Twenty years ago, the Offspring released Americana. It’s not their best album, per se, but it’s by far their most important, as it boldly carved the path they’d follow until the end of the damn line. Americana was the moment when this midtier punk rock band from Southern California, benefitting from Nirvana smashing the college rock/alternative glass ceiling, decided to not be some two-hit wonder and seize the initiative. This was the moment when they decided to go for it—to become a sort of Guy Fieri punk rock. Or perhaps the Man v. Food of punk rock. Instead of up-tempo screeds against you know, stuff, they unleashed a whirlwind of big, boisterous, (mostly) inoffensive jams; jams the jocks liked even more than the punks. It’s not like the Offspring had an ideology or even an affinity for leftist politics that would make “selling out” unseemly. They were just a bunch of dudes who got famous for songs that sounded nothing like the rest of their oeuvre and followed that to a logical endpoint. Of course, they’d still duly record their share of somewhat melodic hardcore skate-punk chant-alongs, but these perfunctory offerings would be punctuated by an increasing number of songs clearly intended for A&R men, for Top 40 radio, for arenas. There was some cutthroat calculus here: In fairly obvious humor, they found their salvation. The tunes about Tehran and killing the president just weren’t gonna pay the bills.
The few punk bands of the ’90s that had broken through to the non-college airwaves were not exactly a diverse representation of the best the genre had to offer. Generally, the bands were signed to either Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords and offered up some bricolage of skate-punk and pop-punk. Most of these groups who toed this party line very clearly grew up listening to the Faction or the Descendents and settled on aping one or the other. Blink-182 lurked in the shadows like the Spanish flu, ready to defecate all over the party, while behind them a backward-baseball-cap horde of pinched-voice menaces like New Found Glory and Fenix TX followed. It would take the world years to recover from this outbreak. In the meantime, Bad Religion had gone flaccid mid-coitus in 1994, having lost Mr. Brett, half of their songwriting team; Social Distortion managed a few hits at the beginning of the decade, but no one expected them to really go all the way; Rancid banged on and sold a ton of records, in large part due to 1995’s ...And Out Come the Wolves, but there was a hard cap to the household name success a band fronted by a guy who sounded like a werewolf could achieve; NOFX famously renounced the radio, but they were always the thinking man’s Blink-182 anyway. And so, enter the Offspring, ready to take the next logical step and monetize the shit out of the skeleton of the punk sound.
So yes, Americana changed the game. There was no longer any pretext that at least one strain of punk—the strain that made money—did not solely belong to kids on longboards and TRL devotees. What Green Day’s Dookie and the Offspring’s own Smash had started, Americana unconditionally finished. Henceforth, the band’s output would hinge on the hits and largely be supported by an audience that had very little interest in punk rock as the rowdy manifestation of a social movement begun by working class kids in the United Kingdom and bohemian provocateurs in New York. They willingly embraced their fate of being low-calorie, sarcastic but safe rabble-rousers. Still, Americana wasn’t intended to be completely devoid of some deeper meaning. To lead singer Dexter Holland (and presumably to Noodles, Greg K, and Ron Welty), it was also a thoughtful concept album (of sorts). It was (supposed to be) about the dark underbelly of American society! “It may look like an episode of Happy Days out there in America, but it feels more like Twin Peaks,” Holland said back in 1998, possibly alluding to the fact the owls are not what they seem and a supernatural evil is ever lurking, ever ready to destroy us.
Almost exactly 20 years after the release of the album, the idea of “the dark underbelly of America” still feels extremely relevant. Does Americana stand the test of time? Did it even stand the test of 1998? Do these vignettes of American life feel relevant in the year 2018? Largely yes! But that’s partially because one bit of the American experiment is an endless cycle of rinse and repeat, one step forward, two steps back. Sure, the darkness seems a bit more obvious now, unmasked and increasingly public, but it was always there, even during the Happy Days Dexter so fondly recalls. In the spirit of all that—and because the anniversary of Americana is one worth celebrating—let’s wind back the clock and re-examine the songs themselves; the document, the living record, the proof that the year 1998 really happened.
Dexter Holland looks like a well-meaning Nordic lizard and he sings like one too. He’s a plaintive, almost anodyne front man, who nonetheless parlayed wink-at-the-camera pathos into a multi-platinum rockstar career. Yet he has still found ample time for passion side-hustles such as Gringo Bandito hot sauce and owning a plane (that he can fly!) which he has dubbed Anarchy Airline (lol). What does that have to do with this song? Nothing. Also, it’s not a song. It’s a robotic voice saying “Welcome to Americana. Please make your selection followed by the pound sign now.”
