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The One With The Conservative Agenda: Why The Offspring Is Punk's Equivalent Of Friends
JR Moores , November 20th, 2018 10:19

20 years after the release of Americana, JR Moores revisits the work of the punk band that liked to punch downwards

When I was about fifteen years old I proudly announced to my schoolmates that the song I would most like to have played at my funeral would be 'Gone Away' by The Offspring. "And it feels / And it feels like heaven's so far away," read its lyrics. "And it feels, yeah / It feels like the world has grown cold / Now that you've gone away." Such is the combined arrogance and pitiful naivety of youth.

Back then, to our tender and inexperienced ears, The Offspring's brand of energetic pop punk sounded like the epitome of rebellion. "I'm not a trendy asshole," we would chant along, not knowing whether to change the pronunciation of ass to arse, "I do what I want / I do what I feel like / I'm not a trendy asshole / Don't give a fuck / If it's good enough for you..." Oh, how we'd crank it up in the sixth-form common room with the express intention of unsettling or at least irritating those who always wore the correct trainers and preferred the smoother productions of Madonna, Whitney Houston, TLC, and Bryan Adams - all artists I now realise had a lot more going on than The Offspring. At home, we'd play Smash too loudly from our bedroom stereos after another petty argument with our underappreciated parents who we now realise were total flipping saints.

I began to lose interest in The Offspring at university when they were superseded by the likes of Hefner, Mogwai, Ween, The Flaming Lips, and various non-FNM recordings of Mike Patton spitting incoherent nonsense over a barrage uncompromising metallic jazz noise. Having recently dusted off my old CDs of their 90s and early 2000 recordings in order to give The Offspring another listen, I have found they no longer seem remotely rebellious or counter-cultural. In fact, The Offspring come across as arch conservatives; reactionary to the core.

This slightly unnerving experience recalled that moment when Friends appeared on Netflix earlier this year. Generation Zedders viewing the sitcom for the first time alongside older re-visitors alike were stunned by the show's abundance of full plotlines and throwaway gags which functioned merely to poke fun at Ross's lesbian ex-wife or else disparage homosexuality in general. Elsewhere, its scripts made the gender non-conformity of Chandler's father the butt of countless punchlines, or body-shamed "fat Monica", while committing various other politically incorrect, woke-less indiscretions. Many of its main and supporting characters were defined by personality quirks suggesting these people were actually suffering various forms of debilitating mental illness to which the apparently appropriate response was to point and giggle along with the studio audience.

Friends ran for a decade from 1994, roughly coinciding with the halcyon period of The Offspring's career. Returning to the Californian punks' material from that era produces similarly queasy reactions to watching Joey Tribbiani's constant attempts to undermine the masculinity of his vaguely effeminate heterosexual buddy Chandler Bing. And in both the dialogue of Friends and the lyric sheets of The Offspring, there is an awful lot of punching downwards from a smug and entitled position of privilege. 

They may not have been so guilty at first, but by the time of their fourth album (1997's Ixnay On The Hombre), The Offspring had adopted the rich's undignified habit of sneering down at those less fortunate and far weaker than themselves.

Take 'Don't Pick It Up', for example, a track which inverts the oft-used ska refrain "pick it up, pick it up, pick it up" to not-so-humorous effect. Verse one provides a cautionary tale about a child who lifts from the ground what he believes to be a discarded candy bar and immediately shoves it greedily into his hungry little mouth. To the kid's horror, he discovers it was actually "doggy doo". Lol! Idiot! Even if you overlook the moral of this opening section - to act always in a manner of Victorian dignity and restraint - and even if you put to the back of your mind the elite's prolonged attempts to associate the underclasses with dirt, dirtiness, ferality and excrement (which they've been doing since at least the invention of early-modern plumbing), even if you do all this and view it as harmlessly light-hearted scatological ska-punk, the song only gets more sinister as it unfolds.

