So I read in a magazine the other day -- I think it may have been U.S. News and World Report -- that punk rock, of all things, is back.
Yippee, I say to myself. Punk's not dead. Nope, not dead at all. Instead, I'm told, it's back. Which could mean that kids in garages are playing it again after some long intermission, but that doesn't make any sense, since the entirety of the attractiveness of punk was and is that absolutely anybody can play it, and should, and has been, regardless of whether or not anyone gave a flying fuck.
So since punk as an activity never really went anywhere to come back from, punk's return must mean simply that it's back near the top of the pop charts, which is jim-dandy for those who enjoy playing and hearing it, but still not really "back" at all, since punk never established much of a presence there in the first place. Somewhere in that convolution is a lesson, but I'm too tired to figure it out.
That's why U.S. News and World Report is there, to figure it out for me, and what I learn is that there are these two bands out on the left-hand coast that have resuscitated punk rock. They're called Green Day and Offspring, and since everybody thought punk was dead until these kids moved a couple billion units each, they've come to embody the entire punk rock argument (and make no mistake: punk rock is an argumentative sport).
The punk rock argument goes something like this: punk's an attitude, man, not a style, and it's fundamentally incompatible with organized consumerism. Problem is that superficially, punk rock is in fact extraordinarily compatible with consumerism, at least nowadays. Green Day was the darling of Woodstock II -- whatever its myriad virtues, the premier consumer event of the decade to date. Upstart local radio stations sponsor ticket giveaways with the promise that "you'll get to party with Offspring backstage after the show." Not Alice Cooper. Offspring.
So the empty question behind punk rock, reflected in the empty "philosophy" peddled by punk bible Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, is that mega-sales of a punk band's CD equates with bad, and obscurity equates with good. If nobody's buying, then nobody's selling, and if nobody's selling, nobody's selling out. Very punk.
But what happens when the bands that have been assigned, at their own invitation, to epitomize punk -- Green Day and Offspring by name -- both sell a gazillion records? Who's more punk?
Punks get their identities all tied up in a knot over such questions, and Maximum R&R starts backbiting because Green Day isn't still playing the same punk Gilman Street digs it came up in over the last eight years. Never mind that Green Day couldn't walk into Gilman today without the very real fear that they might have their legs broken by punk thugs who kick them in the stomach and call them rock stars. It happened to Jello Biafra at Gilmanlast year.
The mainstream has adopted Green Day, and Green Day has adopted the mainstream right back. It works. Because, apparently, the world is now ready for a sanitized Sex Pistols. Offspring, on the other hand, is saddled with a cute singer who's got a master's in microbiology or some such completely non-punk discipline, and that, combined with almost overnight success, has earned them the sellout tag as well, even though the band's album is out on indie Epitaph, and Green Day punches clocks for Warner Bros.
What it all means, of course, is that punk -- like every word that gets sloshed around too many times by too many people who aren't particularly protective of whatever core meaning the word might have once had -- don't mean jack these days. You tell me you're a punk and I don't know a damn thing about you. So consideration has to eventually come back to music, song and words.
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If Green Day and Offspring are my options (I know better, but who knows, maybe you don't...), I'll take Offspring. As for the music, I can't argue that there are any terribly progressive ideas at work, but I don't find myself wondering if what I'm hearing is the lost Sex Pistols LP. There's a bubble-gum levity going on in "Come Out to Play" that feels good, and I like rock and roll to sound fun. As for the words, all Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong can do is plead that I pay attention to his not very interesting and very affected punk fairy tales. In "Self Esteem," Offspring's Bo Derek look-alike vocalist Dexter Holland at least gives me the best non-macho adolescent story of a guy getting dicked over by girls -- not because the girls are evil, but because the guy's stupid -- that's ever flooded mainstream radio. It's a posture, sure, but it's a wholly new posture.
So that's why I pick Offspring in the pointless punk rock footrace. They sound better. You and a well-developed taste for Green Day might disagree. Go ahead. You'll just be shit out of luck. Offspring is playing in town this week. Green Day's not. Ha ha.
-- Brad Tyer
Offspring plays Wednesday, March 15 at the International Ballroom. Call 629-3700 for info.