Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown: A Fire Burns Today, of Blasphemy and Genocide

2009_GreenDay_21stCenturyBreakdownArtist: Green Day
Album: 21st Century Breakdown
Year: 2009
Grade: B+

In Brief: Green Day aims to recapture the success of American Idiot and falls only slightly short, but comes up with a musically varied and thematically intriguing disc in the process.

Is a band ever too old to write noisy songs that promote a “screw the system” sort of attitude? The members of Green Day don’t seem to think so. The fact that there’s debate over what bands who play the kind of music they play (essentially poppy punk rock – they helped to popularize the style in the 90’s) should do when they start to show their age would seem to suggest that some folks do think so. Because if there are two things that seem to be considered uncool in the world of punk rock, it’s pop music and growing up. That’s what I’d assume given the way some folks react to Green Day’s attempts to branch out musically, anyway. Growing up isn’t something a person can do much about – so it would seem a band’s two options are to adjust their songwriting to their aging audience or to just keep doing the same thing and hoping it still draw a youthful crowd. But making pop music (whether that refers to an actual style or just the fact that it’s popular) is a choice, and one that aficionados of punk seem to frown upon. On some academic level, I can understand. Punk was born out of a rebellion against both the mainstream and the overblown excesses of some of the progressive rockers back in the 70’s, with their attempts to create a magnum opus with every album and whatnot. Some folks liked simple, fast, and loud, and didn’t want to have to apologize for that. It takes all types, but personally, I like my music with a little more flavor and variation from song to song – it doesn’t have to be radio friendly, but it needs a dynamic beyond just noise to really hold my attention. American Idiot, the breakthrough album that gave Green Day a resurgence in popularity in 2004 (and got me into the band for the first time), did this for me. It didn’t do it for some fans of their older stuff. That’s the risk you run when you try to grow as a band, I guess.

It took five long years after American Idiot, with its upstart message so well-placed in an America so controlled by fear and hearsay and superstition that we managed to re-elect Bush, for Green Day to construct a proper follow-up. My first thought upon finally hearing of 21st Century Breakdown‘s arrival and its ambitious scale was, “Is the same thing gonna work for them after the guy they wanted to win actually got elected?” Which is not to say that there are a lack of things to complain about in the Obama administration, but regardless, Green Day has mostly sidestepped the politics this time around and focused more of its vitriol on social issues. It continues to wage a war that they started with American Idiot, tearing down the suburbanized, isolated worldview that passes for religion, and exploring the somewhat nihilistic lives of characters who have had it with the status quo. To put it simply, Green Day has created a follow-up to their first rock opera, which casts its nets a bit wider stylistically, definitely trying to recapture the success of American Idiot without totally sticking to the same blueprint. If you didn’t like where they were going with AI, this one will probably annoy you more. But speaking as a person who probably would have been in their crosshairs when they made AI (a Christian who thought the right thing to do was to vote conservative), I find their commentary even more interesting on 21st Century Breakdown, even if there are still those moments where I go, “Hey, are they talking about me?” But then, I don’t have to agree with everything a band says to get something out of their work.

The irony of an album like this one is that it’s a “punk” band trying on a lot of musical hats and indulging their prog-rock tendencies – basically doing the very things that punk music was created to rebel against. I find amusement in that fact – it’s several decades down the line, after all – and quite frankly, it’s fun to hear them open up with shimmering drum cadences the size of a U2 concert or trotting out the melodramatic chord progressions as if the heyday of Queen never ended. As Green Day describes a future of broken communication over increasingly tiny devices, of drugs to suit are every ailment that are often worse than the disease, of people who claim to love God and yet hate God’s children, of a lost and confused “Class of ’13” trying to figure out their place in the world, it’s ironic that they look backwards on a musical level, as if they’re the ones just getting out of high school instead of the generation after them (lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong actually does have a kid in high school at this point – how un-punk-rock of him, right?) Maybe it’s a conscious admission that the past looks less terrifying in the future, but I don’t ever get the idea that they’re pretending to be an age that they aren’t. It’s more of an obvious role-playing exercise, a look at the world through two young upstarts namd “Christian and Gloria” (yeah, you can already see where the allegory’s going after meeting folks like St. Jimmy and Jesus of Suburbia on the last record) who are driven to terrorist-like levels of fervor in their attempt to get some answers from the powers that be.

