The Moment of Truth — April 21, 2012

American Idiotism

Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the chewy center of hard-candy op-ed. 

We’re all just apes, I know that. Still, the best of us, and I don’t count myself among those very few, strive toward divinity and even get quite a ways in that direction. And most of us at least make a daily attempt to rise above the bestial barbarism that is our one guaranteed birthright. 

As a piece of musical theater, however, “American Idiot” never even makes it out of the filthy nest of animal stench. It lies curled there next to its own rancid placenta, shrouded in the rank musk of its whelping. I saw it so you don’t have to. I was graciously treated to it by a fellow lover of theater and song, though we both agreed after the show that nothing in “American Idiot” qualifies as either. 

Billy Joe Armstrong and his co-lyricists - it’s hard to believe more than one person would have allowed lyrics that crappy to see the light of the stage - are worse than hacks. A hack has at least by some twisted definition a professional attitude. I patiently waited for any turn of phrase that might make me say, “oh that’s clever” or “nice try” or even “that’s something kind of” but none ever came. 

Instead, meter was trampled by stomping clumps of syllables, their stresses misassigned. I don’t think there was a single song in which at least one English word wasn’t pronounced as if by a newly-literate Indonesian haltingly sounding it out. Mem-OR-y. REE-mem-BER. I think those two were in several different songs. Misplaced inflection was the leitmotif of the evening.

If there was any overall sense of technique reflecting theme, it was represented by the artists’ choice to avoid anything requiring imaginative effort. Imaginative effort was left completely out of the palette at every level of production: choreography, lighting, video, blocking - some of the performances were good, and one woman sang really well at one point. 

One could say imaginative effort was conspicuous by its absence, but that would not be true. The lack of imaginative effort was experienced merely as a lack. There was nothing transgressive or redemptive, nothing touching, nothing triumphant, nothing tragic, nothing particularly funny, certainly nothing original or even remotely trying to assert itself as original. The most enjoyable chord progression married to vocal harmony in the show was, I realized later, completely lifted from ELO’s song “Telephone Line,” which compared to Armstrong’s songs is a work of musical genius.

It’s tempting to go into detail listing the show’s many examples of esthetic flatulence, but it suffers from such a barren, undifferentiated lack of quality that the word “detail” loses its ability to operate, like a sandglass in a zero-gravity environment. Details are not what the show is about. 

If “American Idiot” is anything worth perceiving at all, it is an artifact of our current times. A slice of Dominos Pizza is also an artifact of our times. Neither of them should be onstage at the Ahmanson Theater at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. What makes “American Idiot” such an artifact is exactly its sub-mediocrity, the same sub-mediocrity that makes Dominos America’s favorite pizza. It’s almost as if the music and the pizza were designed by robots trying to approximate music or pizza for the benefit of human beings, their strategy being to withhold any flourish or flavor that might wake the human being from his habitual trance of eating pretend, approximate food or listening to pretend, approximate music or watching a pretend, approximate musical. In the manner of so much of our mass-produced, command-economy über-capitalist culture, these products are designed to allow us to go through the motions of experience without awakening us to any kind of reality we might be tempted to examine and then discover to be false. 

Oh, there’s a plot. Or rather, stuff happens. One guy moves from the suburbs to the city and falls in love with a woman and some heroin. Another guy has a baby with his girlfriend and there is some kind of trouble between them that resolves somehow. The fact that there is a Mephistopheles character seems to be presented as if it were a plot point. The play says, “Here is a character. Isn’t that interesting?” The answer is “no.” Another guy joins the Marines and loses his leg in Iraq or Afghanistan, a revelation that hits you with the emotional impact of a Dominos pizza. 

I know I must sound like one of those old fogeys of any era who complain about the shallowness of the youth of today. What I actually believe, though, is that our current overarching culture suffers under its domination by entertainment industry mega-corporations and their executive decisions in a command economy of profit-optimization-driven esthetics. That said, real art is always being made all around us, but the domination mentioned above tends to oppress the collective consciousness in insidious ways. 

At its worst it can persuade people to make bad music. Theocracies and totalitarian regimes have historically been able to coerce an artist to make art that carries messages false to the artist’s beliefs. What is unique in our current culture of what we call “artistic freedom” is that an artist can rise through a meritocracy with legitimate talent but withhold quality either because it’s an unnecessary ingredient, its inclusion therefore industrially inefficient, or because more quality might actually hurt the product’s mass-market appeal. I’m not sure, but I think it might be historically unprecedented that a global force can persuade artists to create art a great deal worse than they’re potentially capable of making. 

“It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right,” says the poet. Maybe, but why would you say it like that? Why not fix the lyric so it doesn’t sound stupid, maybe even coax it to communicate something insightful? Why not fix the entire song so it doesn’t rely so much on the finger-picking and string section for its cloying sentimentality? Or were you just writing a song to be played in the background of a TV commercial? 

Whatever. No worries. It’s all good.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day.