Of all the rock albums that currently exist, Green Day’s Insomniac is one of the greatest. Today it turns 20 years old.
“I believe that truth only has one face: that of a violent contradiction.” – George Bataille
“I’ll be scared later. Right now I’m too mad.” – Bugs Bunny
Insomniac‘s got nothing to prove to you, or anyone else in this sick machine we call the world- yet it’s got nearly everything to prove, and will do so gleefully. (It’s a twisted mess of contradictions like that.) Most of all, it’s gonna prove to anyone who’ll listen that it’s the epitome of punk-loving, no-bullshit rock n’ roll.
Insomniac is a black sheep overshadowed by its overachieving, chart-topping, Grammy-winning brothers (Dookie and American Idiot). It’s cynical bumper sticker philosophy from a smart-ass high school dropout who had just become a husband, father, and multi-millionaire rock star in the span of a year. It’s a live news report from the front lines of This Eternal Apocalypse, where the reporter keeps miming jerk-off gestures at the camera. It’s Johnny Rotten Vs. Groucho Marx in a Monster Truck Demolition Derby. It’s bouncing around a padded cell in furious figure-8s, propelled by rocket roller skates. It’s an amphetamine-fueled kegger crashing a Dark Night of the Soul. A jittery sugar-high at a spiritual rock bottom. The 33-minute existential crisis of a masochistic dingbat who ultimately finds salvation in the spine-chilling, mind-boggling, gut-busting absurdity of it all.
“Do what you will, this world’s a fiction/ and is made up of contradiction.” – William Blake
“I’m a smart ass but/ I’m playing dumb” – Billie Joe Armstrong
Q: Is Insomniac “Punk”? A: What the Hell does it matter?
I’ve heard and read much impassioned debate over what “punk” means, and whether or not that particular label applies to Green Day. I care not to end such debates, however inane they may be, so for the heck of it, let’s examine some relevant questions through the lens of Insomniac (which happens to be Green Day’s punkiest album). Like: Is “punk” really so much more than just loud, fast, hard, catchy tunes? Does “punk” just need to say “Fuck It,” or wouldn’t merely saying “Fuck It” be much too lazy? Shouldn’t “punk” value simplicity, honesty, brevity AND wit? Isn’t “punk” about not being afraid to beg for anything in life, except maybe pity? Shouldn’t “punk” only appear nihilistic on the surface, with a layer of giddy black irony underneath to shield the wounded, doe-eyed babe trapped at the bottom of its well of alienation? Is Insomniac not really “punk” because it might be the shortest distance between The Sex Pistols and The Jonas Brothers? Or because the gear doesn’t sound like it was swiped from a thrift shop? Or because the band sounds like they rehearse four hours a day instead of four hours a month? Or because they’ve sold roughly 85 jazillion records? Didn’t The Ramones want to be The Beatles? Are The Ramones not “punk” enough for you? Is it possible Fugazi’s songs aren’t quite as enjoyable as their gimmick?
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
“Hooray! We’re Gonna Die!” – Billie Joe Armstrong
Billie Joe’s often content to cut-and-paste cliches into his lyric sheet, and on Insomniac he practically trips over himself trying to demonstrate this. Sometimes, he can just put a clever spin on an old cliche: “Better swallow your pride or you’re gonna choke on it,” and “My own worst friend and my own closest enemy,” and “Call it as I see it/ even if I was born deaf, blind and dumb.” But just as often, there’s “Do as I say/not as I do,” and “I’m going nowhere fast,” and “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass,” and “Wish in one hand/shit in the other/see which one gets filled first.” Yet when sung along to his exuberant melodies, and packed with the wallop of those superheavyweight guitars and drums, the cliches sound funny and fresh all over again. This is no minor feat, I think.
“After all, what would be ‘beautiful’ if the contradiction had not first become conscious of itself; if the ugly had not first said to itself, ‘I am ugly’?” – Friedrich Nietzsche
“I perfected the science of the idiot.” – Billie Joe Armstrong
Billie Joe’s often been called a whiner- at least by the so-called Dean of the Rock Critics– and I suppose it’s a somewhat valid label. After all, one of his most famous lyrics asks, “Do you have the time/to listen to me whine/about nothing and everything all at once?” But his relentless, pitiless self-deprecation makes him one of the more tolerable superstar whiners of ’90s rock. Compared to a lot of his peers- Cobain, Corgan, Cuomo- Billie Joe sounds downright stoic. A paragon of reason, even. And on Insomniac, Billie Joe sounds as rational as he’s ever sounded, probably because he’s genuinely at his maddest.
“Well what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” – Bugs Bunny
Remember, kids, there’s a fine distinction between evolution and progress. (Or, as Billie Joe says, “There is no progress/ Evolution killed it all.”) Kind of makes you think: wouldn’t it be somewhat ironic if natural selection ultimately favored the Creationists? Wouldn’t that just be a tragedy of hilarious proportions?
this post previously appeared on the site on 10/10/10, Insomniac‘s 15th birthday.