I’ll make the obvious disclaimer here that 21st Century Breakdown isn’t for the easily offended. I wouldn’t say it’s overtly vulgar – perhaps the swearwords are actually used more selectively here than the liberal manner in which they were sprinkled throughout AI – but there are clearly some groups of people who will take the R-rated griping personally. Whether this colors your opinion of the relatively more easygoing tracks surrounding some of those harsh rants depends on how you interpret the story. Personally, I’m able to take it with a grain of salt, and try to look at the bigger picture, which the almost continuous flow of music from one song to the next seems to suggest, despite the variance in musical styles. Right or wrong, this is Christian and Gloria’s manifesto, and while that story isn’t followed as easily as the fate of the characters on the last disc, it’s still an intriguing one. Some of it might be your typical teenage angst leftover from the band’s younger years, and there might be a few moments where the band lobs a few softballs at mainstream radio, but since there’s so much material to work with here (perhaps even to the point where the band might have overdone it), and so much interconnectedness between the individual songs, I enjoy 21st Century Breakdown almost as much as American Idiot. Its flaws are easily apparent, but easily forgivable.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

ACT I: HEROES AND CONS

1. Song of the Century
So we start the album with… an intro to an intro. It’s Billie Joe, sounding rather static-drenched and distant, doing his best to set up a motif similar to the “Nobody likes you, everyone left you” tune that showed up a couple times on American Idiot. It’s only 45 seconds long, but still a bit of a false start.

2. 21st Century Breakdown
The resounding piano chords and shimmering guitar make a much better intro, and the band would have been better served to start with this right away – it’s an atypical way to start a Green Day song, but we’re back in familiar territory once they trot out the power chords and it veers into the band’s usual pop/punk territory. Were the entire song as easygoing as the first few minutes, this would be a bit of a lackluster way to start the album as well, but it actually ends up morphing into a mini-suite of sorts, not quite as ambitious as “Jesus of Suburbia”, but maintaining a bit of the same flavor over a comparatively short five minutes. The mellower introductory part of the song seems to cover the woes of Billie Joe’s generation (“Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell” and “I never made it as a working-class hero” are key indicators that the band isn’t trying to hide their age), while the more choppy, fast-paced section switches viewpoints to the younger generation (“We are the class of ’13/Born in the era of humility/We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the b*stards of 1969.”) Sure, it’s all a bunch of “What has my country become?”-type angst vaguely directed at a bad economy and the powers that be making bad decisions, which is a bit of cliche, but by the time they get to the theaterical, lighter-waving coda of “Dream, America, Dream” at the end, it’s easy enough to feel their frustration.

3. Know Your Enemy
While I love the way that the sudden ending of track 2 segues into the militant drumbeat of this song, the band leaves a bit to be desired on the album’s debut single, opting to coast by on a relatively lukewarm tempo and insanely repetitive lyrics. I get that sometimes you’ve got to go back to basics and do the three-chord punk thing and not be overly fussy about it, and there are occasional flashes of grit from Billie Joe’s guitar work and vocals that leap out from an otherwise routine song. But by the end of it, I’ve been asked about 20 times if I know who my enemy is. I’m not even convinced that they know. It’s a protest song against… what exactly? Not that the rest of the album is forthcoming with the specifics, and not that I want them to come out and say, “Yeah, we had to lob one last insult at Bush on his way out”, or anything, but this one feels too tailored for radio, too generalized and distant from the album’s narrative.

4. ¡Viva la Gloria!
I don’t mean to sound impatient or anything, but is this early in the album really a good time to be cute and put a mellow piano intro at the beginning of a much more fast and furious song? We’ve been coasting, tempo-wise, for the better part of three tracks now – it’s time to just rip into it, guys. I suppose it’s kind of cute to introduce the lead female character of the album – a champion of civil disobedience who sounds an awful lot like last album’s “Extraordinary Girl” (in terms of character – the mood and tempo of the song are more aggressive) – in more of a sentimental fashion before pulling the rug out from under the listener and pummeling them with the power chords. It’s fun once it gets going, and the lyrics offer enough specifics to really give us a good handle on the character. Tales of young upstarts who want to fight the man are nothing new for this band, but they put an interesting twist by hinting that her fire might be going out, that she might be losing track of what’s worth fighting for. That theme is going to recur throughout the album.

