Americana is the Offspring’s most overtly socially-conscious record.
Most punk bands eventually color outside the lines of the genre. The Offspring were among them. Their first two albums, 1989’s The Offspring and 1992’s Ignition, were passable, straightforward punk. While there were breadcrumb hints at what would later seep into and take over their sound—surf rock and alternative rock in particular—they were just another SoCal punk band.
That changed with their fantastic third album, 1994’s Smash, which was, well, just that. Propelled by three huge singles—“Come Out and Play,” “Self Esteem” and “Gotta Get Away,” all of which are still rock radio staples—Smash went on to sell six million copies domestically and 11 million worldwide, making it the most successful independent album ever. Expanding on their first two records, Smash was The Offspring fully realizing their sound. Combining SoCal punk, surf, alt-rock, hardcore, and a sprinkle of Eastern influences, the album, along with Green Day’s Dookie and Rancid’s …And Out Come the Wolves the following year, helped to pry open grunge’s stranglehold on mainstream rock and showed what punk bands could do with some much-needed tinkering.
That’s a tough act to follow. Indeed, Ixnay on the Hombre, released in early 1997, felt like a concession to external pressure. Despite a pair of memorable hits (“All I Want” and “Gone Away”), Ixnay only sold about a quarter of Smash’s worldwide sales. It was, however, an important record for the band. Its notable drift away from traditional punk stylings suggested that they wanted to experiment with the then-popular post-grunge sound. The result was a lack of cohesion from a band having one foot in both worlds and refusing to pick one.
But that didn’t stop them from trying again a year and a half later. Released at the end of 1998, Americana was The Offspring’s return to massive commercial success. The band’s fifth longplayer almost matched the sales of Smash via a trio of top-10 rock hits. It also saw the quartet—vocalist and guitarist Dexter Holland, lead guitarist Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, bassist Greg Kriesel and (then-)drummer Ron Welty—further wander from the ‘punk’ in ‘punk rock band’ and fully embrace studio-funded, spit-shine polish. Sure, there was still a sprinting pace to some of the material (see “Staring at the Sun,” “No Brakes” and a questionable cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings”), but that no longer represented what The Offspring had become.
The album’s singles confirmed as much. “The Kids Aren’t Alright” was the strongest of the bunch, riding a slick lead from Noodles and a high-concept, acid trip video; it remains the high point of Americana. Yet despite being a notable hit, it’s not what’s remembered about the record. Instead, memory rests with a pair of comically stupid, yet immediately hummable, MTV-approved novelties, “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job?,” that have aged about as well as Holland’s white guy dreads. The former would become the blueprint for future singles (looking at you, “Original Prankster,” “Hit That” and “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”), and features a cringeworthy critique of white suburban kids embracing black culture: “He needs some cool tunes, not just any will suffice/ But they didn’t have Ice Cube, so he bought Vanilla Ice/ Now cruising in his Pinto, he sees homies as he pass/ But if he looks twice, they’re gonna kick his lily ass”. The latter is the band’s straight-faced (and ill-advised) attempt at ska that finds Holland complaining about freeloaders. To his credit, he takes shots at both sexes (“My friend’s got a girlfriend/ Man, he hates that bitch” and “My friend’s got a boyfriend/ Man, she hates that dick”), but that doesn’t save the song from embarrassment.
And that’s unfortunate, because there are some important social issues discussed on Americana. “The Kids Aren’t Alright” reveals the grim underbelly of middle class life, complete with a line that’s eerily relevant today: “Jay committed suicide/ Brandon OD’d and died/ What the hell is going on?/ The cruelest dream: reality”. “She’s Got Issues” considers the connection between emotional baggage and self-worth that’s unfortunately overshadowed by some sexist dismissiveness. Meanwhile, “Walla Walla” is a light-hearted comment on criminality, and “Pay the Man” offers that oldest of complaints against taxes and governmental overreach.
Americana, then, is their most overtly socially-conscious record. “The songs on Americana aren’t condemnations, they’re short stories about the state of things and what we see going on around us,” Holland explained in an interview shortly after the album’s release. “We want to expose the darker side of our culture.” Admittedly, there isn’t much nuance to what’s examined here—was there ever nuance to Holland’s lyrics?—but the effort to place serious issues inside of the band’s strongest set of hooks is admirable nonetheless.
Yet underneath all the social commentary lies a simpler message: be yourself, be an individual. “[W]hat I’m trying to say is that you have to create your own life and your own priorities,” Holland stated in early 1999 about the record. “You’re gonna have to live life the way you want to and not the way you think it should be or the way someone tells you.” That all-too-common internal struggle—outlined in the opening song “Have You Ever”: “Have you ever buried your face in your hands/ ‘Cause no one around you understands/ Or has the slightest idea what it is that makes you be?”—fittingly mirrors the universality of the pop-minded songwriting throughout.
The band had had success, yes, but never before had they swung so assuredly for it. Having been rewarded, they would follow this radio-chasing trend on subsequent releases – “Original Prankster,” from 2000’s Conspiracy of One, features Redman, because why the fuck not? And despite declining album sales on each successive release, the band continues to churn out effortlessly catchy material to fill KROQ playlists. So your feelings on what The Offspring have become in the 20 years since Americana hinges on whether you would use ‘thank’ or ‘blame’ in your answer.