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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Offspring and the Pretty Smart, Very Stupid Punk Song

You knew this was coming. It’s time for “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy).”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 65 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re breaking down Offspring and their hit “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy).”

Here’s what happened in 1994, as far as I was concerned. This is comprehensive. These are the only things that happened. You ready? OK. Kurt Cobain died. Nine Inch Nails put out The Downward Spiral. That is the only album that came out in 1994. It’s the damnedest thing. Movies that came out, in ascending order of quality, according to 16-year-old me, included Wyatt Earp, Forrest Gump, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Shawshank Redemption, The Crow, and Pulp Fiction. Couple notes there. Swap The Crow and Forrest Gump on that ascending list, Forrest Gump was probably my second favorite. I was trying to sound cool. Also: I’ve never actually seen Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner in the titular role. The only thing I know about that movie is it’s more than three hours long, which is why, when I attended a Stone Temple Pilots concert in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, in the summer of 1994, and my girlfriend at the time was not allowed by her parents to go with me, we told her parents we were all going to see the 3-hour movie Wyatt Earp and then we went to the Stone Temple Pilots concert anyway. Stone Temple Pilots, the Meat Puppets, and Jawbox. Some assholes in the crowd booed Jawbox, and Scott Weiland from STP came out and was like, Quit booing my opening band, you assholes. Great show. We got caught and my girlfriend got in less trouble than I did. I’m still pissed about that.

Also in 1994, Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country were released for Super Nintendo—either of those was more important to me than Pulp Fiction. And finally, I got my driver’s license and a used car. A 1989 Chrysler LeBaron. Black. Ish. Little rusty. Not a convertible. The ceiling fabric sagged. My head scraped against it. You know that Neil Young song “Piece of Crap”? That album, Sleeps With Angels, also came out in 1994. Fine, two albums came out in 1994. “Piece of Crap” was my car’s theme song. It was a term of endearment. My car had a tape deck. The tape in my car’s tape deck is Smash, by the Offspring. Fine: Three albums came out in 1994. That’s it. Those three. The Offspring song blasting out of my car stereo is called “Bad Habit.” The most important part of the song “Bad Habit” is the hi-hat right here.

The hi-hat is crucial. That hi-hat is everything. Dexter Holland’s voice takes a whole hell of a lot of getting used to, but the hi-hat helps. Sorry: The only other thing that happened in 1994 is that punk rock was invented as far as I was concerned. What a thrill, what a privilege as a 16-year-old to bear witness to the birth of punk rock, via the release of Smash by the Offspring and Dookie by Green Day. Yo: That is the last album I will concede was released in 1994. Four albums. Nine Inch Nails, Neil Young, Green Day, and the Offspring. That is it. Yeah. Dookie and Smash invented punk rock. “Bad Habit” is the third or fourth most famous song on Smash, but this is the song that invented road rage.

The seamless push there, from the verse to the chorus, just the perfect furious handoff—And your next breath is your last ’cause I got a bad habit—that’s a truly beautiful moment to me. That sense of propulsion. I mean it. I meant it then and I mean it now. Stupendous songwriting. This is the best Offspring song. I love this song profoundly. In 2017, I finally saw the Offspring live, at a three-day hard rock festival held in a soccer stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Rock on the Range. The Offspring played between Papa Roach and Korn. Make of that what you will. The Offspring played this song, “Bad Habit.” And when they got to this part of the song—and you knew this was coming—when they got to this part of the song, you better believe that 39-year-old me shouted along to every stupid goddamn dumbshit motherfuckin’ word. Thirty-nine years old.

Sixteen years old. 1994. Green Day and the Offspring have invented punk rock. How fortuitous for a teenaged me to have witnessed this. May you live in interesting times. The Offspring were from Garden Grove, California, if the specific geography of Orange County matters to you. I don’t care. Sorry. I’m not sorry, actually. Punk rock has given me an attitude. First album, called The Offspring, comes out in 1989 to very little attention. (None from me at the time.) (“Beheaded,” though: great song.) Second album, Ignition, comes out in 1991, to modest attention. (Likewise, none from me at the time.) (“Dirty Magic,” though: great song. That song sounds like the Cure. Shit is wild.) Third album, Smash, comes out in 1994 on deified Los Angeles independent punk rock label Epitaph Records, and suddenly the Offspring are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. (I thought so, at least.)

Classic lineup: Dexter Holland on impressively shrill lead vocals and guitar. Kevin Wasserman, a.k.a “Noodles,” on lead guitar. Noodles is still around today; he’s almost an original member but not quite. They nicknamed him Noodles ’cause he’d noodle around on his guitar in between takes in the studio. I’m so bummed about that. What a boring nickname origin story. I always imagined that he’d once thrown a giant serving bowl of spaghetti noodles off a busy freeway overpass or something. You know Calvin and Hobbes, all those unexplained references to “The Noodle Incident”? Let’s show a little imagination. I’m sticking with that freeway-overpass origin story. Noodles did that. That’s why he’s called that. Greg Kriesel on bass—he hung on until 2018, actually. Ron Welty on drums. Ron made it to 2003. The Offspring are one of these bands, like, the Lineup Chart, and the Lineup Timeline, on their Wikipedia page, is just crazy stressful. Just a startling quantity of data. Yeesh. I hope whoever compiled all that got paid. Ron Welty was not and to the best of my knowledge is not a doctor, but he knew how to kick off a punk-rock song, now didn’t he?