As you can see, the Offspring wasn’t pulling any punches from the get.
“Have You Ever”
The band very astutely started the record off with something familiar. “Have You Ever” is about isolation, being alone in a crowded room, your peers not understanding you, and more relatable stuff like that! This is one of many tunes on Americana about finding yourself, but it’s good. “Falling … I’m falling” the chanty refrain goes. There’s a false ending, and the song rearranges itself as something different and finishes with a weird coda of confidence. A whole new narrator, a whole new story. This song feels like an old friend with a puka shell necklace gently putting his arm around your shoulder, giving it a polite squeeze and saying, “You’re not alone, brah.” If the question is “Does Americana still feel relevant?” this song resoundingly answers, “Yes.” Except for the puka shells.
“Staring at the Sun”
In keeping with classic punk rock’s traditional attitude toward second tracks, “Staring at the Sun” is pretty much the same song as “Have You Ever” but worse. “There’s more to living than only surviving” is maybe a clumsily stated Marxist critique of the value of labor power. “My will is something that you can’t confiscate” on the other hand, smacks of Proudhon and anarcho-libertarianism.
“Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”
Here we go. There’s nothing more American than appropriating and pilfering hard-earned identities. This applies both to the dweeb featured in the video as he leans into the person he thinks he should be, but also of the band itself, who has decided they will just be another thing from now on. As a young punk, who for some strange reason expected more of the Offspring, I hated this song. It brought shame to my burgeoning identity. But now, I have come to respect it—yes, for its audacity, but also because in some primal way, it just slaps.
This is the sound of an artist sick and tired of coming up short and preempting yet another rejection by forcing the issue so spectacularly, so boldly, that you can’t help but tip your checkered fedora and lay your spiked belt upon the hallowed ground of the pit in homage. This is the Offspring making a clean break from the past in the most raucous, batshit way possible. This song, a massive hit on the radio featuring a man counting off “one, two, three, four, five, five, six” in Spanish is the story of, I guess, a white guy who is in fact, actually, pretty fly. It is the intellectual progenitor to future hits such as “Original Prankster” (featuring Redman!), “Hit That” (probably should have featured Redman), and “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in my Trunk)” which is uh, something else, man.
Also of importance: Dexter’s “Uh huh! Uh huh!” sounds like a horny rooster who is about to get his comeuppance. Again, the song slaps, but in a nihilistic way, it also whips.
“The Kids Aren’t Alright”
What a hilarious transition. Whereas the song about the white guy being pretty fly was played mostly for laughs, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is a total downer. It feels timeless enough; it could very easily be an opioid crisis anthem. The other singles off of Americana— “Pretty Fly,” “She’s Got Issues,” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”—are thinly veiled Now That’s What I Call Music! bait, but this song for sure hurls a bone at what we might call “social commentary.” And it’s not bad at all! The melody is wistful. At only three minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, the video that accompanies this song is truly disturbing. Just extraordinarily off-putting. A little slice of hell. It features a range of familiar archetypes (jocks, nerds, the old, the young, some guy in his underwear) and utilizes turn-of-the-century special effects that are also drunk to depict them morphing into different people. At one point, a woman in denim shorts bends forward, perhaps lasciviously prys open her butt cheeks as a man dives out, stretches, takes off his shirt, and then transforms into a cheerleader. All the while, Dexter stares into the camera with his Night King eyes and sings a little.
This ironic cover of a 1975 Morris Albert song is not very good and not very bad. It makes me “feel” nothing at all. Speaking of feelings, what are your feelings about the Offspring’s guitarist being named Noodles? My feelings about that are compex.
“She’s Got Issues”
Every album needs an arena rock ballad about not understanding how to relate to women—that’s classic Americana and classic Americana. With lines like “I don’t know why you’re messed up / I don’t know why your whole life is a chore / Just do me a favor / And check your baggage at the door,” the lyrics of this song make me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s still better than the song about getting a job. “She’s Got Issues” feels very ’90s, like Newt Gingrich drinking Surge. It is interesting to note, however, that the Offspring failed to play this song during Woodstock ’99, yet still found time to decapitate the Backstreet Boys!
This little ditty is about prison, so again, very much in the Americana tradition! America has always been obsessed with prisons and prisoners and the gray area they inhabit in the imagination of the middle class as some great unwashed mishmash of folk-heroes and animals. It’s a zany song, fast and full of verve. The lyrics are delivered whimsically but are very much couched in a scolding tone. It’s a song about, you know, personal responsibility, and almost seems to say “Shame on you, I don’t want to hear it, I know for a fact that it is your own damn fault you are in prison, the justice system does not make mistakes.” Very suburban. Very 2018.
