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There's a great thrill in the first few seconds of a hardcore punk show the drums and guitars click into lockstep and the crowd loses control of itself. When the Offspring ripped the opening notes of "All I Want" into a packed Irving Plaza last week, the seizures that sped through the audience were strong enough to call violent. It was a scary, chaotic, classic hardcore moment, ripe with power and edged with blood, and it lasted until the band put an end to it with a couple of joke songs and a lukewarm spray of canned Bud.
Of course, goofs and cheap beer are also a classic hardcore moment, especially a Southern California one, and the Offspring have been surfing between seriousness and jokes for as long as they've been around. "Come Out and Play" and "Self-Esteem," the singles that sprang them from the intense SoCal scene, functioned excellently as peppy radio fodder even as they moaned and groaned of gang violence and persistent self-loathing. The album, Smash, sold 11 million copies. Its follow-up, Ixnay on the Hombre, had no novelty songs on it less out of ambition than a more general failure of purpose and couldn't get arrested commercially. So at Irving Plaza, they'd gone back to embracing their hamfisted light side with teenboy horniness. Regular collaborator Larry "Bud" Melman was welcomed onstage like a long-lost brother.
Hardcore is an unforgiving medium, in both form and following. It's about as stodgy and old-fashioned as a young person can get. Even swing is more experimental. But what makes hardcore perenially appealing is the elemental power that it so effortlessly taps into. Neo-Nazis flock to it as the perfect medium for unquestioned and unquestioning rage. But in the right hands Bad Brains and Bad Religion come to mind it's also an ideal way to wave the flag of dissent. Whether the Offspring have the right hands is debatable, and the debate will be fueled by the single "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," which sends up the sins of a wigger, and its video, which shows a gold chainwearing whitey comically failing to be down. For those looking for proof that the Offspring are pushing a conservative agenda, "Pretty Fly" seems like a red herring. The obvious argument for people to "act their color" aside, it shows people of all races united against a kid who everyone, including his own family, seems to think is a total freak.
The real Orange County, California, comes out on the band's opus "Americana," in which Dexter Holland rails against the Jerry Springer ization of the U.S., where "culture's defined by the ones least refined" and his "future's determined by thieves, thugs, and vermin." Ugly sentiments, but it's Americana's most powerful track, the one where the Offspring put their toys aside. It's hardcore. And it's one of seven or eight songs that, taken by themselves, could be a whiz-bang manifesto: a loud, fast, well-aimed drive-by. The gutsiness of these lyrics versus the novelty numbers is dramatic: compare the prefab sing-along "Why Don't You Get a Job?" ("I won't pay, I won't pay, no way/Why why why don't you get a job?") to the shell-shocked sadness of "Have You Ever" ("Have you ever walked through a room, but it was more like the room passed around you?"). They also get the most ambitious musical arrangements, like the gloom-and-doom Sabbath vibe of "Americana" and the chilling antischmaltz of the disturbing cover "Feelings." A three-minute South Asianflavored jam opens the final cut, "Pay the Man." "Staring at the Sun" practically imagines a cross between Black Flag and Burt Bacharach: "Maybe life is a ride on a freeway," wails Holland, "dodging bullets while you're trying to find your way." If he kicked it off with "baby," instead of "maybe," he'd really have it nailed.
Needless to say, after Ixnay on the Hombre the Offspring are hardly about to go broke making records centered on anger, isolation, and misery. They got off on churning Irving Plaza into a potential riot scene; they also got off diffusing the energy and bringing out a xylophone made of doll heads, or whatever that was. And why should they only be serious? Maybe the jokes keep them sane. But if they ever tapped the depths of their insane side, Holland's alienated isolation, just for one eensy weensy record, I'd think they were pretty fly. Even for white guys.