Orange County, California: 800 square miles of white people, wedged in between L.A. and San Diego. Hardly punk rock central, from the looks of it: The land behind the Orange Curtain is a strip of beach backed up by a freeway-ridden patchwork of office parks, subdivisions, developments, planned-and-gated and patrolled communities, multiplexes, minimalls, malls, and megamalls, relieved only by the occasional defense plant or military installation. And Disneyland, which is right there in the middle of Anaheim (Klanaheim, as they used to call it back in the ’20s; the racial politics are a little more muted these days).
A place very much like America, in other words, but newer (1940 population: 130,000; 1994: 2,550,000), cleaner, neater, and a hell of a lot more Republican. In fact, O.C. is the kind of place where, when some punchy ol’ sonofagun suggests they name the airport after John Wayne, the powers that be actually do it. But if you’re the kind of person who thinks Bennigan’s isn’t a bar and “lower property taxes” isn’t a philosophy, then O.C. is gonna irritate you, and vice versa. It’s a can-do place and they don’t like whiners. Everything is just fine in Orange County, y’see, and if you don’t agree, you can move somewhere without all that sunshine and surf. Or say fuck it all and go to the beach and stay there, surfing some and sucking down beers lots.
Or, if you’re a real misfit, you can round up some like-minded individualists—like-minded individualists? Hmmm—and start a punk band. O.C. has spawned scads of ’em: old-timers like Agent Orange, who didn’t sell a lot of records, and new ones like the Offspring, who do. In O.C., where the ’50s lasted until about 1980, the ’80s are now. Punk lives—a kind of punk, anyway.
Now, when I was a snotty young brush-head, back in the days when it was all new, punks were a bunch of fucking degenerates, at least the ones we looked up to. Dee Dee Ramone—hustler; Sid Vicious—junkie knife fiend; Stiv Bators—extremely unhealthy; Johnny Thunders—ugghhhh. Fundamentally unsound, all of ’em. Not a whiff of responsibility, honor, achievement in the lot—those qualities were the mark of the poser, the wannabe. To be a real punk, you had to fuck your life up, but good (even the smart punks—the Clash—were at least class-B messes).
That kind of boneheadedness won’t wash with the Offspring. The Offspring are achievers—and I’m not just talking about Dexter’s Ph.D. in molecular biology (hard to imagine Johnny Thunders in grad school, his intimate knowledge of the human vein structure notwithstanding). Or Greg K.’s finance degree. Or Noodles’ surfing, for that matter—can you picture Joey Ramone hanging 10? In a bathing suit, even at Rockaway Beach? But it goes beyond such superficials. The Offspring’s whole attitude is, in a word, good. When they sang, “Yeah, I hate everything” and “Being positive’s so unhip” a couple albums back, they were being, um, ironic. They like lots of stuff. Snowboarding. Cloning viruses. Living in O.C. And when they sang, “I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem,” their affect was 180 degrees from, say, that guy from Radiohead insisting that he’s a creep and a weirdo. Him, you believe. Dexter, not so much.
In the vocabulary of ’60s rock, the Offspring are much more Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention than Iggy and the Stooges. Like Zappa—their SoCal homie—they’re basically a bunch of pretty smart dweebs (that part of “Self Esteem” is, paradoxically, true) who’ve managed to convince people that they’re cool. And like the early Zappa, when he was still worrying about social justice and the plasticity of suburban culture (issues bound to bug the thinking young resident of the Southland), and not the Illinois Enema Bandit, behind their snide jokiness they take life pretty seriously.
Oh yeah. Conspiracy of One? It’s fine. Is there anything here as cute as “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”? No: Like with Ixnay on the Hombre, their follow-up to the megahit Smash, this follow-up to the even more megahit Americana finds them in dance-with-the-girl-what-brung-you mode—more punk, less pop. Personally, I’d prefer the pop, but I’m cynical. Besides, Dexter and his chums, who aren’t, are honorable guys, and honorable guys try to keep it real. You still get the spoken intro (here, swiped off some old Beach Boys live thing) and the funny little voice (rapper Redman’s, in this case). And the single “Original Prankster,” their customary slice of “vato-punk,” as Noodles calls it—rather than looking to hip-hop for a bit of rhythmic spice, these guys tend to go Mexican. Which makes sense: O.C.’s about 25 percent Mexican, and only 2 percent black (and that’s not because black people don’t like sunshine and nice houses). But there’s a lot more butt-munching, guitar-crunching stomp than on the last one.
Some of the munch is even kinda catchy, for munch (but not the sincere stuff, of course: in the Offspring’s book, catchy = just kidding). Take “One Fine Day,” which begins with Dexter sweetly singing, “If I had a perfect day/I would have it start this way/Open up the fridge and have a tallboy/Yeah.” Right on, you say to yourself, as the boys start pumping up the chords. But then you realize the whole thing’s just a put-down of dumbshits who are into “drinkin’, fightin’, goin’ to the game.” Sucker.
On the other hand, there’s “Want You Bad,” a gloriously unholy gene-splice between the Clash’s “Capitol Radio” (the guitars) and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” (the harmonies): “I want you/All tattooed/I want you bad/Complicated/ X-rated/I want you bad.” Catchy as hell, and you’d almost think they were degenerates.