5. Before the Lobotomy

Now we’re getting deep enough into the album that I don’t mind the whole “Slow, dramatic intro that leads the audience to a suckerpunch” approach. Saving that trick instead of using it twice already before this point probably would have made the effect more poignant here, as an acoustic arpeggio descends gradually into madness using just about the most depressing chord progression imaginable. It fits perfectly with Billie Joe’s lyrics about a once-happy family now shattered by some unknown force that has driven them underground. This fugitive’s lament suddenly leaps into action a minute or so in, as Tre Cool hammers out a slamming, irregular beat that somehow manages to marry punk and prog and sound pretty awesome in the process. The story’s lead male character, Christian, is expressing his frustrations here – either with a loss of innocence or with allowing society to reprogram him to the point where he feels brain dead. “I’m not stoned, I’m just f*cked up”, he asserts in what is surprisingly the first instance of profanity on the album. (They usually don’t wait this long to whip it out. I’ll admit it’s somewhat cleverly placed here.) Most telling is the logic-twisting line – “Remember to learn to forget”, which definitely suggests that he’s lived a life of fear-driven faith in someone or something for too long. I love how the dramatic intro comes full circle at the end, the sad acoustic chords replaced with slow but heavy electric ones. This is the first truly epic song on the album.

6. Christian’s Inferno
If a song could represent itself as colors, this one would be all red and gray – it emphasizes aggression over melody, laying down a precise, robotic, and yet angry drumbeat over which Mike Dirnt lays down a deep bass groove and Billie Joe’s guitar rattles about like an electric shock, looping through the same three dissonant chords as he spits out the verses – not singing, just talking in a rather annoyed tone of voice. This is Christian’s declaration that he’s about ready to burn it all down, returning man to his most primitive state. What he’s lashing out against isn’t as clear here – it’s all fury, with the oddly placed melodic “Whoa”s in the chorus being a bit of a distraction. Not a perfect song on its own, but it’s an important bridge leading from the rude awakening of “Before the Lobotomy” to the bittersweet closing of the album’s first act.

7. Last Night on Earth

A piano ballad from a band like Green Day probably isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to turn out well – sure, one of their greatest hits was “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and that turned out well despite being fully acoustic, but normally, when more aggressive bands like these revert to doing piano ballads, the composition is rather simplistic because it’s not an instrument they’re as proficient with. And not that Green Day pulls out a show-stopping performance on the instrument or anything, but compositionally, there’s some sophistication here, with a thrilling chord progression which augments and diminishes itself in all the right ways providing the backbone for a restrained, but powerful letter from a man to his wife. Taken outside of the framework of the album, it could simply be a love song, perhaps a bit of a fatalistic one, but charming nonetheless, if somewhat obviously geared toward a dramatic “school dance” scene in a teenybopper movie. But taken as the possible last words from a man on a suicide mission, it’s rather chilling – “If I lose everything in the fire, I’m sending all my love to you.” He might be about to go down in a blaze of glory for his cause – or even blow himself up to make a point, for all we know – but underneath the violence, he’s doing it all for her. It’s romantic in a twisted sort of way. While I’ve critiqued Green Day for playing it too soft elsewhere, I really do enjoy the restraint here – the way that the guitar solo cautiously sings out rather than shredding. I’ve heard that it’s a more-than-subtle tip of the hat to Queen, and that being the case, I really ought to familiarize myself with more of Queen’s discography someday.