Verse two warns of the perils of sleeping around and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Sensible advice, perhaps, if again a little chaste. To modern sensibilities, the third and concluding verse of this two-minute ditty is the dodgiest of the lot. Here, Dexter Holland sings of a friend who is seeking romance. The suitor meets somebody who resembles Saturday Night Live's Pat O'Neill Riley (a gender-unspecific sketch character performed by Julia Sweeny which drew recurring mega-laughs from the ruse that nobody could tell whether this androgynous person was a woman or a man). "It had a pair of thingies and a moustache too," sings Holland, "not clearly male or female / So now what to do?" His advice? Don't pick it up.



(There was a girl at our school who was, in those days, judged "tomboyish" and teased to the point of outright bullying for apparently resembling a boy with a ponytail. In the playground, people would approach her and demand she confirm her gender. She would reply in a manner I now consider to be Obama-like in its sheer level of calmness and dignity: "I think we both know that's obvious." It should've been. She was on the netball team. I stood by. I probably laughed along. Like the author George Saunders, I wish I had shown greater kindness and this failure of kindness still troubles me.)

The Offspring didn't just scoff at androgynous types and accidental coprophagics, of course. Drop-outs, stoners, slackers, the idle, the afflicted and the addicted also incurred their sniggering wrath on a routine basis. Sitting alongside 'Don't Pick It Up' on Ixnay's tracklist is one of the nastiest and most cynical punk tracks in the history of the record industry. The philosophy offered by 'Way Down The Line' is that angry drunks beget horrible children who themselves turn into alcoholic, abusive parents. Likewise, the daughter of a teenage mother and absent father will only make the same mistake again by getting pregnant at a desperately young age. "All the things you learn when you're a kid / You'll fuck up just like your parents did," runs the message. Inevitably, "Welfare moms have kids on welfare / And fat parents they have fat kids too / You know it's never gonna end / The same old cycle's gonna start again..." By that point, 'Way Down The Line' has basically turned into the Tory Party's socially divisive "strivers versus scroungers" slogan set to a lively beat.

When drugs or crime crop up in The Offspring's lyrics, the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the complicit individual with little or zero acknowledgement of the wider and more complex social, political, historical, or cultural reasons behind such dilemmas. 'What Happened To You?', a ska number from 1994's Smash expresses frustration with a friend who's succumbed to drug addiction; somebody who used to "have a brain" before they "started toking", and is now doing "junk" morning, noon and night. "I might be sympathetic or cut a little slack," concludes the narrator, "if I thought that you were willing to give a little back." They've tried to "lend a hand" but any offers of help have fallen on deaf ears. So, well, fuck 'em then.

Ixnay's 'Mota' is less of a sequel, more of a rewrite. This time the verses are sung from the perspective of a drop-out stoner who spends all day scoring marijuana, smoking it, growing hungry and paranoid, giggling at naff television shows, and getting ripped off by dealers. The chorus shifts to second-person, condemning the bong-addled low life without offering much in the way of compassion: "Your enemy's you and your couch is your life."

The Offspring's next album, 1998's Americana, is practically a concept album on how such implicitly loathsome sad sacks need to snap out of it, get a grip, sort themselves out, pull their fingers out and their socks up, stop whining, pull themselves together, etc., etc., etc. (And do this all by themselves, naturally).

"A lot of the things that I started writing were kind of this theme of American culture of 1998," Holland told Billboard at the time of its release. "I was thinking about how today's America is distorted reality. It's not Norman Rockwell anymore; it's Jerry Springer. It's not living on the farm; it's going to Burger King. So I kind of expanded on that and made a lot of the songs as kind of vignettes of my version of America in 1998." (Incidentally, one working title for the record was lifted directly from a Jerry Springer show: You're Too Fat To Make Porn.)

