Great Albums of the ‘90s – The Offspring’s “Smash”

Punk rock has its roots in the United States as far back as the 70’s with early punk pioneers such as The Ramones and The Buzzcocks.  That unique sound and ideology developed further in the 80’s with a slew of Southern California punk bands including Bad Religion and The Descendents.  Through the first part of the 90’s, punk rock continued to evolve and develop wider forms of expression but was still a largely underground sound, not considered commercially viable by major labels.  As such, independent labels such as Epitaph Records, Lookout Records, and Fat Wreck Chords arose to release this music to an ever growing fan base.   The commercial viability of punk rock, and the nature of the genre itself, changed dramatically in 1994.  That is the year that punk rock went mainstream in a huge way.

Three albums can be directly credited with the popular acceptance of punk rock in 1994.  Bad Religion’s Stranger than Fiction, Green Day’s Dookie, and The Offspring’s Smash.  Indeed, 1994 was a very good year for music.  I was 14 and rode that wave, oblivious to what the future had in store.  Bad Religion was my initial introduction to punk rock, but it was The Offspring’s album that allowed me to share this newly discovered genre with friends.

The Offspring circa 1994
The Offspring circa 1994

Smash was The Offspring’s third album, and is one of the most influential punk rock albums of all time.  It has been certified platinum 6 times, having sold 6 million copies in the United States and over 11 million internationally.  It was the first album from Epitaph Records to achieve both gold and platinum status, and holds the record for being the best-selling album from an independent label.  I loved the album when it came out and still listen to it today – I can’t say that about every single album I picked up as a 90s teenager. So, what makes Smash such an important album?  Well, let’s take a look at the album and 1994 to see why.

First there is the track list, just as a point of reference.  The songs that were singles with massive radio play are indicated.

  1. Time to relax (intro)
  2. Nitro (Youth Energy)
  3. Bad Habit
  4. Gotta Get Away*
  5. Genocide
  6. Something to Believe In
  7. Come Out and Play *
  8. Self Esteem*
  9. It’ll Be a Long Time
  10. Killboy Powerhead
  11. What Happened to You?
  12. So Alone
  13. Not the One
  14. Smash

The thing about 1994 one needs to take in to context is that grunge died that year.  Kurt Cobain, who was a surrogate voice and source of inspiration for many, committed suicide.  Incidentally, Kurt Cobain committed suicide on April 8, 1994 – the very same day that The Offspring’s Smash appeared in stores.  I appreciated and listened to Nirvana at the time, but I was not as hurt and empty-feeling as many others.  Their words gave their life meaning, and now those lyrics, which seemed to understand their problems and young frustration was gone.  So, along came punk music – this seemingly new voice that seemed to get them.  The songs on Smash do speak to a younger generation and say, in an angry voice, “I get you.”

  • From the opening song, “Nitro”:

Our generation sees the world
not the same as before…

Believe it
The official view of the world has changed
In a whole new way
Live fast cause if you don’t take it
You’ll never make it

  • From “Gotta Get Away”:

Sitting on the bed
Or lying wide awake
There’s demons in my head
And it’s more than I can take
I think I’m on a roll
But I think it’s kinda weak
Saying all I know is
I gotta get away from me

  • From “Something to Believe In”

If you take the sacred things
The things that we hold dear
Empty promise is all you’ll find
So give me something
Something to believe in

  • From “Self Esteem”

Well, I guess I should stick up for myself
But I really think it’s better this way
The more you suffer
The more it shows you really care

  • From “So Alone”

If you’re awake, look all around
At all of the people
Still you’re so alone
So alone

  • From “Not the One”

I’m innocent
But the wieght of the world is on my shoulders
I’m innocent
But the battles started are far from over

  • From “Smash”

I’m not a trendy asshole
Don’t give a fuck
If it’s good enough for you

Smash is the way you feel all alone
Like an outcast you’re out on your own
Smash is the way you deal with your life
Like an outcast you’re smashing your strife

The CD. Released April 8, 1994.
The CD. Released April 8, 1994.

While it would still be five years until the events in Columbine made issues of school violence and school bullying headline news, but those things did happen in 1994.  There was an occasional school shooting, and plenty of suicides (Pearl Jam’s song “Jeremy” addressed this only two years earlier).  Having a songs that understood the pain of feeling ostracized helped some cope with the troubles of adolescence.  Then there was the violence that took place at schools, violence that would not really become a focus of attention until 1999.  Yes people addressed it, but the issue was pretty widespread.   Smash offered up ideas on that as well.

