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How to Survive in Suburbia

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Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” a good-natured dressing-down of a kid who dresses up in gangsta gear, has been one of the big hits of the season. Its success has helped make the Orange County punk band’s current album, “Americana,” the lone flag-bearer for rock at the high end of the sales chart. The song also touches on issues surrounding hip-hop’s rise to a dominant position in popular culture.

But that riff-driven portrait of a wannabe is just one of the windows into contemporary life on “Americana,” whose title is a tip-off of its intent. The collection, which has sold 1.8 million copies since its release in November, might be the pinnacle of Southern California punk rock’s long tradition of commenting on the state of suburbia.

The album depicts it as a troubled terrain stocked with frustrated adults and aimless kids. But in a recent interview, the Offspring’s Garden Grove-bred singer and lyricist Dexter Holland, 33, emphasized that the collection also includes songs that suggest a way out of the cul-de-sac.

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Question: “Americana” is an in-depth look at life in suburbia. How do you keep in touch with what’s going on there?

Answer: Hang out at the mall [laughs]. Well, we do live pretty similarly to the way we always have. The same general area--I live in Huntington Beach, so I’m kind of in the same neighborhood, and we still keep in contact with most of our old friends. There’s so much around, it’s really easy to draw on stuff, whether it comes from the media--TV, of course, talk-show TV, magazines, whatever it is. Or just me driving around and seeing people in my neighborhood that were all dressing like pretty fly guys.

Q: Is that what inspired “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”?

A: Yeah, just seeing a lot of that around. It’s so common for white suburban kids to go to the mall and buy certain kinds of gangster clothes ‘cause they like the identity they’re adopting, I guess. . . . [The song] is done in a pretty humorous way. I didn’t want to be preachy about it. . . . We’re getting amusement out of it more than anything else.

I guess the bottom line of it is that you shouldn’t try to be something you’re not. People adopt different things all the time, whether it’s an ethnic thing or just a style of dress, because they want to be heavy-metal or whatever.

Q: The song does touch on the issue of hip-hop’s growing appeal. There’s been a lot said lately about how hip-hop has overtaken rock as the music and style favored by kids.

A: Well, it always goes back and forth from time to time. As long as there’s good bands out there I think rock will be fine. I think a guy like Marilyn Manson is pretty important, actually, because he pushes the limits and stuff, and he does it with rock music. I think that’s a great thing.

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As far as rock coexisting with hip-hop, I think it already is. You see hip-hop influences in rock bands like Korn and some of the newer bands like that, and some of these guys getting together--Korn has gone on tour with Ice Cube and stuff. So yeah, I think there’s definitely room for both at the party.

Q: What about your whole take on suburban malaise in the new album? Is life there a lot worse now than when you were growing up?

A: I think [the problems] probably were always out there. It was just a lot better concealed in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. There was the white picket fence and everything looked nice from the outside. I like to say it looks like “Happy Days” on the outside but it’s more like “Twin Peaks” on the inside.

And maybe, just because of the way things are changing, where the media is so prevalent and so in people’s everyday lives . . . things that used to be easier to conceal just aren’t anymore. . . . You’re kind of forced to deal with things that maybe you didn’t want to or didn’t have to a while ago. . . . That can be a tough thing, that there’s so much more that people have to cope with.

Q: You describe a lot of aimlessness and disillusionment. Where do you think that comes from?

A: There was this idea that people subscribed to a generation ago, which was if you did what you were told and if you went to school and got a job with the company there was a process that took place. You’d get married and have kids and climb the corporate ladder, blah, blah, blah.

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I think you’re really seeing in the last 10 years that’s just not true anymore. People are graduating from college and they still can’t get a job and they have to go back and get a graduate degree and they’re still having a tough time getting a job. Both adults in the household have to work just to make ends meet, and I think that the kids are seeing this. They’re watching what their parents are doing, and the parents are not getting what they thought they were gonna get or they felt they were promised, and maybe the kids are saying, “[Expletive], I might as well work at McDonald’s and get stoned.”

Q: Is it fair to call “Americana” an indictment of contemporary society?

A: I didn’t want it to be a record that made you feel hopeless. At the end of the day I hope that you can get something positive out of it. So there are songs, like “Staring at the Sun” and even “Pay the Man,” which says, “How am I gonna find my own way as an individual through the world?”

If you think for yourself, you can still manage it. The bottom line of what I’m trying to say is that you have to create your own life and your own priorities. You’re gonna have to live life the way you want to and not the way you think it should be or the way someone tells you, and not accept those kind of outside pressures. . . . That’s filling somebody else’s agenda rather than your own.

Q: What do you see out there that makes you feel hopeful?

A: I see it at the shows. The kids are unique in the way they act, the way they dress, the way they talk. It seems they’re sharing what the songs are supposed to be about, and that’s really a cool thing. . . . You’ve got to give kids credit. They’re really smart. . . . They know what’s going on, and they’re the ones kind of making their way through it, and it’s really impressive to see.*

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