“The End of the Line”
Here’s a song about death or loss, or perhaps death and loss, featuring classic Offspring backing vocals—which is to say, Adolescents-inspired harmonies mixed with the “Kill the beast!” rallying cry from Lord of the Flies. It feels very serious—too serious to follow a song called “Walla Walla.”
I have a complex relationship with the Offspring. Sort of in the same way I have a complex relationship with alcohol and sleeping pills, which is to say it’s not really very complex at all, but drawing attention to it in polite society demands certain explanations, caveats, justifications, papal dispensations, etc. I unabashedly owe the Offspring a great debt, because in fifth and sixth grade, they were my skeleton key into the only music that would matter to me for another decade or so. Retconning your punk origin story is a matter of course for many folks still apparently concerned with their reputations, and that’s fine, but I usually don’t believe the kids who claim they went straight from Hootie and the Blowfish to Anti Cimex in one fell swoop. Look, we all know you crunched on Taco Bell before you became a haughty scholar of how to best prepare lengua, and you probably rented Wing Commander years before you were ready to get messed up by Solaris. There’s no shame in this. Through the Offspring I found Bad Religion, and through them Propagandhi, and through them I-Spy, SNFU, and then forwards and backwards in time, connecting one thread to another to discover Operation Ivy, the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Black Flag, the Avengers, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Wire, Charles Bronson, and hundreds of others. All the bands that helped me, a pimply weakling with bad hair and cargo pants who thought maybe Communism was good, survive high school. So the Offspring have done a lot for me, despite their most recent creative output being a suicide pact of covers with 311.
Anyway, “No Brakes” is a song on the album Americana by the Offspring. And what a song it is. Two minutes and four seconds!
“Why Don’t You Get a Job?”
Is this song Americana? It’s a joyless haranguing from an unreliable narrator about someone who can’t defend themselves, so we’re good so far. However, the melody … feels very … British.
Does this song speak to me in 2018? Yes, this is the sound of Twitter users with anime avatars complaining about people on welfare. Or baby boomers talking about their horrible entitled millennial children who are too cowardly to will themselves into a higher tax bracket. And yet it’s also a song about not enjoying the company of women, which in all fairness, is more or less the thematic lodestar of pop punk. The way Dexter says “bitch” is so jarring. It sorts of rips you to shreds. This song, if I may call it that, is a cautionary tale of a lazy woman (the bitch) with “expensive taste.” In fairness to Dexter Holland and his friends (the Offspring), they were canny enough to realize it’s only fair (gotta hear both sides!) to include a verse about a lazy man supported by his girlfriend, because ya gotta hear both sides! The video for “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” starts with Dexter Holland hang gliding into frame and that’s by far the most dignified thing about it. Honestly, this song is a huge bummer.
This feels like an outtake from the band’s album Smash, the ur-Americana. The titular track plays things relatively straight with lines like “Culture’s defined by the ones least refined” and “My future’s determined by thieves, thugs, and vermin” which again, gives the impression this band has a real reactionary streak—despite the previous track’s finger-wagging. But it’s a penultimate banger and I deeply respect penultimate bangers, even if their politics are a bit wobbly.
“Pay the Man”
This song is more than eight damn minutes long and after the surprisingly enjoyable title track, you’re ready to pack it in. When this album came out, back in the halcyon days before the Iraq War and the total collapse of the global economy, I can’t say with a certainty that I listened to this song more than once. It felt like a bit of a chore compared to both the lighthearted singles and the up-tempo deep cuts. The first five minutes come at you with all the fury of a circle of dudes passing a poorly rolled joint among themselves. It sounds like a punk’s funhouse approximation of what those hippies were doing back in the day. Then it starts to whip. Pay the man. There’s the thesis of the entire record right there.
Final thoughts: Emotional attachment to Americana crashes into the reality of the songs themselves. The album is a classic example of enthusiastically flinging shit against a wall to see what sticks. As an adult person trying and sometimes failing to pay rent, I can appreciate and even respect that. Dexter and Noodles and the other two guys made something here. Something loud and dumb and catchy and classic. Something that will outlast them. That’s why people get into this most dangerous game in the first place. And say what you will about the Offspring, but at least they’ve never had any of their albums adapted into a Broadway musical. That would be extremely embarrassing.