With the benefit of hindsight, so many of the great records of the past look inevitable. You put them on to give them a listen, knowing how their story ends, and it’s easy to nod your head as songs come and go and think, “yes, this record was destined for success.” This is silly because plenty of records that have sold millions did so in spite of the odds being stacked against them. Sometimes great songwriting overcomes all, and sometimes great songwriting is helped out by being in the right place at the right time.
Don’t get it twisted: I didn’t write that first paragraph to damn The Offspring with faint praise. I just think it’s worth acknowledging that, even knowing it went on to sell millions and that the band would go on to have singles that were just as big if not bigger, the success of Smash feels kind of baffling, even today. Make no mistake: Smash is a great record, but it’s not one that feels calculated for maximum appeal and success.
I tend to glorify the year of 1994 more than most because that’s the year I was really discovering what I liked as a music fan and because much of what I grew to love in the second half of my teen years is rooted in the success of that year. With no Green Day or Weezer, do we get the pop punk and mainstream emo acts on either side of the year 2000? It’s hard to imagine what modern rock radio would sound like without the disciples of grunge to fill it with so much content; it’s significantly easier to imagine if the world had ignored “Longview.”
I bring up The Offspring’s contemporaries as an exercise in what it means to be a band making major label music and a band making an independent punk record that became popular. Both Green Day’s Dookie and Weezer’s self-titled debut do have their weird flares—”Having a Blast” is a song about blowing people up, Rivers sings references Dungeons and Dragons at one point—but they’re also full of top of the line production and have singles for days.
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Smash, on the other hand, is a record full of rough edges. Whether or not Dexter Holland had confidence in his singing ability or not, he sings like someone who has doubts but isn’t going to let them hold him back; I think part of the appeal of songs like “Gotta Get Away” and “Self Esteem” is that his vocals aren’t clean; aesthetically, it adds to the melancholy of both tracks that Holland just sounds like a regular dude having a bad time of things. It’s also a record that features the band covering “Killboy Powerhead” by The Didjits, which feels like something a major label would have squashed before the band could even ask if they could do it.
Holland, compared to his contemporaries, feels less a poet and more of a straightforward chronicler. Smash isn’t a record with room for flowery prose or clever wordplay; the most quotable moment over the course of its runtime is a string of curse words in “Bad Habit” which are great specifically because they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to vocal manifestations of anger. And while The Offspring would in time write their share of songs with silly, occasionally problematic content, they had plenty of songs that looked at society from a working-class perspective that I still appreciate even now; “It’ll Be a Long Time” and “Not The One” do a really good jobs encapsulating the anxiety of being a small cog in a world that’s frequently awful and being unable to fix it quickly. They both hold up, maybe even better in 2018 than they did in 1994.
Smash is probably a record I should never have heard as a kid living in a random small town in Texas but sometimes events break right for the underdog. It's one of the best-selling independent records of all time, and while not as hip as some of the others you might find on that list, it’s still a pretty great listen. While The Offspring may never have reached the highs that their contemporaries did, they were a band that was just as solid as the rest, were maybe even better than
The Offspring, 311 and Gym Class Heroes are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday, August 5 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, 2005 Lake Robbins. For information, call 281-364-3010 or visit woodlandscenter.org. $27.50-$85, plus fees.