Before Green Day released "American Idiot" in September 2004, two months ahead of President Bush's reelection, most music fans assumed that the Bay Area punk-pop trio was on the downward slope of a successful but artistically undistinguished career. No one expected these guys to nail the fear, frustration and apathy of a war-torn nation on the brink. Until then, Green Day's signature album was titled "Dookie," and its big hit was an anthem to a lazy afternoon of television and masturbation. Songs about a broken social system, the disappearing middle class or WMD were the job of seasoned boomers like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, both of whom released sober protest albums that preached, predictably, to the choir. But the iPod generation—and its artists—had better things to do, like downloading a billion ringtones and partying like it was still 1999. Maybe that's why "American Idiot" was such a bolt of lightning: not just because of the message—finally, a rock-the-boat album that actually rocked—but because of the messenger, too. The clowns finally got serious, and no one could look away.
"American Idiot" was frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's version of "Tommy," a concept album about a clueless teen—the "Jesus of Suburbia"—who feels forgotten in Bush's America: "This land of make-believe/that don't believe in me." Over the course of the album, the kid sleepwalks from 7-Eleven parking lots onto the battlefields of Iraq. The video for "Wake Me When September Ends" scored the most direct hit, picking up the antihero at a moment of crisis: seeing little future at home, he deceives his girlfriend by joining the Marines, then ships off to Iraq and never returns.
With magical timing, "American Idiot" became a soundtrack for anyone disillusioned by millennial America ("Now everybody do the propaganda and sing along in the age of paranoia"). Sure, Bush was re-elected, but that only elevated the album into protest art. "American Idiot" wasn't especially subtle or eloquent—if you want poetry, stick with Springsteen. But it mattered simply because somebody finally said something, and, of all people, it was Green Day.