it I love. Pop punk doesn’t have to be simple. Musically? maybe. But, emotionally? No way. I want to hear pop music defiled by a musician’s unique taste, filtered through honest experience, and then abstracted by art. I’m not a big fun-in-the-sun guy. But more so than my own dark and dreary sensibilities, I have problems with Dookie— the largest being what drew me so close to it in the first place.

Dookie wears its charms on its outmost layers. There’s no debate to be had, this is a collection of supremely catchy songs. But unfortunately Green Day doesn’t have much to offer besides memorable melodies. So often commended for their portrayal of teenage apathy, you’d think that there’d be an element of resonating reality in the midst of all those wonderful notes. But alas, it appears Billie Joe Armstrong only has one move in his arsenal. He writes lyrics that conjure angst in only the broadest way, a pale imitation of what he’s reaching for. His words romanticize adolescent apathy in a way that suggests an adolescent wrote them– devoid of insight, but content to pose as if there’s more than enough to go around. “Basket Case” is perhaps my favorite song on Dookie but even it isn’t safe from Armstrong’s lyrically heavy hands. It reeks with the odor of a writer self-impressed with his own quirkiness (Get it? The song’s called “Basket Case.” It’s about mental illness.). For me it brings back memories of teenagers more interested in the image of rebellion than actually being rebellious. You could find these kids exploring their own edginess with “Nightmare Before Christmas” hoodies and casual, but prideful admissions of bipolarity. Green Day revels in small transgressions like marijuana and masturbation, but color themselves as the jaded and lost of suburbia– excuse me while I roll my eyes into the back of my fucking head.

Looking back at their earlier career, it becomes clear that Dookie represents Green Day at its most homogenized. Throughout Dookie, Armstrong is content to chug along and lead his cohorts into the most basic pop punk mold. But, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when Armstrong could cut loose a shredding solo, a time when they hadn’t stripped their sound of idiosyncrasy and replaced it with audience expectation. This was when Green Day had personality, when their sound was shaped by a unique and enthusiastic perspective.

Dookie is one of those albums that will forever live in punk rock’s pantheon of important records. But, importance doesn’t equal quality. Green Day may have written one of the most accessible punk records of all time, but that doesn’t mean its good. It just means that its easy. Dookie suffers from a lack of nuance, insight, and down-to-earth honesty. While the album remains infectiously catchy, it’s never quite able to transcend its stunted development and  I-just-read-Catcher-in-the-Rye lyrics.

Maybe it’s just me, but I need a little more than that.

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