Sure, the American Dream ain't all it's cracked up to be but where a singer like Bruce Springsteen (for example) will chip a hole in that fictitious and detrimental concept while offering his listeners some semblance of hope and compassion, in the quotation above Holland is getting dangerously close to shouting "Everything was so much better in the olden days" before donning a bright red Make America Great Again baseball cap and nipping off for a quick 18 holes with the four golfers of the apocalypse (Trump, West, Lydon, Corgan).

Indeed, the worst thing about the single 'Why Don't You Get A Job?' isn't the fact that it audaciously rips off 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' but rather that it refashions The Beatles' joyful and inclusive cod-reggae number into yet another sanctimonious tirade against those considered to be a lazy drain on society and everyone around them. Get a job? Why don't you get one, you cheeky plonker? You play in a pop-punk band.

Holland's other "vignettes" included 'The Kids Aren't All Right', a song about Holland's old neighbourhood which had apparently gone to pot since he left for swankier pastures. Now it's populated by the unemployed, drug-dependant, and suicidal. This song has some semblance of sympathy for its subjects' "fragile lives" and "shattered dreams" but still lacks much depth or nuance.

There's also 'Walla Walla', about a petty thief and carjacker who's been sent to prison after having "gotten off easy so many times" in the past. "Slap on the wrist? Well, not this time!" yelps a gleeful Holland upon reporting the sentencing of this misguided fool who has failed to mend his ways. We're not given any information on what drove this person to burglary and what's prevented him from enjoying a conventional crime-free life. The implication is stupidity and stubborn laziness. Well, maybe.

Like so many punk bands through the ages, and musicians in general, and mankind in general, The Offspring also have a problem with women. One of their breakthrough hits, 'Self Esteem' from Smash, concerns a cuckolded sap who can't bring himself to break up with the woman who is using him for sex, its tone foreshadowing the creepy self-pitying misogyny of third-wave emo. 

Worse still is Americana's 'She's Got Issues' in which a girlfriend is chastised for her mental health problems and crippling abandonment issues. "Today everyone has issues and no one takes responsibility because their mother or their father drank too much or whatever," Holland elaborated to Billboard with all the sensitivity of Katie Hopkins blowing raspberries outside a PTSD survivors meeting.

"A song like 'She's Got Issues' is saying, 'Hey, come on, let's just take some personal responsibility for who we are instead of blaming our actions or behaviour on things that aren't really relevant," Holland told Spin magazine while also mocking a woman on a radio phone-in show whose son was suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. "It's not that she has a kid that's hyper and she can't control him. It's that he suffers from this affliction, and here's the initials," Holland complained, as if channelling Rod Liddle with quail's egg yolk stains all down his lapel.

In that same piece, Holland goes on to rant about the "stifling" nature of "political correctness" which he mistakenly defines as a woman - and it would be a woman - who spills coffee all over herself in McDonald's and then sues the fast-food outlet because the cup wasn't emblazoned with the warning "THIS COFFEE'S HOT". Much like Stewart Lee's grandmother, Dexter Holland is one of those people who has confused political correctness with health and safety legislation.

Clearly there are those on the right who actively pursue the muddling of political correctness with health and safety because the confusion benefits their agenda which is to neuter PC culture because they believe that, to quote a sarcastic Stewart Lee again, "Oh, political correctness was shit, wasn't it? Being fair to people!" Whether Holland is doing the same thing or has merely been bamboozled is unclear. He claims to be a left-leaning registered Democrat.

Perhaps Holland always had a superiority complex that hindered him from empathising with the plight of the poor, needy, directionless, and desperate. Before The Offspring exploded in popularity, he was studying for a PhD in molecular biology. Is it coincidence that the world's most famous biologist, the withering Sir Richard Dawkins, is also known for his haughty inability to countenance those he perceives to be less wise than himself and who might hold beliefs he cannot even begin to comprehend? What's up with these biologists?

