Joel Madden on Confession and Crisis

Joel Madden on Confession and Crisis

On a new album, his youth-driven pop-punk band Good Charlotte tackles adult themes like the opioid epidemic.

On a new album, his youth-driven pop-punk band Good Charlotte tackles adult themes like the opioid epidemic.

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

In her smash Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby declared she was quitting self-deprecating humor cold turkey; reckoning with the persecution she’d faced as a young person, she decided to no longer paper over her own pain by making herself the butt of the joke.

Punk rock, like comedy, has historically required a certain level of detachment. But in our post-Nanette era (yes, I’m calling it that!), when detachment is out and earnestness is in, what does “punk” look like?

One answer might be found in the seventh album from Good Charlotte, the Maryland-bred pop-punkers who burst onto the scene in the year 2000. Like many motley crews of the early aughts, Good Charlotte assumed a posture of self-deprecation, simultaneously lamenting and defending their generation’s callousness and materialism with fist-raising anthems like Boys & Girls (Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money; boys will laugh at girls when they’re not funny) and Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous (If money is such a problem, well they got mansions, think we should rob them).

Of course, the Good Charlotte gang has grown up considerably since the early aughts. Frontmen Joel and Benji Madden seemed to leave behind their suburban malaise and grow into a Hollywood dynasty (Joel is married to Nicole Richie and Benji dates Cameron Diaz). But as their new album Generation Rx , out now, makes clear, they are still shouting at authority on their generation’s behalf. But, as Joel Madden explains here, the irreverence has morphed into something darker—and more authentic.

VMAN It’s great to meet you Joel. When I read “Generation Rx,” I thought of the current issues going on around our country’s opioid epidemic and the underlying cause of that. What was the inspiration behind the name?

Joel Madden Actually I think that you’re right on the money. It’s very literal for us. Sometimes we’re too sarcastic, but this was just very literal for us.

VMAN What “generation” are you referring to?

I think that evolving as a human being has to do with our mental health and emotional well-being. And I really feel like, in the last 20 years, our generation had to figure out a lot of this stuff for the first time. I think it’s still very [stigmatized] and taboo, but everybody has to deal with their mental health. Everyone has mental health that they have to look after, and if we don’t start treating it like we do our physical health, our fitness, or our diet, then we will continue to decline as a group. But I don’t separate by generation now. To us, this record was kind of more of just a personal exploration and stream of consciousness that we put into a record. So it’s a really interesting, personal process for me.

VMAN So there’s mental health, but the album notes refer to the opioid crisis as well. How have you been personally affected by that crisis?

JM As a band, it’s something we’ve been around and affected by for 18 years, since the early 2000s. When I look back across all the people in my life… I think it’s just something we have complete firsthand, front row seats for. We all have our experience with it.

VMAN So this is something you were aware of back, it sounds like, before it had entered the national consciousness?

JM Yes, as long as I can remember, yes. I feel crazy for saying this, but I feel like everyone was aware of it, we just didn’t have a name for it. We didn’t understand it was a crisis. We didn’t know. I don’t think anybody knew. I don’t know if anyone knew how bad it was, but everyone kind of knew it was there.

VMAN Did you know from the start that this would be the album’s defining theme?

JM [My twin brother] Benj came up with the name. Ultimately it became a very therapeutic record. A lot of the things we talked about were personal experiences in and around pain, and the painful experience of being a human being, and the painful experiences of growing up.

That’s where it starts, and that’s what came out when I was writing. I think the idea [was to] explore why and where was that pain was coming from, and how was I medicating, if I did? Because there are all kinds of ways you can self medicate. For me, it was more a confessional. For Benji, he tends to go broader and he was thinking about how it would apply to the people listening and fans.

VMAN Are there any specific songs that were particularly cathartic to write?

JM “Self Help” is the really confessional, cathartic moment for me. [It’s about] confessing what I go through in trying to be better and grow and heal.

VMAN What did you go through?

JM I think what my experience has been over the last 20 years is I sometimes would not allow myself to share my experience with people because I was afraid they would think that I was ungrateful for the opportunities I had. I was terrified of people thinking that I thought that I was anything. And so I would hold in a lot and then it would come out kind of sideways, sometimes in my music, and this is just an honest assessment, looking back. Sometimes in my music you would hear some sarcasm, some anger, I would be dismissive sometimes, and I think that it was really hard for me to come to terms with my own personal feelings and my own experiences and then sharing that with people and being okay with it. I think that self help is me opening up and saying, “here’s what we’re doing and this is how I felt and now this is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m trying to figure out the meaning of it. I’m trying to heal. I’m trying to be better.”

VMAN Was the sarcasm or irreverence of your earlier work a defense mechanism for dealing with stress or pain at the time?

JM I think it’s fair, but I wouldn’t dismiss my early music as just being not genuine. Because I think at the time my experience was a lack of experience. I think we were trying to have fun, while we were dealing with, how do we express all these different things? I think it came out in different ways. Some of it was fun, some of it was sarcastic, some of it was a little pissy.

As we’ve gotten older, I think we’ve just gotten more secure in ourselves and more able to- I would say that the personal journey has been more important because the musical journey to me is no longer the number one. I don’t care as much about the success of my music as I do about the experience I have with making it. And then as I got older, you reevaluate. Obviously, I’m married, I have kids. You reestablish your own definition of success and your own values.

VMAN You mentioned the idea of there just being one collective generation nowadays. And I’m interested in how you see a younger audience interpreting this record, with a title like Generation Rx. Do you think there are differences in the younger generation in terms of that mental health being something more talked about nowadays?

JM That’s a good question. Because I do think that there’s this large group, say people 15 to 45, that communicates on the same platforms. There are no walls and everybody has weight with what they say. But you aren’t actually seeing a real person in front of you talking. So to me, it’s good and bad. Some people may take [the album] one way or another. Our crowd, these days, is mostly young, but of course, there are older people know us already. So you can never really tell how people are going to perceive the music or the idea that you’re trying to convey. I hope it’s just another piece of the bigger conversation of mental health and all of the issues that surround it. A lot of that is the opioid crisis, but to me, it all kind of starts with mental health. So if we can be another voice getting people to think, I’m good with that.

VMAN Cool. Have you listened to the record with your family? Did they have feedback for you?

JM Yeah. My family is very supportive. I’m very, very blessed for having such a supportive wife and kids. My wife really loves it when I get to do [Good Charlotte]. She’s always liked my music, and there is a certain amount of relief, too, because she’s always happy when I’m being creative. My kids really like the poppier songs on the record. The other songs, they feel, are a little dark. They were just like, “Dad, these songs are a little dark.” And I was like, “Yeah well, ya know that’s part of music and that’s part of expressing yourselves sometimes.”

UP NEXT

Family Ties