If you’re in your mid-to-late 20s today, that means you entered adolescence around the mid-to-late 90s. As such, you were probably a victim of many of the horrible, horrible musical fads that came with that particular era. Whether it be nu-metal, rap-metal, funk-rock or ska-punk (*shudder*), there are probably a few musical skeletons in your closet that make you to shake your head at your younger self, or cringe in horror like one does at a high school yearbook picture.
The band that defined my early teens was definitely The Offspring. But first, some context. I grew up in a house in which Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and other such songs from the Great American Songbook would routinely blare out of my parents’ sound system. I had a very specific range of music that I was interested in– mostly jazz standards and classical, until “punk rock” (or some approximation of it) burst into my radar.
I remember first being exposed to The Offspring by way of a South Park music video I found on a site called “Mr. Hat’s Hellhole”. Some clever soul had assembled a rudimentary fan video of scenes from the Cartman anal probe episode, set to the Offspring song “The Kids Aren’t Alright”. I became obsessed with this track, and purchased the Americana album shortly afterwards. It was the very first album I ever bought on my own; I didn’t have any money at the time, so I used a gift card that was given to me as a birthday present by Pamela Gonzalez, a girl from school. Come to think of it, I owe a lot to Pamela, as that coupon opened up a world of music for me and shaped the person I would eventually become. Which is not to say that the music of The Offspring was some sort of epiphanic revelation (I mean, it was at the time, but that’s beside the point), but because this band led to discovering the Ramones, which led to discovering Tom Waits, which led to a broad spectrum of artists & genres I probably would’ve never considered at such young age.
This fandom for The Offspring burned intensely between ages 13 and 16-ish. I say “16-ISH” because my disenchantment was gradual. At their best, The Offspring were just a blast– a fun, rollicking blast of uncompromising, melodic punk rock (I still contend that “Ignition” is a hell of a punk album, and “Kick Him When He’s Down” is a genuinely good song) with the occasional detour into bubblegum pop territory. But as years went by, I started finding their songs increasingly stiff, their lyrics a little ham-fisted and obvious. What once seemed exciting, now seemed desperately banal, and by the time I started digging into the back catalogue of all the punk bands that came before them, they were rendered obsolete in my daily music-listening.
By 2008’s “Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace”, they were desperately crawling away from the clutches of irrelevance, playing catch-up to Green Day’s miraculous late-career resurgence. And to accomplish this, they choose to simply copy other successful artist of the time. And this was startlingly obvious: album opener “Half-Truism” was a blatant remake of My Chemical Romance’s “Helena”, “Fix You” sounded like “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” copied the Fall Out Boy template to a T, “Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?” and “Rise and Fall” sounded remarkably like Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “American Idiot”, respectively. It was a sad display of artistic stagnation. I listened to that album once, and it depressed the hell out of me.
It became obvious that they had resigned themselves to pump out hits by recycling other band’s material, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard one of their new songs– a number by the name of “You Will Find a Way”, which sounded so much like the Foo Fighters song “Times Like These” that they had to re-write the vocal melody to make it less recognizable. The new version, now titled “Days Go By”, still retains that Foo Fighters sound with a different melody slapped on top of it to make the plagiarism less egregious.
But nothing could prepare me for the other single off this new album, titled “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk)”.
I don’t even know what to say about this song. My first reaction was a 5-minute fit of laughter. I sent it around to friends. I posted it on message boards like it was the Insane Clown Posse “Miracles” meme. I mean, this is the most formulaic pop-rock hit ever written, built on the same four-chord combination that has by now inspired thousands of youtube clips and comedy routines (it only took about 60 years of pop music for listeners to become savvy enough to recognize this trope, but that’s beside the point) complete with a catchy female-vocal hooks and the blandest, most laboriously “party” rock chorus this side of Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (which, by the way, is name-checked in the lyrics). Every single element of this song sounds like it was carefully calculated and manufactured under sterile conditions in some horrible pop music laboratory with the determination to build a perfect summer hit that 13-year-old girls across the world will blast out of their car stereos while cruising down their own versions of California (if their message board is any indication, most Offspring fans are Eastern European teenagers).
Offspring apologists all over the internet (at least the ones who haven’t given up after listening to the song) will offer up the theory that this song is meant to be ironic. That it’s a deliberate play on pop rock conventions. That they’re playing it up to make fun of it. That this is their version of “trolling the industry”. But that just doesn’t ring true– the song is played painfully straight, there are no elements of parody to be found and, most tellingly, it’s being released as a single and actively promoted with a music video. A hilarious music video, by the way, but not because it’s trying to be hilarious. Rather, it’s unintentionally hysterical to see the band in their shades, with their 90s spiky hair, looking squarer than ever, play the song straight-faced to a delighted army of idolaters.
If The Offspring are being ironic about this, they’re going about it the wrong way: with painstaking sincerity.
Regardless of what the fans may tell themselves, this isn’t a pointed criticism towards the increasingly vapid pop-rock tropes of our times. This is the sound of three guys who have been playing together since they were teenagers, who are pushing 50 and who are doing everything within their power to stay relevant. This is a song that strives, above all other things, to be a hit. This is the sound of a career that has gone so far down the path of artistic stagnation that it’s lost any sense of self-awareness it ever had. This is the sound of trying desperately to catch up to your peers. This is the musical equivalent to a hasty cram session 20 minutes before the test. This is the sound of desperation.
And I know, I know. This sounds like the bleating of another internet “hater”, and will most likely be written off as such by their army of loyal fans. But there’s no Schadenfreude here. This pains me. This is a band I used to love when I was a kid. A band that I proudly called my favorite for several years. A band I would proudly defend against the dismissal of music snobs everywhere. So to see them reduced to a caricature– to this artistically stagnant, commercially motivated pop-rock outfit– is really disheartening.
Tonight, after posting this entry, I’m choosing to forget about the current state of The Offspring. I’m going to put my headphones on and listen to Ignition– a longtime favorite. And I’m going to rock out to “Nothing From Something” and try to feel the lyrics the way I did when I was 13, and honor the songs that marked my life as an alienated, awkward tween. Because as much as they suck now– and they do suck, relentlessly– those songs are still there. To quote Moz, yes, I’m older now, and I’m a clever swine— but they were the only ones who ever stood by me.