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In 2004, Green Day released its eighth studio album American Idiot. The sweeping concept album follows the “Jesus of Suburbia”—a lower-middle-class anti-hero, expressing the dissent of a generation disillusioned by a period of tumultuous events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War. Each song acts as a chapter in the main character becoming a steward for a new wave of anti-establishment punks.
Among the tracklist is the somber offering, “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” written by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as an ode to his late father. The song went on to find global chart-topping success as a single and has become a trademark song for the group.
The song has been used in many lights including as an advocacy piece in the anti-war movement and as a tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Find out more about the song’s meaning below.
Meaning Behind The Lyrics
Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong penned the lyrics to this song in the aftermath of his father’s death on September 10, 1982. At the funeral, Armstrong cried, ran home, and locked himself in his room. When his mother got home and knocked on the door to his room, he simply said, “Wake me up when September ends,” reportedly coming up with the title then and there.
Like my fathers come to pass
Seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
Some of the song’s first lines reference his late father and the time that has passed since his death. In an interview with the Howard Stern Show, Armstrong said the lyrics were inspired by the grief he now feels every time the month rolls around.
“I think it’s something that just stayed with me; the month of September being that anniversary that always is just, I don’t know, kind of a bummer,” Armstrong told Stern. “I think about him every day, really. I kinda avoided writing about him for many years, and then finally having a breakthrough like that felt good. It wasn’t like a negative emotion so much, but it was just kind of like honoring him.”
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends
Though the song was written earlier, it had been close to 20 years since his father’s death when the band got around to recording the track. Armstrong said it took him a while to become emotionally ready to sing the deeply personal song.
Like my father’s come to pass
Twenty years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
“Somebody Wake Up Billie Joe Armstrong”
Every year come October 1, a horde of memes begin circulating around the internet joking that “someone needs to wake up Billie Joe.” Armstrong himself gets flooded with notifications across social media telling him to wake up as the song suggests. Given the song’s morose deeper meaning, many fans of the punk outfit claim the memes are insensitive – Armstrong himself wishes they would “get a life” from time to time.
“It’s like when Jesus was born on December 25 people go ‘Hey, it’s Christmas time,’” Billie said in an interview with Vulture. “When the Easter bunny comes it’s like ‘Hey, it’s Easter’ or when September comes people go ‘Hey, it’s that guy in Green Day.’ Have fun but get a life at the same time.”
Some fans think it’s cruel that people would continually remind the singer of such a difficult time in his life, trying to cut the memes off at the pass. One Twitter user, @tamagoyami said, “since it’s September now, here’s ur reminder to please not joke about the green day song ‘wake me up when September ends’ the song is about the singer’s father who died of cancer when he was a kid. it’s just not funny.”
since its September now, heres ur reminder to please not joke about the green day song "wake me up when september ends" the song is about the singers father who died of cancer when he was a kid. its just not funny.
Despite the criticism – and the nearly 20 years since the song’s release – a few “wake up Billie Joe” jokes will crop up around Twitter every year, keeping the meme alive.
WAKE UP, BILLIE JOE! SEPTEMBER JUST ENDED! pic.twitter.com/kTYn4oXvXu
Free Thought of Peace
Departing from the song’s actual meaning, but maintaining the sentiment of loss, the accompanying music video sees a couple (Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Wood) experience a devastating split after the boyfriend enlists in the United States Marine Corps.
Scenes of Bell in Irag being ambushed by insurgents are intercut with those of Wood mourning his absence. Bell’s fate is left up to interpretation at the end of the video but the heartache accompanied by losing loved ones due to war is not.
The video was directed by Samuel Bayer, best known for his work with fellow rock royals Nirvana and Metallica. Bayer wrote the treatment for the video after interviewing soldiers who had signed up to fight after being persuaded by a television advertisement. He claims the music video was an attempt to “turn the machine on itself” by acting as a commercial for “free thought of peace.”
The arguably anti-war sentiments in the video prompted criticism from conservative media, saying it exploited the ongoing war in Iraq for entertainment purposes. Bassist Mike Dirnt commented on the subject saying, “Rock & roll should be dangerous. […] It should be striking and stir questions, and I think that that video, at the end of the day, comes down to that core emotion of loss.”
The video reached No. 1 on Total Request Live and came in second on Rolling Stones’ Best Music Video of the Year readers poll in 2005.
In another bout of advocacy, the song took on new life as an anthem for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, as it decimated much of the Gulf Coast just three days before the beginning of September 2005. One blogger paired the song with television coverage of the disaster, creating a viral video. Green Day then performed the song days after the disaster on ReAct Now: Music and Relief, a benefit concert broadcast on MTV.
A live version of the song, recorded at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, was released on September 3 of the same year, dedicated to the hurricane’s victims. It was used again during the pregame show of the Monday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons —the first game played in the New Orleans Superdome following the hurricane.
Green Day (Pamela Littky) *Warner Records