For those who relish watching the old put the young in their place, last week was spectacular like a sparkly, diamond-encrusted cane waving grandly over a pristine lawn. Picture the kids as a scheming John Ross Ewing, and the aged as a craggy but still spry J.R. Ewing, and J.R. is holding a shaving razor to John Ross’s throat and cackling over this foolish youngster’s plan to steal the Southfork family ranch out from under his well-worn hat. That’s right, even Dallas references have cultural currency amid these recent, wrinkly finger-wagging developments, which include singer-songwriter turned professor David Lowery scorching a 21-year-old NPR intern because her music buying habits line up with practically every other 21-year-old on the planet; an elderly school bus monitor being cruelly mocked by sadistic children and subsequently turning her half-million tears into as many dollars with the help of (surprise twist!) those kid-friendly tweet machines; and Aaron Sorkin using his Jeff Daniels–shaped avatar to lecture college students about how great America was before they were born in HBO’s The Newsroom.
Now it suddenly makes sense that the grumpiest, grumbliest, and most craven band of the alt-rock era has returned with a new album and, perhaps, its most cynical parody of/pandering to contemporary-ish pop trends yet. The band is SoCal pop-punk also-ran The Offspring, the album is Days Go By, and the song is “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk).”
Oh man, this song — this godforsaken plague of caboose-waving and Tupac quotes, this diabolical mind parasite that wipes out memory banks upon first contact, this opportunistic slab o’ ear disinfectant that embodies what it’s supposedly eviscerating. I could try to think of a colorful way to describe how bad “Cruising California” is — it’s the sound of a rockin’ dad making disturbingly rambunctious love to a rappin’ granny — but ultimately it is something we must all come to terms with in our own way.
“Cruising California” is not reflective of what the majority of Days Go By is like. As per usual, The Offspring deal mainly in blandly competent modern-rock radio product, the sort of plasticky and blindingly shiny singles where the guitars sound like table saws and the vocals are dislodged forcefully from out of the singer’s lower colon. Unlike most groups that have been around as long as it has, The Offspring don’t have an easily identifiable sound that immediately announces itself the way Billie Joe Armstrong’s snotty, perpetually 17-sounding sneer announces a new Green Day song, or Flea’s bass playing and Anthony Kiedis’s whatI’vegotyou’vegottogetitputitinyou razzmatazz herald the latest rickety Chili Peppers single. This makes The Offspring dangerous. The Offspring won’t die — it can’t die — because it is a mutant, taking on the musical characteristics of whatever happens to be popular in mainstream rock at the moment (or several moments ago). Sometimes this is weird, like on 2008’s Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, which includes a ballad called “Fix You” and another song, “A Lot Like Me,” that sounds like something Chris Martin blew his nose on and discarded during the A Rush of Blood to the Head sessions. On Days Go By, The Offspring copied the Foo Fighters’ genetic code, replicated it, and coldly turned out the title track, a direct lift of “Times Like These.” And it worked: “Days Go By” currently rests at no. 5 on the Billboard rock songs chart. Watch your asses, The Black Keys, because you’re next.
The Offspring’s most distinctive attribute isn’t musical, but rather a jokey conservatism vis-à-vis youth culture. The band members might dress like punks, but their act is closer to the hackiest, most reactionary kind of “speak stupid to stupid” stand-up comedy. A straight line from “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk)” can be drawn through the center of The Offspring’s oeuvre back to the group’s earliest hits. The most obvious precedent is 1998’s all-time annoying novelty song “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” about a “wannabe” who confuses Vanilla Ice for Ice Cube and gets his ass kicked by “homies.” But lead singer Dexter Holland’s ironic, “Can you believe these little idiots?” tone was already there in The Offspring’s breakthrough 1994 MTV hit “Come Out and Play,” when he describes gang violence among urban youths as “the latest fashion” and mockingly drawls “hey man, you disrespecting me?” in the chorus like a braying right-wing radio host.
In “Pretty Fly,” white kids listening to hip-hop and emulating their favorite rappers was dismissed by Holland as “that brand-new thing.” By 2003’s “Hit That,” which at the time was The Offspring’s biggest rock radio hit since “Come Out and Play,” those kids had grown up into “baby daddys” and “baby mamas” who won’t stop sleeping around. Over a consciously cheesy keyboard riff that’s intended to take the piss out of Britney and Justin but actually sounds like something off of Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver, Holland laments (this time without snark) that “we’re raising kids / who raise themselves.”
What’s amazing about “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk)” is that The Offspring has stopped pretending that it knows the difference between clever and stupid. The song points and laughs at the LMFAO-ification of pop while lifting LMFAO’s highly profitable formula for its own purposes. It’s an incredibly smug song, but the smugness this time is primarily commercial, not satirical. In a way, you have to admire how canny these guys are: The Billboard rock songs chart lately has been dominated by barely rock pop songs like fun.’s “We Are Young,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied.” Aside from the occasional Soundgarden track still stubbornly clinging to the chart’s upper reaches, there’s a new generation of bands who self-identify as rock but with none of the old anti-pop hang-ups. And The Offspring is right in the middle of it, with self-satisfied smirks firmly intact.