‘Smash’ It Dead: Reflecting on the Offspring’s punk breakout, which turns 20 years old today

If you were a teenager in the late ‘90s with any affinity for punk rock, you might’ve told people that you first discovered the genre through Black Flag, or Dead Kennedys, or one of the several “authentic” hardcore outfits that broke up before you were born. But you were probably lying. More than likely, your first punk band was either Green Day or the Offspring (or blink-182, if you were a few years younger), and your first record was either Billie Joe and co.’s Dookie or the definitive opus from Dexter Holland, Noodles, and that whole gang, Smash, which celebrates its 20th birthday today.

Back in 1994, the only contemporary pop music I was aware of was shit like Michael Jackson and Aerosmith, so Smash must’ve been well on its way to becoming the biggest-selling independent album ever by the time singles “Come Out and Play” and “Self Esteem” scrambled my fragile-eggshell 11-ish-year-old brains.

I should be cautious to not give the Offspring too much credit, but it is kinda weird thinking about how the trajectory of my musical consciousness might’ve been different if Smash hadn’t been all over radio and MTV right around the time I became culturally aware. Part of me says, “If the Offspring hadn’t just-so-happened to be the first punk band you just-so-happened to be exposed to, you would’ve eventually gotten into Green Day or Nirvana or maybe even something like Weezer and would’ve ended up liking almost all the same music you do now anyway.”

Maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t quite. In a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman explains that there are Elvis people and Beatles people. You can be a fan of both, but it’s impossible for anyone to like them equally. I think the same paradigm applies to Dookie and Smash. It also applies to drugs. Kids I knew who got really into Dookie had generally turned into big stoners by the time they hit the age of 14 or 15. Smash, for whatever reason, seems to be the preference for those of us who grew up to be whiskey and speed people. I don’t enjoy smoking pot. It gives me a headache and makes me sleepy. Sometimes, so do Green Day songs.

Perhaps more importantly, I distinctly remember sitting in art class one day, and having a conversation sort of like this with a buddy of mine. This was in 1997, or thereabouts:

Buddy: “Hey Barry, isn’t the Offspring one of your favorite bands?”

Me: “Yup. I think they’re swell. I like to listen to them while I jump off furniture and while I let the neighborhood kids hit me with sticks.”

Buddy: “Well, did you know the guy with the funny voice who sings the parental advisory disclaimer parody on Ixnay on the Hombre [1997’s follow-up to Smash] used to be in a band called Dead Kennedys?”

Me: “I watch MTV and listen to the radio all the time, but I haven’t heard of them. Are you sure you’re not making them up?”

Buddy: “I sure am sure, buddy! I just so happen to be listening to a cassette tape of Dead Kennedys on my Walkman. We have things like cassette tapes and Walkmans because no one knows what an MP3 is yet. Want to hear a song called ‘Pull My Strings?’”

Minutes later, I suddenly understood that Republicans are awful, Christianity is a sham, and I immediately developed a hitherto non-existent loathing of corporate art.

So, the Offspring wound up informing my politics, albeit indirectly, as well as my taste in music. It was relevant, because relevancy is an abstract concept.

Twenty years after Dookie, people still react when Billie Joe Armstrong embarrasses himself with an onstage tantrum. Green Day put on kickass three hours clinics at the Xfinity Center when they come to town. The Offspring dial in a serviceable, but mostly kind of bland greatest hits routine at the House of Blues or as the token legacy act on Warped Tour. Green Day remains relevant, or at least newsworthy. Nirvana are crucially relevant, despite not existing for the same period of time Dookie and Smash have been things people can buy.

Today, the Offspring might be one of the most irrelevant bands on the planet, and absolutely one of the most currently irrelevant bands to have sold something like 40 million albums.

How could this have happened?

This is one of my favorite album reviews of the past couple of years, even though half of it is sort of bullshit. The writer theorizes that worthwhile Offspring songs are always sarcastic, misanthropic, at their core, basically kind of bitter, and they’ve never successfully conveyed any other sentiment. I agree that the Offspring have never pulled off sentimentality or preciousness on the scale of, let’s say, Green Day’s “Time of Your Life,” but it’s telling that the writer never mentions any tracks from 1989’s The Offspring LP or 1992’s Ignition, either because he hadn’t heard them, or because acknowledging the earnest, utter lack of snark on those records would have undermined his thesis.

Despite holes in the argument, this review could explain why the Offspring started to feel redundant and unnecessary after 1998’s Americana, and why, in my experience, they halfass their live shows. Perhaps the gnashing cynicism surging throughout Smash was bound to be turned inward, sooner or later.

Or, maybe the Offspring’s latter-day irrelevancy can be chalked up to a simpler inevitability.

Dexter Holland, bassist Greg K., and guitarist Noodles are all about 50-years-old and probably all millionaires several times over. Their contemporaries may simply have an easier time faking kinship with the broke, angst-ridden versions of themselves who lived two decades ago, because they’re too dumb to be self-conscious. Take Jared Leto, for instance. Jordan Catalano couldn’t even spell “cynical” or “self-conscious.”

And let us not forget that, as vital as Smash is, the Offspring’s second-biggest seller is best-known for comedy songs like the semi-racist “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” and the mean-spirited “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” ripoff “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” Not to say Americana lacks brooding, Smash-ish pop punk entirely.

“Have You Ever” might be one their best depressing songs that’s depressing for the right reasons. But whereas Smash occasionally shot the listener a wink to make sure he or she got the joke, “Pretty Fly…” and “Why Don’t You…” are meant to be overtly “Ha Ha” funny belly shakers. Maybe they are… until we realize the Offspring are mocking unemployed, pop culture-obsessed suburbanites, meaning they might as well be singing about how lame Offspring fans are.

Let’s propose an alternate reality where the Offspring broke up in 1997. Instead of the spotty legacy they’re currently saddled with, instead of a fish in a barrel for irreverent music critics, they’d be revered as one of the most influential, significant, relevant punk bands of the ‘90s, because that’s what they were, even if not everyone wants to admit it in 2014, especially if they’ve listened to “Cruising California (Bumpin’ In My Trunk).”

After all, back in the late ‘90s, the real reason why it was cool to tell people you were a Dead Kennedys fan, but uncool to tell people you were an Offspring fan, was DKs weren’t around at the time to make a case against themselves. Since then, DKs have reformed without Jello Biafra, sued the crap out of him for trademark rights and whatnot, and now being a DKs fan is also uncool.

But then, Smash’s closest thing to an optimistic moment arrives at the end when, just in case it wasn’t already clear, Holland triumphantly cries, “I’m not a trendy asshole! Do what I want! Do what I feel like! I’m not a trendy asshole! Don’t give a fuck if it’s good enough for you!” And he had no reason to give a fuck, even before he became a multimillionaire, because trendiness is an abstract concept, just like relevancy and coolness.

This prompts the question: if the Offspring didn’t give a fuck, why should we?