At the end of my penultimate semester at the University of Michigan, and in the final days of my editing career at The Daily, I’ve found myself turning to songs that I used to hate — the kind of tearjerking, stereotypical goodbye songs that always seem tailormade for these moments in life so that anybody who even mildly connects with the sentiment can feel understood. I’m not proud.
The tune I’m particularly focused on is one of the most cliché songs I can think of, an out-of-character two-minute ballad from America’s most famous punk band that has probably soundtracked a million graduation slideshows. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” if you don’t have an immediate visceral reaction to its iconic opening guitar notes, is actually a pretty great composition.
“Good Riddance” is an extraordinary simple yet brilliantly efficient megahit, a no-frills punk song that just happens to be played on acoustic instead of electric guitar, with a quickly recorded string section thrown in for radio. Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics are intended to be sarcastic, as the narrator basically tells his ex to hit the road, because it’s over and you have to move on — his “I hope you had the time of your life” chorus is supposed to be a biting riff on the famous song from “Dirty Dancing.”
“Good Riddance” soon became the song that defined Green Day. It played over a scene in “Seinfeld” ’s final season, which probably more than anything is what catapulted it into the public consciousness. After it was seen by millions on TV, the song became a hit at proms and graduations, understandably losing its edge as kids and adults alike took Billie Joe’s words at face value and interpreted the song as a nostalgic, sort of “Auld Lang Syne”-esque jam (in the public’s defense, Billie Joe doesn’t actually sound especially sarcastic as he sings — “For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while” is a decently sweet thing to sing).
This exposure turned “Good Riddance” into the worst thing a song could be in the eyes of the public: sentimental. Quote-unquote “real” Green Day fans didn’t like the people who only knew the band’s biggest, least representative song, and even among the general public, the song hit that saturation point where any use of it anywhere felt totally unoriginal, greeted by eye-rolls and sighs. It turned into “Over the Rainbow” or “What a Wonderful World” or, more recently, “Hallelujah.”
But, in a moment of maybe weakness or nostalgia or just a desire to connect with music on an emotional level, I looked up “Good Riddance,” listened and really enjoyed it. Admittedly, I’m a bigger fan of the alternate, demo version that ended up as the B-side to “Brain Stew,” with its faster, strummed guitar, stringless arrangement and lack of that self-conscious false start intro.
But either version showcases Armstrong’s strength as a songwriter, emphasizing his ability to make a point in the most efficient and catchiest way possible. If it were played at the volume of, say, “Basket Case,” “Good Riddance” would likely be an uncontroversial top tier Green Day hit among its fanbase, with its harder sound keeping it out of TV and high schools’ reach.
I think it helps the song’s reputation, too, that Green Day is no longer “the band that sings ‘Time of Your Life.’ ” They’ve been lucky and talented enough to have an incredible second wind as artists, and now they’ve gained a wider audience and deeper catalog of good songs than they ever did in the ’90s. “Good Riddance” is no longer the song that misrepresents Green Day, but rather one composition in a deep arsenal of punk and arena rock. They can pull it out for the encore sing-along if they want, but at this point, with all the band’s other hits, they’re not even obligated to play it.
I get that “Good Riddance” is an easy song to get sick of, and if you heard it constantly from the late ’90s into the 2000s I completely understand why you’d never want to hear it again. It’s repetitive, simple and seems to have a cloyingly lame message (“the past was good!”). I’m totally fine with the moratorium we seemed to be placed on the song in pop culture, but if it makes some kind of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”-type resurgence after being used ironically in a prestige TV show (or even just something zeitgeisty and young), I think that would be a well-deserved fate.
Maybe I get too caught up in the idea of canons, of songs being good or bad not based on the actual recordings, but on whether they’re over- or underrated by the general public. Not all music has to be cool or accepted as great or undiscovered by licensing agencies. Sometimes, the most obvious, true statement of feeling is the best option. If some people listen to “Good Riddance” and think, “Yeah, I did have the time of my life,” that’s still pretty cool.