Suburban American Punks and the Musical Rhetoric of Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia"

By Chuang, Lisa M.; Hart, John P. | Communication Studies, July-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Suburban American Punks and the Musical Rhetoric of Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia"


Chuang, Lisa M., Hart, John P., Communication Studies


Punk has changed since the days of the Sex Pistols. With the band Green Day, punk became a commercial success, but what happened to punk in the process? Green Day has been dubbed by some as "innately suburban" (Loftus, 2004, [paragraph] 1), playing to an "audience of teens and tweens raised somewhere between the shopping mall and the strip mall" (Cortazar, 2004, [paragraph] 4). The band has been described as having "replaced punk's hardcore social rebellion with soft-core potty humor" (Ali, 2004, [paragraph] 1). This soft-core potty humor was evident in songs such as "Longview," which contained lyrics about spending the day watching TV and masturbating; "All By Myself," (Armstrong, 1994a) which joked about masturbating in someone else's room; and "King for a Day," which sang about dressing up in his mother's clothes, and included the lyrics "just wait 'til all the guys get a load of me" (Armstrong, 1997c, track 16) followed by circus-like music. However, in dismissing Green Day's songs as soft-core potty humor, the listener may miss a real message.

Even though the songs were seemingly simple, they conveyed the feelings of suburban punks who perceived their parents as hypocritical and thereby yearned for more meaning than their suburban lives appeared to provide. Though Green Day's newest politically charged album American Idiot came as a surprise to some, the band's previous work may have actually foreshadowed its latest album. With Green Day, soft-core potty humor became the social rebellion of punks tired of the boredom and apathy of the suburbs. Thus, the hardcore social rebellion of punks really never disappeared; it simply recreated itself with a disguise by which many were fooled.

   After listening to American Idiot, it makes perfect sense for the
   California punks to adopt Freddie Mercury's rally call for their
   own cause; if ever there were a time for the suburbs of America to
   unite against ennui and apathy, it seems, that the time is now.
   (Banks, 2004, [paragraph] 1)

This essay examines Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia" (Armstrong, 2004) as an artifact and reflection of suburban punk culture. It looks at how the music and lyrics of "Jesus of Suburbia" (Armstrong, 2004) work together with the ethos of the Green Day band to create a message that fosters common ground between speaker and audience, creating identification and persuasion by using Sellnow and Sellnow's (2001) illusion of life rhetorical perspective. Sellnow and Sellnow's (2001) illusion of life rhetorical perspective provides a framework for the analysis of the interdependent function of musical and lyrical elements that communicate messages of both content and emotion. The theory is rooted in the ideas of Susanne Langer (1953), who helped establish the theory of music as a nondiscursive symbol that could express the rhythms of life. The ideas of Gregg (1971), Gonzalez and Makay (1983), and Kenneth Burke (1969) help bring understanding to this study's nontraditional view of persuasion. As such, persuasion is seen as not just a method to bring others to action, but the ability to develop a consensus between speaker and audience in order to persuade one's self into identification with another. In that sense, persuasion through identification is persuading an individual or group simply into the creation or reaffirmation of themselves, or what Gregg (1971) described as maintaining or establishing one's self-hood. Thus, a message can be persuasive by means of identification, and the speaker's rhetorical power is his or her ability to find common ground with the audience.

The importance of this study is that music is a mode of communication that has affected individuals and societies, such as suburban punks, and its rhetorical implications should be studied. Furthermore, the music of suburban punks has been overlooked as nothing more than soft-core potty humor and thereby lacks examination.

Past studies gave much attention to bands of the 1970s and very early 1980s (e. …

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