Pretty Flawed

At Desert Sky, the Offspring drag "punk" into the mire of mindlessness

The year is 1983. Offspring singer Dexter Holland--looking very much the blond, spiky-haired, ersatz Billy Idol that he is today--is pathetically bashing away at the drums, in his very first band.

This raw piece of camcorder verite is the kind of stuff that VH1's Before They Were Rock Stars is built on, embarrassing glimpses of famous performers before they had a clue. In this case, though, the source of the footage is not some back-stabbing old friend, but the Offspring's own home-video release, Americana.

There's nothing unusual about Holland's initial musical venture. It's basically the same as most successful musicians' first bands: shambling, unfocused and amateurish, with a naive tone of snotty self-satisfaction. That's not the weird part. The weird part comes later in the video, when you begin to hear a parade of Offspring "classics," tunes that have made their last three albums such sizable hits. Eventually, it hits you that 16 years after he started, Holland is still making shambling, unfocused music that relies on all-purpose snottiness to cover its rhythmic ineptitude.

That's what makes the Offspring's mammoth popularity so simultaneously fascinating and bewildering. At a time when even can't-miss guitar-rock bands (where have you gone, Billy Corgan?) are getting buried on the charts, the Offspring's latest album, Americana, remains in the Top 10 six months after its release and has already been certified triple platinum. What are these relentlessly mediocre Orange County losers doing right?

The Offspring's runaway success has inflamed the long-standing argument about what is or is not "real punk." At the Offspring's May 15 Desert Sky Pavilion show, the issue reared its head in various ways. For instance, near the end of an opening set by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Bosstones' singer Dicky Barrett dedicated a song "to all the rude boys and rude girls and the real punks out there." The largely teenage crowd roared as one, apparently convinced that they all fit the bill.

And maybe they were right. In any event, it seems pointless to argue whether the Offspring is a genuine punk band. It really depends on whether you define "punk" by a particular sound, or by an aesthetic. Is it more punk in 1999 to stubbornly cling to the old Black Flag template--like Sha Na Na doing '50s nostalgia at Woodstock--or to explore exciting new musical territory? Is it more punk to pay your dues playing the accepted indie circuit of clubs--as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore once argued--or to cloister yourself away creating original sounds on your home four-track? Finally, does a punk band automatically cease to be a punk band if it gets massive radio and MTV play?

Of course, these are questions for smaller minds than ours, but if you really wanted to make a case that the Offspring are true punks, it wouldn't be that hard. They paid their dues at scruffy SoCal punk clubs, recorded their early albums for indie stalwarts Nemesis and Epitaph, and--for the most part--they've kept their music as fast and raw as it began.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether the Offspring are a punk band. The problem is not that the Offspring aren't punk, but that they are so completely devoid of wit and musical inspiration. From 1987 to 1994, the band's records were justifiably ignored by the masses, a situation that showed no sign of changing. But after Kurt Cobain's death in April 1994, alt-rock radio immediately turned to lightweight novelty tunes to lighten the cultural mood. A flood of bouncy joke songs by bands like Weezer and Presidents of the United States of America came spilling from the airwaves. The Offspring, journeymen desperate for a breakthrough, rode this wave of fluff with the novelty gang homage "Come Out and Play" (complete with a thickly accented chollo on the chorus), and they've since resorted to the cheapest imaginable gimmicks whenever their popularity appeared to be flagging.

At Desert Sky, gimmickry was a trick the Offspring used to distract people from their remarkably monotonous set list, in which every song sounded like a reprise of the one before. For instance, about halfway through the show, a deep, disembodied voice suddenly intoned: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Backstreet Boys." As the spiky-haired teens booed loudly, a recording of "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" thundered from the speakers, and five Backstreet mannequins appeared onstage. The booing grew louder. Holland ran onstage brandishing a plastic red baseball bat and, one by one, he whacked the pseudo-Backstreets over the head like he was auditioning for a part in a GoodFellas sequel. The sad irony of the gesture was that the Backstreets' track was actually the most listenable piece of music heard during the set.

The move was typical Holland, who specializes in obvious overstatement, and who only takes on the safest targets. Take the band's recent, career-defining mega-hit "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)." While the song inspired a reverent Spin magazine cover story--which lauded the Offspring for their supposedly dangerous, revolutionary take on racial politics--the protagonist of the song is such a moronic cartoon that absolutely no one could be offended.

Holland doesn't even bother to get his details halfway believable, maybe because that would mean alienating part of his demographic. Consider the following attack on a hip-hop poseur: "They didn't have Ice Cube, so he bought Vanilla Ice." What? Aside from the fact that it's been nine years since Vanilla Ice was a hot property, and that most white wanna-bes would be too self-conscious of their own hipness to consider buying such a thing, it's a positively cutting piece of social satire.

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