Are Green Day Kicking Ass for the Working Class?

When a band like Green Day venture into the shark-infested waters of cover songs, there is good reason to expect a symphony or groans.  For the past ten-plus years, they have been the poster boys for corporate rock.  Since their breakout, they have mostly conjured up images of suburban teenage angst; the perfect soundtrack for smoking cigarettes behind the gym after school and prattling on about how mom and dad don’t understand, but not a band of much substance.  To the deeply committed punk rock community (where I cut my teeth), they are the ultimate heresy: “sell outs.”

In a way, the three boys from Berkeley are still trying to shake that label with their latest foray: a cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” on Amnesty International’s Darfur benefit album.  If you’re both a Green Day hater and a cover-song purist (not to mention a Lennon fan), you will already be rolling your eyes.  You would also be missing the point.


Even the most jaded of music fans has to admit there is something to be said for the shift in the band’s material over the past few years.  The world was rightfully surprised when American Idiot was released, not only that they released a record that was not only of substance, but that seemed to actually make a statement.  In the political desert that was the 2004 elections, American Idiot‘s release was a welcome oasis; one of the biggest bands in the world was actually taking sides!


Like it or not, Green Day has the attention of millions of listeners.  What they say matters to a very large swath of understandably alienated youth.  Anthony Roman, frontman for the politically charged Brooklyn based Radio 4 pointed out “a lot of people make fun of Green Day, but they’re the band that’s getting through to twelve and fourteen year old kids.  They’re the band that’s getting to people when they’re at an impressionable age and letting them know what’s wrong with this country.”  This is what made American Idiot important, what makes their version of “Working Class Hero” important too.


In a way, it is also strangely appropriate.  This song was written not too long after Lennon had shed his “former Beatle” image and was coming into his own as a solo artist.  In the radical years of the late sixties/early seventies, Lennon had identified himself as a revolutionary.  “Working Class Hero” was a highlight of this era in his work.  It is a calculating yet angry story of lower class alienation.  And there is no doubt that it reached an audience who took his call to arms very seriously.


To be honest, Green Day’s version doesn’t quite measure up.  Lennon’s original was right on the mark when he highlighted his powerful lyrics with nothing more than a lone acoustic guitar.  Green Day’s attempt to “punk it up” with overdriven guitars and thumping drums, not to mention Billy Joe Armstong’s trademark nasal delivery, in the end just muddles the message.  


But that does not pull away from what the revival of this song means in this troubled moment in time. “We wanted to do ‘Working Class Hero’ because its themes of alienation, class and social status really resonated with us” is Armstrong’s claim.  And it would be naïve to think they’re the only ones.  How much of Green Day’s ever-swelling fan base is made up of kids staring down a life of bagging groceries for a living?  How many of them will resonate with what Lennon’s lyrics say: “as soon as you’re born they make you feel small,” or “they hurt you at home and they hit you at school?”


More importantly, how many of them will hear the issue of class talked about for perhaps the first time in their lives?  In a country that is perpetually mis-labeled as middle class, the blackout on the growing ranks of the working poor is not an accident.  We hear about a prosperous economy, rags to riches stories and the exploits of the rich and famous.  We don’t hear about the millions without health care, the growing amount of McJobs and the biggest wealth gap in the industrialized world.  For a young Green Day fan, angry and alienated at the world, this song may actually be something to identify with. 



Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC.  He is a regular writer for Znet and Dissident Voice, and has also appeared in MRzine, Socialist Worker, and CounterPunch.  He is currently working on his first book The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of the Clash.


His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]




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