  • From “Nitro”

Who are living under the gun every day
You might be gone before you know
So live like there’s no tomorrow

  • From “Genocide”

Dog eat Dog
Every day
On our fellow man we prey
Dog eat Dog
To get by
Hope you like my genocide

Of all the songs, “Come Out and Play” deals with issues of juvenile violence directly:

The kids are strappin’ on their way to the classroom
Getting weapons with the greatest of ease
The gangs stake their own campus locale
And if they catch you slippin’ then it’s all over pal
If one guy’s colors and the other’s don’t mix
They’re gonna bash it up, bash it up, bash it up, bash it up

It goes down the same as the thousand before
No one’s getting smarter no one’s learning the score
Your never-ending spree of death and violence, and hate
Is gonna tie your own rope, tie your own rope, tie your own

The other thing punk rock offered that wasn’t available in popular music was addressing global and social issues.  An adolescent begins to question their place in the world beyond their parents safety, and they are slowly introduced to the reality that this world is a pretty shitty place.  That’s one thing I always valued in punk rock, was that social and political commentary that introduced me to new issues and ideas I would never have been introduced to otherwise.  For me, listening to Bad Religion was more enlightening than reading a newspaper to see what was happening in the world.  While The Offspring was not as politically motivated or advocating for social change as much as many of their predecessors, that critical thought into the global and social issues of the day was present, ready to introduce young minds to the reality of the world they weren’t going to find in popular music.

  • From “Genocide”

Through the pain I see things as they are
We’re served up on a plate
The pedestal is high enough to fall
And if in time
We can see the errors of our ways
Would anyone change it anyhow

  • From “Something to Believe In”

I believe in a changing of the guard
Put our feet on the ground
See it happen in your own backyard.

  • From “It’ll Be a Long Time”

Superpowers flex their wings
Hold the world on puppet strings
Egos will feed
While citizens bleed
That’s always the way it goes

  • From “Not the One”

We’re not the ones who leave the homeless in the streets at night
We’re not the ones who’ve kept minorities and women down
Still we grow and then the problems they become our own
We carry on without even realizing why

Understanding the mentality of adolescence, the problems of school violence and bullying, and the realization that the world is a terrible place that someone needs to fix, were what made an album like Smash speak so clearly to the teenagers and young adults in 1994.   Grunge music spoke to the angst of a younger generation – punk did the same thing by saying “Hey, we get why you’re so upset, it’s because the world sucks.”  The pop songs of 1994 were mostly songs of romance, with engineered and pleasing voices; (mostly) white people singing in dulcet tones about how great it is to be in love.  Along comes this alternative, these energetic songs that were not about love but were, instead, about reality.  How could that NOT fail to spark interest in a younger generation waking up to the world’s problems?

smash-by-the-offspring-cassette-may-1994-epitaph-records-_1
Of course some people had it on cassette because it was 1994.

Green Day, Rancid, and Bad Religion all addressed these same issues.  When punk went mainstream, so did those ideas.  The Offspring, however, became a part of the mainstream ideology.  Their following album was not as successful both financially and ideologically.  According to Bad Religion member, and president of Epitaph, said of The Offspring’s 1996 album Ixnay on the Hombre, “on a serious note, there’s really nothing original on the new Offspring record. One song sounds like Jane’s Addiction, one Bon Jovi, one Blind Melon, one Bad Religion. They’ve become an unimaginative copycat band…” (Quoted in Beinstock, 2014).  I agree with Gurewitz on that regard, Ixnay on the Hombre is an incredibly derivative pop music album lacking in any kind of personality.  Their 1999 album, Americana, however, is an antidote for that, a return to form and dealing with the issues of their listeners and the violence of the world (for the most part).

Punk went mainstream because it spoke to the adolescents and young adults of 1994, addressing them specifically.  Few albums capture that zeitgeist of 1994 youth ideology more succinctly than The Offspring’s Smash.  Its influence on music in the 20+ years since can still be seen in the eager lyrics and stylings of young musicians today.

References

Bienstock, R. (2014).  “The Offspring’s ‘Smash’: The Little LP That Defeated the Majors.” Rolling Stone.  Published April 8th, 2014.

The Offspring. (1994). Smash. Recorded at Track Record in North Hollywood California.  Released April 8th, 1994.

 

 

 

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