ACT II: CHARLATANS AND SAINTS

8. East Jesus Nowhere
“…And we will see how Godless a nation we have become!” So goes the religious rant that was tuned into by way of surfing the radio dial, which kicks into a slicing guitar riff that sounds an awful lot like “Holiday” on steroids – less melodic, more scratchy. You can probably guess from the title that this is Green Day’s most blatant attempt at ripping into organized religion (either that, or Billie Joe likes to use Diablo Cody-isms in everyday speech), and it’s definitely loaded with fightin’ words, especially given the chorus: “A fire burns today/Of blasphemy and genocide/The sirens of decay/Will infiltrate the faith fanatics”. He might take it a bit too far, trying to push these people’s buttons with the choice expletives “Godd*mn” and the comparison of a religious devotee to “A dog that’s been sodomized”, but I don’t think it’s intended as a widespread insult to every Jesus-follower out there. It’s the character Christian ranting against hypocritical Christians (a bit heavy on the irony there, I know), who live by a creed of just believing stuff ’cause someone said so, taking a “with us or against us” view, and basically just not using their brains to approach their beliefs with any sense of reason. These people influence politics. I’m a Christian and that scares me. So there’s some sense in which it’s justified. That said, it still stings a bit.

9. Peacemaker
I love what they did with this one. The chaotic sound of a string section warming up might be a bit of a random way to start things on, but once the frenetic acoustic guitar and Mike Dirnt’s slick bass line kick in, suddenly it turns into a hybrid of surf rock and punk rock that works a lot better than you’d imagine (with Middle Eastern-sounding strings thrown in for good measure). Instead of catching waves, the extreme adventure described in this song is apparently a suicide mission with an important target in mind. The layers of irony and religious imagery are viciously clever here, intentionally twisting bits of familiar phrases with an originally peaceful intent into a justification for murder and mayhem. “This is a standoff”, Billie Joe sneers in one of my favorite lines, “A Molotov Cocktail on the house”. Is this Christian or the Christians who are twisting words around to justify their violence? It’s left open to interpretation. This song is bad-@$$ enough that Quentin Tarantino probably wishes he could go back in time and put it on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

10. Last of the American Girls
Returning to more of a pop-flavored variant of punk is this little ditty about protest as a form of patriotism. It uses past songs like “She’s a Rebel” as a framework to start from, describing a young girl (probably Gloria) in her quest to make us all aware of the ills of society, staging hunger strikes and spreading conspiracy theories and holding up picket signs and whatnot. “She will come in first for the end of Western civilization”, Billie Joe comments at one point – and perhaps this poses a question about whether standing up for an unpopular belief is more important than appearing patriotic. Musically, the song would actually be rather generic if not for the band tweaking the chord progression just a bit to go through another one of those “diminishing” cycles similar to “Last Night on Earth” and the intro/outro of “Before the Lobotomy”, just more upbeat and catchy. Little details like that add a lot of flavor to this album, ensuring that each song maintains some smblance of individuality.

11. Murder City
Here’s one song that won’t seem to stand out to me no matter how many trips I take through the album, which is weird, because it’s one of the most frenetic ones, taking off running with a fantastic drum roll and only barely stopping to catch its breath for the occasional dramatic flourish along the way. It’s a bit more prototypical for Green Day, stylistically, and I suppose some of that’s actually needed at this point, but I guess I prefer the aggressive songs with the sharper edges than the ones like this that sort of zip on by before you’re fully aware of what the hell happened. They don’t do anything bad here – there’s even a slick guitar solo crammed into the middle of all the action. In terms of the storyline, it might be a turning point for our characters, as a riot incited by these freedom fighters apparently leaves someone dead, causing more empty feelings to surface than whatever they were already dealing with. OK, so it’s a bit of a downer. Based on the title, I was expecting… ?

12. ¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)
So now you guys are getting cute with the Spanish punctuation. My PC hates you for that. This song’s an interesting callback to Gloria’s theme song – not a direct resprise, but certainly carrying a bit of the same flavor with a somber piano intro (though more cartoonish this time thanks to what sounds like a saloon piano). The weird thing is that it picks up with this bouncy beat that I don’t quite want to call “ragtime”, but that is certainly unexpected, whatever it might be. Then it plows headlong into another wall of drums and electric guitars as the band offers this cheery refrain: “Run away from the river to the street/And find yourself with your face in the gutter.” So was Gloria the murder victim and now Christian’s realizing that he got the both of them in too deep? Or is it simply a realization that she’s headed for trouble if she stays on this path? Lots of good stuff to digest here, from the pointed line “You’re a stray for the Salvation Army” to the even more vicious, “You’re just a junkie preaching to the choir”. Maybe it’s time to grow up and leave the militant protesting behind? But does that mean losing hope and just getting absorbed back into the system? Listen carefully for a melodic motif that will pop up again in the next song – recognizing that here is what made me realize that bits and pieces from several songs cropped up in unexpected places throughout the album, created an interconnected feeling that makes the sum better than the whole.

