The Offspring’s Americana Rode Resentment And Respectability Politics All The Way To The Top
In 2015, the Offspring auctioned off the rights for their Columbia Records catalogue to Round Hill Music, a $35 million deal that included a total of six studio albums and a greatest hits LP — all released after 1994’s Smash, the group’s Epitaph breakthrough and still the best selling independent album of all time. Now, while there is surely some money to be made on nostalgia streams of one-note goof-jams like “Hit That” and “Original Prankster,” make no mistake; Round Hill was interested primarily in the crown jewel of Americana.
Twenty years ago, the Offspring had stumbled out of their moment. Led by a barrage of shameless vocal hooks and Nirvana-aping guitars, Smash broke through all expectations and helped usher in the mainstream dominance of California skate punk alongside Green Day’s Dookie and Bad Religion’s Recipe For Hate. While a reversion to the mean was inevitable coming off a freak success story, the band’s alt-rock leaning, appreciably less fun follow-up Ixnay On The Hombre proved a significant step down, selling substantially less and failing to generate any singles of comparable consequence to the previous album’s “Self Esteem,” “Come Out And Play,” and “Gotta Get Away.” Ixnay, a labor of major label freedom to invest greater time and effort into their compositions, still hit the top 10 and garnered the band moderate radio play. (Rock stations still spin “Gone Away” to this day.) But continuing to follow its more sober direction would ultimately mean giving up on the lucrative reality the band could reap by following the lead of Smash’s flagrant jock-pop.
They had to choose between two competing visions of the Offspring, and their choice was self-evident with the release of Americana’s lead single. Launching off with a sample of the nonsense-German that counted in Def Leppard’s graceless “Rock Of Ages,” “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” only becomes more ridiculous as it goes. “Give it to me baby!” taunt a pair of salacious singers (one of whom was actually a voice actress in a number of beloved childhood cartoons), answered in response by backup musician Chris Higgins screaming out a squawky “Uh huh, uh huh!” “Uno, dos, tres/ Cuatro, cinco, cinco, seis!” inexplicably goes another outburst 30 seconds in, before vocalist Dexter Holland finally begins telling the sad tale of a cluelessly appropriative suburbanite over ska-crunch guitars.
Maddeningly hypnotic, “Pretty Fly” was responsible for a large percentage of Americana’s 10 million copies sold worldwide. Those figures made the album nearly as successful as Smash and renewed the Offspring’s cultural omnipresence. Subsequent singles “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” — a jingle-ballad vaguely reinterpreting the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as a rebuke toward a financially unsupportive partner — and the mean-spirited screed “She’s Got Issues” continued to establish the band’s aesthetic as incensed insolence. The band didn’t single-handedly establish the late-’90s market for obnoxious frat-rock sing-alongs, but they blew it up considerably, enough so to open the doors the following year for songs like “My Name Is” and “All Star” to become national sensations.
“Pretty Fly” would seem at a glance like the kind of song that would have aged poorly in our current social climate — and indeed, it would be hard to argue with anyone who senses some latent racism in Holland’s dismissal of a clueless wannabe gangster. Yet the poseur-skewering indictment at least managed to align itself on the right side of history, critiquing the microaggressive antics of a white America that wears black culture while stripping it of its context. As these issues sit even tighter at the forefront of our national conversation, the song has surprisingly become more relevant than ever before. The rest of Americana — most of which relates to our modern predicament in far uglier ways — suggests “Pretty Fly” probably arrived at its surprising wokeness by accident.
The Offspring’s transgressions in the ’90s did not exactly mirror those of their fellow radio-rockers; they did not hold as explicit a strain of toxic misogyny that saddled so many of their pop-punk peers and later descendants. Even the contemptuously crass “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” at least splits the difference in its titular complaint by offering the third verse to a woman wronged by an indolent partner. Instead, that song throws its weight behind a brand of financial insensitivity that betrays Holland’s misanthropic conservatism. As a whole, Americana practices a sort of “respectability politics” against people in poverty — criticizing junkies, criminals, and the unemployed for not owning up and dealing with their problems, all the while conveniently neglecting any structural factors that may be at the root. Basically, it reimagines punk rock as Fox News.
Take “She’s Got Issues,” which paints a portrait of a girl suffering from trauma-induced anxiety, and yet sympathizes with Holland as the narrative’s dominant casualty. The victim-blaming is not incidental, but an explicit perspective, as he explained to Spin in an interview during the album’s release: “A song like ‘She’s Got Issues’ is saying ‘Hey, come on, let’s take on some responsibility for who we are instead of blaming our actions or behavior on things that aren’t relevant.'”
The stakes are considerably higher elsewhere on Americana. On “Walla Walla,” Holland finds whimsy in harsh prison sentences and shuts out any regard for the motivations that might drive the accused’s crimes, reducing presumed incentives to: “That car looked so tempting, so easy to drive/ Just like that apartment that you burglarized.” He offers no empathy when he delivers the unintentionally tragic summation for his subject: “I guess no one told you how to get a life.”