This is the first Offspring song I ever heard. “Come Out and Play.” I suspect I’m in the majority on that. This is one of the two most famous songs on the Smash record. I’d like to tell you, and I think this is true, that I remember hearing “Come Out and Play” for the very first time, on alt-rock radio, while driving, farting around the suburbs, doin’ 38 in a 35 in my piece-of-crap Chrysler LeBaron, windows laboriously cranked down, head scraping the car’s ceiling, posing no threat to anybody, inspiring no interest from anybody. And I just marveled at how beguilingly strange this song was at first contact. What in the damn hell is happening?

The person here, providing the hook You gotta keep ’em separated, is a 7-months-pregnant Welsh lady. No. Rob. Dad. Stop it. This guy is named Blackball. One word. Blackball. He is a friend of Dexter Holland’s. This is true. As recounted in the book called Smash!—subtitled Green Day, the Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX, and the ’90s Punk Explosion, written by the journalist Ian Winwood, came out in 2018—Dexter says, of his friend Blackball, “He’s from the ’hood. He doesn’t know how to sing or rap or anything, but he is real.” Dexter felt the keep ’em separated line called out for a “hip-hop delivery.” Apparently the Offspring recorded this song in an L.A. studio while Snoop Dogg was recording down the hall. And this is 1993 or ’94 Snoop Dogg, right? Whoever else is in that room, Martha Stewart ain’t in that room. And so Dexter says they were reluctant to knock on Snoop’s door and say, “How are you? We’re suburban guys from Orange County.” So there you go: Next time you listen to this whole song, imagine Snoop Dogg doing the You gotta keep ’em separated part. Have fun with that. Meanwhile, Noodles.

Every time this riff is described as “Middle Eastern sounding,” an angel smashes a mailbox with a baseball bat. Interpret that however you like. So. Dexter Holland, as you might be aware, is also a doctor. He got his Ph.D. in molecular biology in 2017. Took him quite awhile. He has a day job. So in the early ’90s he’s a student at USC. He talked to Rolling Stone in 2014, for the 20th anniversary of Smash, and he said, “The lyrics for ‘Come Out and Play’ and most of the other songs were just about whatever was happening in front of me. Back then I was a grad student and I was commuting to school everyday in a shitty car, driving through East L.A. Gangland central. I was there the day of the L.A. riots. So I was very aware of that part of the world, and a lot of that gun stuff came out in songs like ‘Come Out and Play.’”

Speaking to you here in godforsaken June 2022, I found this whole aspect of this song much more amusing 24 hours ago, to put it mildly, so let me summarize. No. 1, Dexter Holland is pretty objectively smarter than me. No. 2, Dexter Holland, to my mind, writes pretty smart, very stupid songs. Gloriously stupid songs. There is a self-awareness amid the gleeful, anthemic, often pretty stupendous stupidity. No. 3, Dexter Holland has never had any problem telling anybody that “Come Out and Play” is a song about a white guy driving through a neighborhood and describing the gang violence, the gun violence therein.

I don’t mean that as any sort of self-righteous condemnation. It is what it is, but that’s pretty objectively what it is. Dexter the singer, the songwriter, is entirely aware of what this is. It’s a white guy reckoning with a culture and an environment very much not his own. Sit on that concept for like five minutes here for me, would ya? Maybe 10 minutes. Shit, probably 20. Hopefully five, though. We may return to that idea. OK. Please, let’s move on to something less, uh, problematic.

God dammit. OK. It’s possible I vaguely remember the very first time I heard this song, “Self Esteem,” as well, thanks to the world-class What in the damn hell is happening? intro to this song. You always read that Kurt Cobain hated the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” guitar riff, right? He thought it was incredibly stupid, he unfavorably compared it to “Louie Louie” and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Apparently once at a Nirvana practice he contemptuously made the band play just that riff for an hour straight, duurrr duurr durrr, duur duur duur, duur duurr durr, durr duur. I always think of that when I hear “Self Esteem,” when the Offspring sarcastically vocalize their own iconic guitar riff. “Self Esteem” of course is the other super-famous song on Smash. It’s about a wimpy guy complaining about a sexy lady. Historically unpleasant subtext—and harrowing Current Affairs subtext—abounds. I’m not sure I see the value in getting too wrapped up in this right now. Let me think about this for a second.

I do not want to use the words I am inclined to use to describe the mentality described in this song. That’s how I’m gonna say that. How’s that for convoluted. If that makes no sense to you, good. Excellent. What I will say: I suspect this is the second Offspring song that a shit-ton of people heard, alt-rock radio being the monolith that it used to be, and thus “Self Esteem,” I suspect, helped a shit-ton of people get used to Dexter Holland’s voice.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.