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Sep 14

THE OFFSPRING – “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”

Popular57 comments • 4,297 views

#813, 30th January 1999

offspring Whatever else boybands call to mind, they rarely make me think of being a boy. Mostly, they are a man’s idea of a girl’s idea of boys, and sometimes – by design, or an accident of casting – some of the pungency of boydom makes it through that filter. The music young boys like and relate to is something else entirely. This song, for instance, in its yelping, jumping clatter, in its broad swings at soft targets, feels very much like being a boy felt. And in something else, too: its meanness.

One of the hundreds of lies people tell about gender is the one about how boys fight and girls scheme. Boys are aggressive to other boys, girls are cruel to other girls. As well as subtly building up the cultural idea that girls are untrustworthy (and boys simple-hearted creatures of physical impulse) this overlooks the immense capacity for cruelty of the teenage boy, the unspoken, ever-shifting hierarchies of authenticity and acceptability that boys so viciously and joyfully police. Boyish cruelty isn’t even ignored – it’s normalised, even praised, enshrined not as bitchiness but “banter”, harmless jockeying for status.

Am I suggesting that “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”, that jolly pop-punk novelty, is some kind of bullies’ anthem? Not a bit of it. I’m just saying that it reminds me of being a boy, and part of being a boy was meanness, inflicted and weathered. And it is a mean song. Funny-mean, not horrible-mean, but mean even so. Who it’s being mean to, in the British context, is another matter.

After all, when I say “boy”, I don’t really mean some universal masculine experience. I mean “suburban white brat”, a much narrower category. If the goofball snottiness of “Pretty Fly”, and of pop-punk in general, reminds me of being 13, then it also reminds me of the boys I was scared of then – a whole year older – who loved the Beastie Boys, a band that lived by a code of terrifying, sneering cool I imagined I could never unlock. And above them – across the Van Allen belt of obnoxiousness, too distant to even be frightening – were the skaters who hung around the shopping centre and car park in town, practicing tricks and watching others practice with studied impassivity.

By the time I reached their age, Morrissey had got hold of me and the slim chance I would ever be ‘streetwise’ had vanished. I have zero natural feeling for pop-punk, and I never felt too alone in that: it found a fanbase in the UK but Green Day or Blink-182, never mind the Offspring, were never quite the generational phenomenon they were in the US. Though maybe that depended where you stood. If that music had a ‘moment’, it was here – the post-Britpop years, when the remaining music weeklies fell into a baffled slump and the old metal weekly Kerrang! mopped up the audience they’d ceased to serve, the skaters and rock kids of the Midlands, Wales, the South, East Anglia.. anywhere outside the major cities.

It was all a question of context, much like the song itself. “Pretty Fly” is a record about a white dude who acts like he’s into hip-hop, but is basically clueless about it. Not an unfamiliar type, at the time – ripe for mockery. But mockery that could come from different angles. Does the “wannabe” deserve to be laughed at for appropriating hip-hop – for his klutzy presumption of expertise – or for engaging with it in the first place?

The Offspring are fairly clear about that – it’s the former. In Southern California, in 1998, hip-hop is the lingua franca of youth culture: everyone is engaged with it on some level, it’s just that some people respect it and others are chumps about it. The meanness of the song in its native context is teasing those who overreach themselves, who grab onto something without doing the work to understand it. Even though “Pretty Fly” is 100% a pop move, this is a concern that has deep roots in the American punk and alternative mindset – a mildly puritan attitude that style should reflect substance, that self-expression be backed up with knowledge and labour. Nothing worse than a poser.

But we aren’t in South California now. “Pretty Fly” is number one in Britain, and the British context is rather different: the lines between hip-hop and other music a lot harder. We are a year or so out from Melody Maker’s disastrous final reinvention, which it announced with a notorious cover featuring a black guy (meant to be Craig David, Britain’s most successful black pop star) sitting on the toilet with a cover line suggesting the magazine would flush UK Garage away. A few months later the magazine folded. It was a shoddy end for a paper that had done its best to cover and celebrate a wide range of music, but the interesting thing is who they imagined this unpleasantly dismissive attitude to black music might appeal to. The Craig-on-the-loo fiasco occurred as the paper was pivoting hard to appeal to Kerrang! readers – the metal, hard-rock, alternative and pop-punk fanbase.

