The Sad Irony of Green Day's On-Stage Tantrum

Billie Joe Armstrong's righteous rock-star routine looked more like a faded pop star's existential crisis.

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Reuters

iHeartRadio is a website and app that streams more than 1,500 radio stations nationwide, owned by the consolidated-media behemoth Clear Channel Broadcasting. iHeartRadio was also, this weekend, the host of a music festival in Las Vegas where Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong threw an on-stage fit that looked like what you'd choreograph for a B-grade rock biopic about a performer terrified by his own irrelevance.

The video of Armstrong meltdown is below. The gist: Green Day's concert, initially planned to be 40 minutes, had been halved because Usher's performance had gone long. (The source for this version of events, as far as I can tell, is the YouTube user who uploaded the video). Armstrong, upon realizing he has one minute left to play, says "fuck" a bunch of times, touts the fact that his band's been around since 1988, and sort of inexplicably points out that he's not "fucking Justin Bieber."

Yep, Armstrong isn't Bieber, and that's the point. There was a time when Green Day and bands like them would be the most-important act at a purely mainstream festival like iHeartRadio (where set times are already notoriously short), but that time has passed. Rock is no longer the default genre for kids to listen to, and Green Day's forthcoming trio of albums may not change that. Their new single, "Oh Love," is the No. 2 rock song in the country, but it peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 97. They're still a popular band that sells out arenas, but that's almost entirely because of their decades-old back catalogue. Of course, Armstrong and his fans have a right to be annoyed at being cut off. But why should they expect priority treatment at a festival devoted to showcasing music that moves units, especially when pitted against the likes of enduring hit-a-minute artists like Rihanna and Usher?

And it's sad to see Armstrong claim credibility on the back of longevity and the fact that he's "not fucking Justin Bieber"—in other words, a rock star, not a pop star. Of course, for a band like Green Day—pop-punks, right?—there's not much difference. This is a corporate rock band, and I don't mean that pejoratively but rather as a point of fact: They've allied with and profited from the commercial forces that lead, among other things, to independent and alternative radio stations being killed and local DJs being replaced with automated playlists. That's fine. It's allowed a lot of their very-good music to find a very-big audience. But in Vegas, he made a spectacle of acting like he's been playing a different game than that.

Of course, Armstrong knows all this. He's a self-aware master of staging: American Idiot, after all, is now a Broadway production. He may have even scripted this whole meltdown before singing a word. Quietly submitting to a quick set sandwiched between dance-pop superstars might not have played well with the Green Day diehards tuning in. Those diehards almost certainly made up a minority of the audience paying attention to the festival, but for them, a couple "Fuck this shit"s and a smashed guitar may help keep some myth of punk nobility alive. For most anyone else, it's just kind of embarrassing to watch.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers pop culture and music. He was previously an editor of Patch.com and a staff writer at OC Weekly. He has written for Spin, The AV Club, and RollingStone.com.

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