A Tale of Two Californias: ‘Enema of the State’ and ‘Americana’

Image credit: Viviana Rishe on Unsplash

When I ran, I didn’t feel like a runaway / When I escaped, I didn’t feel like I got away / There’s more to living than only surviving / Maybe I’m not there, but I’m still trying

— The Offspring, ‘Staring at The Sun’

(Duh nah nah, duh nah nah, duh nah nah) / Some girls try too hard / (Duh nah nah, duh nah nah, duh nah nah) / And some girls try too hard / To impress with the way that they dress, with / Those things on their chests and the things they suggest to me

— blink-182, ‘The Party Song’

The moment pop wrapped its inauthentic tentacles around the DIY mohawk and battle jacket of punk rock, the punk inside ceased to be. The sound remained, sure. It was like hearing the ocean in a seashell. It was just reflections and echoes.

Pop-punk reached a brief yet blinding apotheosis between the latter half of 1998 and US summer of 1999 with the release of chart-topping albums by Californian pop-punk groups blink-182 and The Offspring. Both had found scene success with prior albums, considered among their musical best. They were both based in Southern California. They both enjoyed massive mainstream success, thanks in part to major label leverage.

The two records are stark in contrast — blink-182 preoccupied with sunny days, chasing girls, and MTV Beavis and Butt-Head-style popularity; while The Offspring presented a California in decay, urging a White Male Rage ala the film Falling Down, and a fiery pushback against the dual-headed snake of political correctness and economic rationalism.

Pop-punk’s moment in the sun was underpinned by the release of punk rock’s ‘Wonderwall’a song that upended the market for pop music and has become a conduit for an endless feedback loop of nostalgia ever since.

‘Good Riddance’: Punk Rock’s ‘Wonderwall’

In October 1997, fellow Californian pop-punks Green Day released their fifth album nimrod. and third for major label Reprise, owned by Warner Music Group. Though largely unremarkable musically when compared to their back catalogue, the album reached #10 on the US Billboard 200 Chart, #3 on the Australian ARIA Album Chart, and narrowly missed a Top #10 spot in the Canadian Album Chart.

This success arguably rested on the back of their weepy acoustic ballad ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’. ‘Good Riddance’ was to punk rock as Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ was to Britpop, which fired the last devastating salvo against contemporaries Blur and Suede in the Britpop wars two years prior. ‘Wonderwall’ spawned an entire generation of radio rock characterised by murmuring vocals, simple riffing, and introspective lyricism.

To the victor went the spoils; bands like Coldplay, Travis, and Snow Patrol now fall under the umbrella of “post-Britpop.” Their inoffensive blandness was a hit, with Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ single reaching #1 in the urban and contemporary R&B-dominated US Charts in 2009.

It was a complete departure for a raucous pop-punk band. Produced by the “father” of American pop-punk Jerry Finn, ‘Good Riddance’ had no overdrive on its guitars, a deliberate and sombre pace, and languid cello tugging on hearts in accompaniment. It became the staple for graduations, retrospective montages, and even featured in the finale of mega-successful sitcom Seinfeld.

If the world forgets ‘Basket Case,’ they will still remember when they first heard ‘Good Riddance’ and began remembering things from yesteryear.

The formula was thus: sand down your edges to baby-safety levels, get the ‘member berries going, and make a million dollars.

High School, College, Then the Bleakness Thereafter

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is no longer a jolt; it’s a smooth ride for some. As of 2019, 40% of Californians aged 18–34 still live with their parents. In Southern California, the rate is as high as 55%. The party days of high school and college can last indefinitely — Nobody likes you when you’re 23 (blink-182, ‘What’s My Age Again?’) living off the largesse of Mom and Dad was gauche in 1999, but the norm in 2020. In a perverse way, blink-182 predicted the onset of “kidulthood”, a state of perpetual adolescence.

In 1997–1998, the youth unemployment rate in the United States stood at about 11%. The Offspring’s Americana, while aimed at younger adults through its mariachi inspired cribbing of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da in ‘Why Don’t You Get A Job?’ served as a finger-wagging foil to blink-182’s carefree attitude of never growing up.

Whereas most teenagers and young adults shirk personal responsibility for as long as possible, here is Dexter Holland demanding his friends and loved ones do the exact opposite. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in 1999, almost despite itself.

My friend’s got a girlfriend
Man, he hates that bitch
He tells me every day
He says, “Man, I really gotta lose my chick
In the worst kind of way.”

She sits on her ass
He works his hands to the bone
To give her money every payday
But she wants more dinero just to stay at home
Well, my friend, you gotta say

[Chorus]
“I won’t pay, I won’t pay ya, no way
Na-na, why don’t you get a job?”
Say, “No way,” say, “No way-ya, no way
Na-na, why don’t you get a job?”

This doesn’t scream Clinton-era Democrat; more “Contract With America” Republican.

The Falling Down-style rage continues in ‘Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)’ where the band chide a white teenager for acting Black or Chicano. Holland in 1999 told alt-rock magazine Spin that he “[didn’t] want the song to be a black/white thing because that wasn’t exactly the issue… it’s definitely part of it, but it’s more about poseurs of any kind.”