Even the more remorsefully-toned “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” which teases an understanding of the trapping effect of certain ZIP codes, ultimately shifts the blame by the chorus. As Holland presents their plight, these kids wasted their promise by throwing away their chances, refusing to consider the notion that those chances were taken away from them. His focus throughout the album is on what individuals owe to uphold in society, rather than imagining what responsibility a society might have to offer us.
That vision of America, one treating socioeconomic failure as personal fault, represents a charged bias that Holland blankets in a more palatable “generational” critique. As he described his intentions to the SF Chronicle:
The songs on Americana aren’t condemnations, they’re short stories about the state of things and what we see going on around us. We want to expose the darker side of our culture. It may look like an episode of Happy Days out there in America, but it feels more like Twin Peaks.
Yet the vignettes depicted across the album are rooted not in any universal American experience. Rather, the prevailing sentiment is an antagonized caricaturization of a perceived lower class. Holland framed it a different way to Billboard: “I was thinking about how American culture is distorted really. It’s not Norman Rockwell anymore; it’s Jerry Springer. It’s not living on the farm, it’s going to Burger King.”
Whether or not Holland seriously intended these songs as impartial depiction, the prevailing message is one purporting a rural idealism born out of a desire to revert America to some romanticized former glory. His lyrics on the title track could have been lifted directly from an alt-right pundit making a satirical impression of “the future that liberals want”: “Now give me my cable, fast food, four-by’s, tat’s right away/ I want it right now ’cause my generation don’t like to wait/ My future’s determined by thieves, thugs, and vermin/ It’s quite an excursion, but it’s OK.”
And why would Holland be sensitive to the disadvantages that can derail life outcomes irregardless of intent? Far removed from the value system of their self-identified genre, the Offspring were by no means using music as a medium for working class aggression; founding members Holland and Greg K. hail from Garden Grove, California, a well-off Los Angeles satellite. Holland was his class valedictorian, before getting his B.S, M.S., and Ph.D. all in molecular biology from the notoriously expensive University of Southern California. So when he is taking shots at the increased prevalence of fast food and reality dramas in American culture, he’s doing so from a gated presumption of cultural superiority.
Yet the troubling, antagonistic social dynamics are not what you pay attention to as a pre-teen, which is what I was when I first heard Americana. Instead, I gravitated towards the humor, mistaking irreverence for cleverness the way I had already as an avid enthusiast of Sublime and Eminem. But while I was engrossed in the juvenile novelty of “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” and “Feelings” (a skewed interpolation of the Morris Albert hit of the same name), what kept me coming back to the album was the shit-kicking “rawk.” From the walloping power chords of “Staring At The Sun” to the caustic pulse of “No Brakes,” the rush of distortion and breakneck guitar riffs amplified the experience of finding power in non-conformity.
Between Holland’s snot-filled invective and percussion that sounded like it was reaching out in all directions, the Offspring felt rebellious, even if their ham-fisted melodies and lazy “woah-oh”s were inclusive to the most basic common denominator. That low barrier to entry branded as exclusivity provided the youthful appeal for a great deal of the music from the SoCal skate-punk scene, including Blink-182 and NOFX, bands often credited with advocating for punk rock in the mainstream.
But what the Offspring popularized is a far more noxious strain of punk music, and especially punk ideals. The band did not revolt against systems perpetuating economic inequality or authoritarianism, but instead expressed a middle-class teenage resentment that comes from already getting everything you want at home but still being forced to go to school. “The Kids Aren’t Alright” and “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” depict the struggles of people with implied choices, who ultimately squander opportunities as they burn out. Because Holland keeps the details that led to those “choices” vague, it’s easy to read the characters in these songs as unsympathetic. You focus on the absence of ambition, not on the factors that eroded it in the first place.
And for all of its subversive virtues, the fatal flaw of “Pretty Fly” is that it’s based on the premise that Holland is a reliable narrator to be critiquing the misappropriations of others. As he proves across Americana, he’s far from an ally for the marginalized. If anything, the Offspring helped to propagate adherence to the machine, belittling the sympathies of everyone whom it was designed to fail. Knowing the contours of his perspective, Holland’s championing of punk rock reads much in the same insidious way as Edward Blum’s efforts to lead the cause for Asian Americans to end affirmative action.
Americana embodied a prevailing set of beliefs in the ’90s, which progressive thinkers are still working to dismantle in the mainstream today. Despite the relative innocuousness of the music’s radicalism, the actual danger to society from the popularity of the California punk rock scene was not in kids becoming degenerates, but internalizing an entitled elitism. Empathy is largely learned, but it doesn’t particularly sell, and nowhere near to the tune of $35 million for a back catalog. Holland miscast his blame on Jerry Springer for ruining American values; he should have been paying attention to just how much damage the Offspring were doing themselves.