Holland became more condescending - or more willing to voice his condescendence - as The Offspring graduated from small-time punks with day jobs to multi-platinum major label superstars. As research has shown, the wealthiest among us are least likely to attribute their fortunes to luck. Having convinced themselves that success is all down to willpower and elbow grease, such folk tend to be opposed to taxation and government spending because they didn't need a handout so why should anyone else? In reality, everybody's social situation as well as their underlying skills and character are all down to luck. Luck swallows everything.

Certainly the more successful The Offspring became, the more these spiteful, self-made-men attitudes crept into their oeuvre. Before this, on The Offspring's first two albums (1989's self-titled debut and 1992's Ignition), Holland can be heard railing against American military intervention in foreign lands, condemning the institutional racism of the LAPD, promoting anarchic arson and pyromania, and calling for the president to be murdered; all wholesome punk-rock ideas.

Thereafter, the band's lyrical stance altered. In doing this, The Offspring were breaking away from the American punk scene of the 1980s. As guitarist Noodles explained to the NME's Steven Wells in 1997, The Offspring had decided to react against the overtly political and preachy nature of the punk form that had flourished during the Reagan years. "'OK! This song's about doing the right thing when it comes to, uh, pesticides! BLANG! BLANG! BLANG!'", went Noodles' impersonation. "What gives you the right to tell me how to live my life? 'This song's about Not Drinking Beer! BLANG! BLANG! BLANG!' Fuck you! I like beer!"

Yet by removing fuck-da-police sentiments, critiques of government policy, and calls for presidential assassination and replacing them with social criticism and character studies, The Offspring were being no less sanctimonious than older punks while also introducing what could be interpreted as neoliberal and conservative viewpoints.

Increasingly so, The Offspring gazed down from their ivory tower, pointing their accusatory fingers at all and sundry below, and shouting the equivalent of "Get a job, you lazy bum!", "Mental illness? Pull yourself together, you silly old cow!", "Never let a WOMAN run your life; man up bro", and similar sentiments to that end.

The songs which Holland identified as Americana's more "positive" moments - 'Staring At The Sun' and 'Pay The Man' - toe the same line. They ask the question, "How am I gonna find my own way as an individual through the world?" Holland told the Los Angeles Times. That's one of the problems with punk rock, isn't it? There's an overlap in the Venn diagram when its circles display the values of the typical punk - DIY, freedom, individuality, etc. - alongside those of the Thatcherite business owner who hates the nanny state, resents paying tax, and considers himself superior to the swinish multitude.

It didn't have to be this way. Just look at the Offspring's multi-millionaire pop-punk rivals Green Day. It may seem like the trio spend more time gallivanting around glitzy cocktail parties with Hollywood royalty than busking on the streets of Berkeley where they cut their teeth. Even so, unlike The Offspring or the writers of TV's Friends, Green Day give the impression that they continue to identify solidly with the basket cases, masturbation addicts, sadomasochists, transvestites, and other nonconventional misfits and social outcasts who populate their songs. Green Day also continued to take pot shots at those in power, at the broader political and corporate causes of inequality, and to express concern for and solidarity with those less fortunate than themselves by producing not one but two whole rock operas about life under the George W. Bush administration written from the point of view of the downtrodden. 

There is a 'Disclaimer' at the start of Ixnay On The Hombre, read by lefty punk elder Jello Biafra, instructing listeners that "If it sounds sarcastic, don't take it seriously / If it sounds dangerous,
do not try this at home or at all / And if it offends you, just don't listen to it." But for the most part The Offspring weren't being ironic. Not unless Holland also conducted all his interviews in an undetectably sarcastic manner or via a satiric alter-ego like pop-punk's answer to Andy Kaufman. That unlikely scenario seems a little too meta for Holland. Instead, we can safely assume that he does - or at least did - genuinely hold the cold-hearted beliefs that define his lyrics.

All of which is a rather longwinded way of requesting that there should be no songs by The Offspring heard at my funeral.

Any mourners will think I was very unkind.