In preparation for President Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom this week, a social media campaign has kicked off to make Green Day’s 2004 hit, “American Idiot,” the top song on the British singles charts. As of this writing, it seems to be working—“American Idiot” is currently No. 18 on the UK’s top 100 singles and the best selling single in the UK on Amazon. A successful troll?
The renewed relevance of “American Idiot” is proof that the world loves a good troll, sure, but it’s also a reminder of a collective naiveté. As someone who entered adulthood as the Bush years came to an end, there was a sense that shit couldn’t get worse. But of course it could. In fact, the Bush years were a prelude—a buildup—to exactly what worse looked like, and is.
While “American Idiot” seems like an anti-Bush banger on the surface, though (Bush idiot, get it?), and potentially an anti-Trump banger as well (Trump also idiot), the song works more as a criticism of the 24-hour cable news cycle and “rednecks” than an explicitly anti-Bush record.
Lead singer-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong never alludes to Bush directly, but rather those easily manipulated by Fox News-type bigotry and misinformation peddled as journalism, when he sings, “Don’t wanna be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media.”
Armstrong himself described “American Idiot” as more anti-redneck than anti-Bush. In a 2009 interview with Q, Armstrong said he was inspired to write the song after hearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd song: “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.” That’s evidenced in the song’s not-so-subtle line, “I’m not part of the redneck agenda.”
According to a 2005 Rolling Stone article, the band kicked off “American Idiot” to a crowd of 5,000 fans in London with: “Let every redneck in America hear you.”
In the less politically correct aughts, this anti-redneck sentiment doubled as a clarion call against Bush, his administration, his loyalists, and his war—the ones abroad and the culture-war at home. Rednecks were the idiots who believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the idiots who were against gay marriage, the idiots who watched Fox News all night, the idiots who reelected a man who came across as stunningly dimwitted. This kind of “ha ha rednecks” politic was validated by liberal mainstays like The Daily Show, which served a similar purpose as cathartic anthems like “American Idiot”—as an oasis away from the cartoonish evil of Dick Cheney with a big ol’ side of intellectual superiority.
But “ha ha rednecks” doesn’t have the kind of cultural currency it used to—criticizing bigotry through a classist lens lost both its edge and its charm, and the election of Donald Trump is a reality check for those who thought being more intellectually astute could stop a bigot from winning elections, or that mass catharsis was the same thing as getting organized, which is a lesson worth learning again.