Play That Punky Music, White Boy

The Offspring vs. the unbearable being of liked-ness

For a moment, the expressions on the faces of Bryan "Dexter" Holland and Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman are almost unpleasant enough to pass for punkish scowls. Turns out they're just the unfortunate upshots of a bad cold and jet lag. That's how colossal rock stars sometimes come back from Europe after a whirlwind press junket for their latest major-label album. That's the way the Offspring have returned to Orange County.

"Warsaw was cool, though," Noodles says through a sniffle, his voice as watery as his eyes, which behind his Coke-bottle-thick glasses look as though they're submerged in little horn-rimmed aquariums. But coming home has only ratcheted up the band's promotional ballyhoo. When Dexter, Noodles, Greg Kriesel and Ron Welty step off the plane in Southern California, they walk straight into an Offspring Weekend on KROQ. Even when the song the radio keeps playing over and over is your song, there are times it can grate on your nerves.

"Can we turn that off for a few minutes?" winces Dexter from beneath an unruly sunburst of blond hair as he struggles to converse over his own emergency-siren singing. The station is airing the Offspring's new single, "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," at least hourly, interspersing it with lots of the band's other songs and assorted soundbites, and incessantly hyping a contest in which the winner gets to fly to an Offspring concert . . . in Las Vegas . . . sitting next to Dexter . . . as he pilots his own plane.

"We're still wondering how people are going to react to that contest," Noodles admits. "I mean, Vegas? A private plane? Dexter as a pilot? Some people aren't going to think that's very punk."

He sniffles again.

"But whatever. Screw it. All we ever hear is that people don't think we're punk anymore, anyway," Noodles says. "Or that we never were."

Yep, the Offspring are back, all right, and they've arrived pretty much the way we remember them-as arguably the most popular punk outfit in the world, give or take a Green Day or two. And arguing about the Offspring has become as much a hallmark of the band as huge record sales. Their punk credentials have been under Ken Starr-style inquisition since they became famous enough that people knew of them and rich enough that people despised them-and honest enough that they reacted to their success without whining, raging or sneering. That was in 1994, when Smash became the biggest-selling (11 million copies and still counting) rock record released on an independent label.

"When that record came out, I was living in Huntington Beach in a really small apartment at the corner of Warner and Bolsa Chica," Dexter recalls. "One morning, I look out my kitchen window, and there's a guy on the porch of the next apartment. He's staring at me and talking into his phone, going, 'Yeah, dude, I'm looking at him right now!'"

For many of the Offspring's critics, even that amount of celebrity was enough to disown them. Many more spurned the band when it signed with Columbia Records; 1997's Ixnay on the Hombre drastically undersold Smash. The album was still a financial success, however, selling more than 1 million copies.

Philosophically, scrutiny of the Offspring considers whether "popular" and "punk" are contradictory terms to begin with. Practically, it's a question of whether the band's cheerful acceptance of their mass appeal disqualifies them from so-called authentic punk's codified inconsolability. Noodles says with a chuckle, "We've been beaten about the head and shoulders with that stick for so long now that, really, we're numb to it."

Dexter shrugs. "Are we punk? Were we punk? Well, we definitely were inspired by that scene," he says. "But at the same time, a song like 'Pretty Fly' does go beyond traditional punk stuff. That's okay for me. I don't want to live in 1985 anymore, you know? I want to try to create our own thing. And if it's considered punk or not punk, I don't really have a defense for that. Hopefully, at some point, it just becomes considered the Offspring."

"Pretty Fly" is the new flashpoint for the old debate. You've already heard the song over and over, and you either love it or hate it, and you're either validated or infuriated that it's been a hit for more than a month; the album it's from, Americana, won't even be released until Tuesday. Musically, "Pretty Fly" is a chaw of bubblepunk. Its flavors range from War's funky "Low Rider" to Sweet's glammy "Ballroom Blitz" to Wild Cherry's kitschy "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" to any number of other funky-glammy-kitschy Offspring songs. Oh, and guitar-the song's got lots of guitar. Either that, or Noodles has taken up the wood chipper.

While everybody's sucking on the sweet-and-soaring ear candy, however, the lyrics of "Pretty Fly" take a very sarcastic stab at the whole issue of pop-culture integrity. The song's main character is a suburban white kid caught in the desperate pursuit of other-ethnic cool who only fools and embarrasses himself as he tries to maintain the image of keeping it real-and whose pretty-fly-ness will always be qualified by his for-a-white-guy-ness. On its face, the song seems to comment on followers of the current spate of middle-class white bands-including such prominent Orange County contributors as Korn and the Kottonmouth Kings-who have not only incorporated hip-hop into their music, but have also appropriated its ultraurban jargon and fashion and attitude.

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