The Offspring’s “Cruising California”: The Sucky Sound of Desperation

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.

From “Pretty Fly” to Grim Reaper in three easy steps!

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 fans.

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.

 

24 thoughts on “The Offspring’s “Cruising California”: The Sucky Sound of Desperation

  1. Americana blew my mind when I was a teen and led me to pop rock efforts like Blink 182 and Sum 41. I won’t hear a bad word Said against it!! Still love No Brakes, and Have you ever been to a place, recognising everybody’s face until you realised that there was no-one there you knew?

    (todavía estoy drunk. Disculpen las molestias)

    ThAnk god for predictive Text.

  2. I skipped the vast majority of this article to get to the lambasting of Offspring’s recent abortion. Worth it. Turn up the beat, chyeah.

  3. Right on the mark, Jorge. It gives me hope that someone else is “thinking critically” (a.k.a. “whining”, depending on who you ask, haha) about the sorry state of pop music these days. This song is a Frankenstein’s monster of elements of other hits, cynically formulated for the sole purpose of being commercial. It says nothing and has no soul. I worry that what passes for music on the radio is a parade of “songs” that are essentially just advertisements for themselves.

    1. Pretty much. And what makes it extra sad is how transparent the whole thing is. It’s not like they’re thinking “alright, let’s analyze what works about these pop singles and try to apply them to our songwriting somehow”, it’s blatant cut-and-paste. A Frankenstein monster of awfulness.

  4. Definitely a break and bake cookie kind of song… if you haven’t seen it already here’s a cool video about some guys following “pop music guidelines”

    Creating a pop hit in 8 hours.

  5. Oh my god what was that crap??!! This makes me really sad because I really liked the Offspring. I would be happy if they just stuck with their old sound but it seems they want to copy Katy Perry

  6. I wouldn’t call myself an Offspring apologist, but I can’t resolve the cognitive dissonance created by them doing this to create a hit. I just don’t think they’d take a song like this seriously. Even if they were trying to be ironic, it still comes off as forced to me.

  7. Directed here from a link shared on the official forums. Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. This track is undeniably one part a desperate attempt at making a “radio hit” and one part Bob Rock steering the ship. Bob Rock’s ENTIRE EXISTENCE is in making bands more “radio mainstream”. He’s directed EVERY BAND HE’S TOUCHED into this path, and it’s sad that hardcore Offspring fans and/or apologists cannot see that this has Bob Rock written all over it.

    So does the entire back half of RAFRAG. Radio-friendly, mainstream, music-by-the-numbers garbage. No art, just safe tracks designed to get exposure.

    At first I thought: Surely this song has to be a new “Pretty Fly”. But then I listened to it again and realized there was no overt sarcasm or irony. It was just The Offspring doing AUTOTUNED POP. I was already unimpressed with Days Go By, which sounded like the same, uninspired, music as the back half of RAFRAG.

    Long story short: Cruising California, combined with the lackluster Days Go By, have made me decide that I’m going to pirate this album first and listen to it before deciding whether or not I’m spending a dime on it. Even with RAFRAG, I bought it day one based on previous positive connections. Half an album and these two tracks have pissed away most of that positivity that had been built up over TWO DECADES.

  8. Well, the entire album is streaming over on Rolling Stone. Color me disappointed. After having been a fan of this band since 1990, I see no reason to bother buying this album. This album sounds like copies of every other alt-rock, pop-rock band out there, just as the back half of RAFRAG did.

    “Turning Into You”? Barf. And yet, apropos since the band is turning into a clone of every other alt-band out there.

    1. I listened to the whole album, and I think I agree with you. It’s an underwhelming effort, though I will admit that “Secrets From the Underground” does conjure up some of the same feelings of excitement that their earlier albums used to bring up in me, and “Secret Family” is kind of a fun song. But yeah, it’s mostly overblown and boring. Even the re-recording of “Dirty Magic” is overproduced and excessively polished.

  9. I think a lot of the old pop punk heavies of the 90s are having trouble trying to stay relevant in this turbulent time in music. I think Green Day and Blink-182 have done well for the most part, but Offspring and some others have floundered. I haven’t bothered listening to their latest album yet, but I’d rather hear anything they do over anything on the radio today.

    1. Well, that’s something of a false dichotomy, isn’t it? I’d much rather not listen to their new stuff OR the radio. 🙂
      It is heartbreaking, though– there’s so much promise in “Ignition”. Man, what a fantastic album.

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