13. Restless Heart Syndrome
We’re back in mournful piano ballad mode, but don’t write this one off just because it sounds like generic young person’s angst at the outset – it’s one of the most crucial pieces of the “rock opera”, and what starts off sounding rather innocuous actually explodes near the end. It’s a moment of stark self-reflection, as a man owns up to his self-destructive tendencies, perhaps realizing that his time spent as a violent anarchist was really just another way to numb the pain inside by placing the blame for his problems elsewhere. Here, he’s admitting, “I’m a victim of my stomps; I am my own worst enemy”, and this neatly ties back into “Know Your Enemy”, giving much-needed context to a song that seemed like a walking cliche on its own. The drama’s set to overdrive and clearly they owe another debt to Freddie Mercury here – but manage to work in a little of their own Gen-X angst when they let out a fiery guitar solo during the slamming coda.

ACT III: HORSESHOES AND HANDGRENADES

14. Horseshoes and Handgrenades
The sound of troops marching starts off another “more typical pop/punk” type of song, with the guitars grinding angrily and Billie Joe sneering, “I’m not f*cking around!”, which I’m sure will bring a bit of delight to old-school Green Day fans, who probably otherwise don’t care for the direction they’ve taken lately. We all know the old adage “close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades”, which the band exploits in this snarky song, which really seems to have no agenda other than to thrust the middle finger up at life in general. Which is a bit disappointing; I was hoping for more of a revelation after “Restless Heart Syndrome”, but I’ll be patient for a few tracks, since I know it’s eventually coming. I’m not sure why he feels the need to shout “G-L-O-R-I-A!” at the end – is the self-destruction in her honor, is he mad at her, or what?

15. The Static Age
Maybe it’s technology that’s screwing us all? That’s what the band seems to be implying in this song, which returns to more of a mid-tempo, sing-songy approach. I don’t mind that so much, and I guess I’ve got to grudgingly admit that it gives some context to the “Song of the Century” intro. Still, I think we’ve heard our share of songs railing against commercialism and the media, so this might be one too many on top of the heap. Unlike earlier points in the album, where the occasional profanities were used with some measure of irony or pointed anger, this song seems to throw them in superfluously (“All I want to know is a godd*mn thing”, “What a f*cking tragedy”), which hurts it a bit. That said, it does a bit more to flesh out the point it’s making than most songs that go for this easy target. So I guess it’s OK. It’s just stuck in the unfortunate position of being a bridge between two of my least favorite tracks on the album.

16. 21 Guns
Here’s the real culprit – the point where the album’s concept collapses under its own weight and the band reverts unapologetically into radio suck-up mode, during what really should be the emotional climax of the album. It’s certainly positioned to trigger an acceptance and release of one’s grief and frustration, slowly building up with its simple acoustic strumming to a chorus which bursts forth with the careful march of drums, starting and stopping as if to wring the most drama out of the lyrics. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that (a) the chord progression is so generic that it only calls to mind the comparatively better “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, which in itself was treading on shaky ground due to the number of popular songs it cut too close to ripping off (see Dean Gray‘s mash-up album American Edit for the specifics), and (b) the lyrics reach for the low-hanging fruit of obvious cliches EVERY. SINGLE. FREAKING. TIME. It’s just too much to bear – “Did someone break your heart inside?”, “When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul”, “Did you stand too close to the fire?”, etc. I know the band’s trying to be clever, tying the concept of a 21-gun salute (used in military funerals) to the album’s exploration of life in the 21st century (get it, the numbers are the same!), and persuading the listener to just stop fighting and let it be. But get a load of this chorus: “One, 21 guns/Lay down your arms, give up the fight/One, 21 guns/Throw up your arms into the sky/You and I.” I can’t even begin to count how many well-worn songwriting cliches were used and how many grammatical rules are being broken there just for the sake of a rhyme. It’s downright embarrassing. And of course the song hit it big at radio. Go figure. I know the mainstream market was probably clamoring for another “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, but this is most emphatically not it.

