The power of rock opera

BY MELEA ANDRYS | MAY 12, 2009 7:26 AM

Green Day’s latest release, 21st Century Breakdown, is a punk-pop testament to the power of the rock opera.

Move over, Tommy; there’s a new rock opera destined to become a cultural icon.

From the Who’s tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard to David Bowie’s story of a peaceful, gender-bending alien counterpart, the stories of successful rock operas flawlessly combine creative characters and memorable music within a compelling narrative — rightfully boosting those that are successful to legendary status. Those that don’t, however (such as MTV’s 2001 film Carmen: A Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles, or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical “popera” Cats), fail in epic proportion. It’s simply the nature of the inherently over-the-top beast: There is no such thing as a mediocre rock opera.

Fortunately for the pop punkers of Green Day, their latest effort proves to be a testament to the power of the genre rather than its hazards. 21st Century Breakdown is seamless, commenting on cultural complexities without resorting to the pulpit and seriously debating American values while still managing to rock the hell out. Divided into three acts (“Heroes and Cons,” “Charlatans and Saints,” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades”), the album chronicles Christian and Gloria, a young couple struggling to live in today’s tumultuous terrain. Though it’s true the follow-up to 2004’s critically acclaimed American Idiot dares to question both church and state (like its predecessor), 21st Century Breakdown soars in its refusal to take itself too seriously, resulting in a self-aware, socially conscious work that’s actually fun to hear.

The album’s 58-second intro sets up its content well: “Song of the Century” is a simple melody sung behind the disquieting muffle of radio waves (a decision eerily reminiscent of Cabaret’s treatment of the Nazi national anthem). Green Day’s stunning ability to craft a catchy hook remains apparent through every subsequent song, driving the disc forward with sing-a-long choruses and the occasional repeated musical motive. “Know Your Enemy,” “East Jesus Nowhere,” and “Last of the American Girls” showcase the band’s power punk preference of a “fuck you” sneer couched in pop-oriented sensibilities.

But other tracks demonstrate a departure from traditional Green Day, treading into the distinctly theatrical arena where great rock operas are made. In “Before the Lobotomy,” Billie Joe Armstrong ventures into new vocal territory, saturating the pretty piano ballad with delicate falsetto vocals. Influences abound on much of the album: Green Day channels the Clash in the gritty opening of “Christian’s Inferno,” the Old West meets new urban squalor in “Peacemaker,” and the delightfully campy pop romp that is “Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)” is oddly evocative of The White Album’s “Honey Pie.”

Though 21st Century Breakdown is solid overall, there are some songs that feel emotionally dishonest. “Restless Heart Syndrome” is the disc’s low point — a sappy stereotype of an emo confessional, spouting disgustingly trite lyrics such as “I’ve got a really bad disease/it’s got me begging on my hands and knees/so take me to emergency.” Luckily these moments are fleeting, outweighed by Green Day’s knack for intelligent witticism (Armstrong laments in “Murder City,” “Christians crying in the bathroom/And I just want to bum a cigarette”).

Despite its occasional flaws, 21st Century Breakdown is a triumph, proving that the well-tailored rock opera can be poignant, grandiose, and a balls-out jam fest all at the same time. With all of its legendary potential, it wouldn’t be surprising if a stage adaptation of 21st Century Breakdown is already in the works.

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