Even if it was about the “black/white thing,” the band couldn’t have cared less. In the same interview, Holland said “political correctness gets to the point where you want to move to Montana, get an electrified fence and a shotgun.”

Whereas the blink-182 Californian fritters away time making prank calls and chugging beer and remembering the good ol’ days, The Offspring’s California is bleaker — there’s no such thing as a free ride (“But hey man, free rides just don’t come along,” Dexter sings in a bridge) — and life is a struggle. The good ol’ days are ashen memories.

“Maybe life is like a ride on freeway / dodging bullets while you find your way / Everyone’s around but no one does a damn thing / It brings me down, but I won’t let them,” Holland sang in ‘Staring at the Sun’; ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ painted a grotesque picture of neighbourhoods in decay, littered with “fragile lives / shattered dreams.” Holland spoke to MTV about the latter track around its release:

“One had a nervous breakdown; another died in a car accident; another got hooked on crack and burned down his house,” Holland said. “It just kind-of got me thinking about how, visualising life when you are a kid, it seems like you have this sort-of bright future,” he [said]. “But it doesn’t turn out that way. The neighbourhood may seem like Happy Days on the outside, but on the inside it’s more like Twin Peaks.”

The most despairing blink-182 get is on ‘Adam’s Song,’ which is widely interpreted as describing a suicide of a close family member or friend. In reality, it was guitarist/vocalist and writer Mark Hoppus lamenting that touring was a lonely experience, compounded by fellow band members Tom DeLonge and Travis Barker having girlfriends.

“Tom and Travis always had girlfriends waiting back home, so they had something to look forward to at the end of the tour. But I didn’t, so it was always like, I was lonely on tour, but then I got home and it didn’t matter because there was nothing there for me anyway,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000.

Gavin Edwards in the same article shows the California that blink-182 see through their music:

Anthem,’ the last song on Enema, is about being trapped in the suburbs, longing for the freedom (and beer) that your 21st birthday will bring. Young, snotty, angry, but with more brains and heart than they let on — it’s no wonder an audience of millions identifies with them.”

Being trapped in the suburbs in blink’s California is annoying; in The Offspring’s California, it’s a death sentence.

Punk Goes Pop (In A Big Way)

The music video for ‘All The Small Things’ begins with blink-182 dressed in white flowing suits, strutting down a runway. They’ve just disembarked from a Lear jet, a popular form of transport for the rich and well-to-do. It’s an obvious parody of The Backstreet Boys ‘I Want It That Way’ video. They also dress in tight tank tops and camo pants; hugging one another as they mindlessly walk the surf along trendy Santa Monica Beach.

It was less a parody, and more an acknowledgement that blink-182 were now an establishment pop group. “True punks” craving authenticity would (presumably) lack the critical pop-culture language to understand the band’s references.

The video was a definite hit, retired after 65 days on Total Request Live, winning Best Video at the 2000 Kerrang! Awards and Best Group Video at the 2000 MTV Music Awards. (Hoppus also met his future wife, Skye Everly, during rehearsals for the video. So much for ‘Adam’s Song’.)

blink-182’s simple three-chord-repeat punk only needed slight fine-tuning to become hooky, bright, and bubble-gum power-pop. Travis Barker’s inclusion on drums added additional firepower with his Latin and hip-hop influences. And to ensure that warm pop glow, they hired Jerry Finn — the man who flung Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance’ up the charts — to produce.

The Offspring’s punk rock was a stranger animal. Barring ‘Pretty Fly’ and ‘Why Don’t You Get A Job,’ most of Americana is Bay Area punk rock with slight variations: ‘Walla Walla’ and ‘No Brakes’ tending toward hardcore, ‘She’s Got Issues’ and ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ veering closer to Weezer or Jimmy Eat World style indie-pop. Of course, psychedelic arty-fact ‘Pay The Man’ is a complete anomaly, clocking in at a bulky eight minutes. Sitars and whispered vocals swirl in a kaleidoscopic headspace before the band regains their punk rock senses; it’s likely punk rockers switched off long before that blessed five-minute mark roared into earshot.

Once blink and The Offspring made it to MTV, they were co-opted into their all-consuming commercial nature; there is no part of MTV that is not commercial.

Even so, the two Californias both bands presented were equally prescient: the “kidulthood” mentality of blink-182 and the perverse rat-race of modern society as depicted in Americana. Americana is a broadside against the rose-tinted California depicted in Enema. Enema is like the scrappy little meme-lord of today, who might fob off Americana with a shout of “Ok, boomer.”

In both are embedded the indissoluble kernel of punk rock truth: there is no future. One revels in a gleeful ignorance of anything beyond the present; the other looks forward to nothing but hopelessness.

These two Californias are reconciled by one fact: we remember both of them just as fondly.

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Tom Valcanis

Tom Valcanis

Journalist and copywriter dude. @straczynski is my co-pilot. Consulting Editor, @hysteria_mag. ad culpam, ab obscuro