17. American Eulogy
Here comes that static-drenched intro song from the beginning of the album. it would have been better of just used once here. (I know the lyrics are different the second time around, but still, it’s not a terribly memorable motif). That’s easily ignored once the band kicks in with their cry of “Hysteria! Mass hysteria!”, after which Billie Joe goes off on a rant that revisits a lot of the themes from earlier in the album (pay close attention and you’ll hear that distinctive guitar melody from “Before the Lobotomy” worm its way back in). This track serves as a bookend to the album, in much the same way that “Homecoming” did on American Idiot – it’s broken into two sections (the second of which is titled “Modern World” and gives Mike Dirnt a turn at singing lead) which neatly dovetail together at the end. There’s too much going on here for me to fully describe it all – you just have to listen closely and play the “which song is that reference from?” game. I can’t say that it sums it all up neatly in terms of bringing Christian and Gloria’s song to a close, but that’s open to interpretation, I suppose.

18. See the Light
Phew. I’m practically getting Carpal Tunnel with this long-winded review (which is why I put off writing it for so dang long), but here we are, finally at the end of the album, which might fool you into thinking the band accidentally put the same track on the disc twice, since the piano and guitar intro is exactly identical to that of the title track. The fact that the final song starts this way and fades out this way is why I thought the album didn’t need a separate intro, but whatever. This one’s a good synthesis of raucous pop/punk energy and more of a refined, stadium rock sort of feel, and it works on both levels. It’s a shot of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel, finally coming up out of all the angry ranting and all the self-abuse and gaining some form of clarity. Whether that “light” is belief in a higher power (doubtful given the concerns expressed elsewhere on the album) or just a reaffirmed sense of self-worth is up to you, but the feeling of relief and elation comes through even if the exact meaning does not. it’s probably rather un-punk of them to close on a happy note (or at least a peaceful one), but as grand finales go, it’s a lot better than “Whatsername”.

Green Day’s probably reached the limit of how drawn-out and epic they can be, and would likely do well to scale things back a bit on their next album (which, since they apparently work on the same timetable as U2, oughta be out in 2014 or so). I’m not saying they should make simpler music or abandon their more progressive tendencies – these things give a band personality, and straight up pop/punk will only take you so far. It’s more a case of reach exceeding grasp – I want them to continue to blend different genres into their sound and to write albums with an overarching concept in mind, but maybe not to throw so much stuff it us that it felt like a blatant attempt to best themselves at the thing they were trying on the previous album. Ditch some of the flotsam and jetsam on this disc, and you could have at least 12 solid tracks, which is still more than a full-length album for most bands. Still, too much generally beats too little, which is why the small handful of cast-offs from this album ultimately don’t sabotage the entire thing. I give 21st Century Breakdown a B+, which means it gets to contend for a wildcard slot when I get around to listing my favorite albums of the decade early next year.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Song of the Century $0
21st Century Breakdown $1.50
Know Your Enemy $.50
¡Viva la Gloria! $1
Before the Lobotomy $2
Christian’s Inferno $1
Last Night on Earth $2
East Jesus Nowhere $1.50
Peacemaker $2
Last of the American Girls $1
Murder City $.50
¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl) $1.50
Restless Heart Syndrome $1.50
Horseshoes and Handgrenades $0
The Static Age $.50
21 Guns -$1
American Eulogy $1.50
See the Light $1.50
TOTAL: $18

BAND MEMBERS:
Billie Joe Armstrong: Lead vocals, guitars
Mike Dirnt: Bass, backing vocals
Tré Cool: Drums, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

WEBSITE:
http://www.greenday.com/

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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3 thoughts on “Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown: A Fire Burns Today, of Blasphemy and Genocide

  1. Pingback: Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance: Be popular, play pop, and you will win my love. | murlough23

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  3. Pingback: Green Day – Revolution Radio: I put the “riot” in patriot. | murlough23

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