Credibility is a tricky thing in rock and roll -- not because it's so hard to attain, but because it means different things to different people. Aficionados of punk and rap seem more obsessed than others with the concept of credibility, but there's a key difference that separates the two camps: Rap artists can sell gajillions of albums and still hang on to it, or even earn more of it as they scale the record charts. Punk rockers, on the other hand, must stay buried deep within the underground or else they run the risk of "selling out," renouncing the standards of the obscurist elite for that big shot at selling more than 20,000 copies of a record.
Funny thing is, except for insecure artists, punk fans with no brains, and fanzine writers with no clue, not many people care about credibility: Just give 'em something they like and leave 'em alone with it. You think the 8.5 million kids who bought the Offspring's appropriately titled 1994 megaplatinum album Smash (or Green Day's Dookie, for that matter) were concerned about how an indie-label band would react to being the owners of the biggest surprise hit since Nirvana stumbled into the mainstream back in 1992? No. They bought the record because "Come Out and Play" (like Green Day's "Basket Case") sounded great on the radio and was pumped into TV-land via MTV's endless replay of the song's atmospheric clip.
You think said millions gave a damn about the philosophical dispute between Offspring and Epitaph, the indie label that broke them? Or that any of them even shrugged when the band left that label for the big, big money offered to them from corporate giant Columbia? Doubtful. The hardliners who would've given a damn about such nonsense already hated both label and band -- the former because they market their music in a professional way that too closely mirrors the majors (a no-no for the Xerox-happy punk legions); the latter because, well, because they sell millions and millions of records, and that can't be right.
At least the Offspring seem to feel that way. Even before the first song kicks in on their new album Ixnay on the Hombre -- make that their major-label debut -- the band treats to you to a "Disclaimer," a spoken-word warning from free-speech advocate and washed-up hardcore singer Jello Biafra. "This album contains explicit depictions of things which are real," says the ex-Dead Kennedys whiner. "These real things are commonly known as life." If you hear it as a comment on PMRC-inspired censorship, "Disclaimer" is a nice if somewhat obvious move. Really, though, it smacks of a silly and ultimately futile attempt to validate the authenticity of their message.
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But rather than cashing in on the historic reputation of a punk-rock has-been, or trying to prove their heads are in the same place they were back when they were just another band making noisy for Orange County skate rats, the Offspring should be worrying more about their paucity of new ideas. You aren't gonna find any on Ixnay, a redux blast of the same old thing, from the chiming little guitar hooks from Noodles that made "Come Out and Play" so undeniable to the irritating whine of vocalist/lyricist Dexter Holland. His songs trod down the same Doc Martened path as last time: You got your rebellion ("The Meaning of Life," "All I Want"), your nihilism ("Cool to Hate"), your self-loathing ("Me & My Old Lady"), your drug abuse ("Mota"), and a botched but well-intended attempt at social commentary ("Way Down the Line"). Even the set-closing "Change the World," about the band's squabble with Epitaph, lacks the passion, spark, and venom of its obvious antecedents (the Sex Pistols' "EMI," but also Graham Parker's "Mercury Poisoning" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Workin' for MCA").
Nonetheless, "Change the World" is meant to show that the Offspring's principles have not changed despite their significantly increased bank accounts, that their credibility remains. Actually, the band should be more concerned about the continuing relevance of their AOR-aimed, metal-flaked punk. They've dropped Ixnay into a commercial climate in which the major labels and MTV alike have lost their infatuation with punk and grunge (after one-too-many Bush clones have failed to shriek their way into the hearts of America's depressed youth). Likewise, the audience that once existed for this stuff has proven to be highly uninterested in repeat performances of platinum hits: Witness the miserable faring of Green Day's Insomnia, no better or worse than Dookie, just a blatant retread.
Since it's not my business to predict the future, I'm not going to guess how Ixnay on the Hombre will fare. I gave up on fortune-telling back in 1989, when I first heard Skid Row's execrable debut and ventured in print that this was an album so bad, so pandering and offensive, that it would sink without a trace. That album went on to sell many, many millions of copies. And even though the Offspring's upcoming Fort Lauderdale show has sold out, it's clear that the record-buying masses are losing their interest in loud-ass punk-rock guitars; how else to explain the poor showing of Social Distortion's mighty fine White Light White Heat White Trash, an album twice as good as Between Heaven and Hell, their popular 1992 effort.
So what's next down the pop-culture pipe? Beats me, but I will say this: Despite my growing interest in trip-hop, and my conviction that DJ Shadow's Endroducing ... is an album for the ages, I disagree with critics who contend that the music will revive a withering industry and pull kids back into the record stores. (That's about as likely as postrock diddlers such as Jessamine, FYxa, or Windy + Carl outselling Pink Floyd.) For better or worse, the masses like songs, not soundscapes -- they like words they can sing, melodies they can hum, and faces they can connect with the music they're hearing. Until trip-hop produces someone like that (Tricky is as close as it's come so far), it will remain the music of dancefloor dwellers and sofa-bound stoners looking for nod-out jams.
Of one thing, though, you can be certain: Punk rock will always be around, and the best of it will always be found on small independent labels that operate well beyond the confines of the mainstream -- even a mainstream that, until recently, was on friendly terms with abrasive rock and roll. The proof is in the self-titled debut album by the Crumbs, issued a few weeks back on the Berkeley-based Lookout label (home of the legendary Queers, the journeyman Mr. T Experience, and the former roost of Green Day).
Since the Fort Lauderdale quartet isn't exactly a household name, they don't have to worry about proclaiming or defending their credibility; you can hear it in the full-force power chords they've borrowed from the Ramones and in vocalist Raf Classic's frayed-throat snarl, a throwback to Mike Ness circa "Mommy's Little Monster." It's in the self-loathing, alcoholic melancholy of "Ain't No Stopping" and "Dead Boys Too," and the reckless fun in "It's Gonna Take All the Time I Got" and "The Deal Down There." Because of the album's crude production, and because the band is proud of their music's rough, ragged edges, the Crumbs don't stand a chance of reaching even a tenth of the Offspring's audience. Still, their brand of no-shit punk rock works the way the Offspring's simply doesn't, despite that band's feeble arguments to the contrary. But there isn't a pretentious moment anywhere on The Crumbs's thirteen cuts -- just pure conviction, purpose, and passion. And if that's not credibility, I don't know what is.
The Offspring perform Wednesday, February 26, at the Edge, 20 West Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-9333. Tickets for the all-ages show are $15 and doors open at 7:00 p.m. Opening acts include Strung Out and
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