Melody Maker’s desperate gambit failed, of course, and besides UK garage and hip-hop were quite different things – but it suggests, and my own memories of the time agree, that the non-metropolitan British rock audience and the UK audience for black music were strongly distinct, and occasionally hostile. In the world “Pretty Fly” was written for and about, hip-hop and pop-punk co-existed in suburban culture – the question wasn’t whether you were into rap, but how. In the UK, whether was still a big issue.

All this is why I’ve never quite felt comfortable with this song – for all its winning energy, its prominence here made it seem more reactionary than it actually is: not remotely the Offspring’s fault, that. After the flaccidity of 911 there’s a bracing sharpness to the sound – and a bug-eyed delight in the “Uh huh uh huh!” hook – that’s easy to enjoy. Nothing of “Pretty Fly”‘s qualities was lost in translation – but I can’t shake the idea that something nasty was gained.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Auntie Beryl on 9 Sep 2014 #

    Welcome, Duro. MTV (or Sky music channels) were indeed pretty limited at this point, but if MTV2 had arrived by 1999 I’m sure it played a part in this success and the bubbling up of pop punk. I think it had.

    #18 I used to work with a bloke who claimed to manage Inter. Nothing came of it, and he left the shop professing his unending adoration of Joey Tempest. Odd bloke but there were umbilical chords between turn-of-the-century pop punk and 90s hair metal in my experience. Old gifts rewrapped as new.

    Forgot to mark this tune: an undoubted (6). The definition thereof. (Does Self Esteem sound like reheated Nirvana to anyone else?)

  2. 27
    Fivelongdays on 10 Sep 2014 #

    So, to answer my question – Terrorvision were at number two, with Tequila.

    SERIOUSLY, OFFSPRING ARE AT NUMBER ONE AND TERRORVISION ARE AT NUMBER TWO???????

    Yes, it was a completely mental (but not really) chart. Likeable Bradford (not a major city) goons Terrorvision were at number two. And, since I would like to talk about 90s British Rock Music, now’s a good time.

    It wasn’t fashionable, sure, and people forget about it now, but it always felt like there was an explosion of really good Proper Rock from Britain (and Ireland!) in the 90s. Some of it got forgotten, some of it (hello The Manics! How ya doing, Ash! Fancy a pint, Idlewild?) got appropriated by Indie Kids, but it was a special time, I guess.

    You had Terrorvision, the day-glo Northerners, Therapy?, a band who came from a place they called The Province and who managed to combine an almost pop-punk sensibility with a weird-out sense of noise, you had The Manics (I don’t need to say anything more about them), from Newcastle (not a major city) you had the schizophonic (before Geri nicked it off ’em) Wildhearts, you had the artpunk-meets-REM-flight-of-stairs-falling-down-a-flight-of-stairs Idlewild…You had the best of both worlds, really – great tunes and meaty guitars, sometimes humour, sometimes angst. And right now…ah shit, I dunno if I can explain it properly. Maybe I’ll try to say more in one Popular year’s time. I’m not sure anyone here gives a damn, other than to sneer.

    Aaaanyway, here’s ANOTHER mini-playlist of British Rock From The 90s (ish). Please humour me.

    NB These may not be these bands best songs or biggest hits, but they’re the ones that seem to fit best.

    ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ Manic Street Preachers (I’ve spoken about this at length, so let me just say this may well be my favourite song ever)

    ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go’ The Wildhearts (Again, I’ve written about this, but just listen to that intro. Listen to it!)

    ‘Screamager’/’Nowhere’ Therapy? (Can’t split these two, so I won’t. Undertones meets Husker Du meets Judas Priest in joyous angst explosions)

    ‘Alice What’s The Matter?’ Terrorvision (While Lancashire was full of laddish nobs in anoraks, T’Vision were a dayglo explosion of pop-rock goodness. Almost a dark side to this one…)

    ‘The Answer To Why I Hate You’ Symposium (Oh, they did better songs than this – ‘Farewell To Twilight’ and ‘Killing Position’ spring to mind – but this is teenagers doing teen angst and it working)

    ‘You Just Have To Be Who You Are’ Idlewild (Captain is the greatest mini-album of all time, and this is the best example of Idlewild at their noisiest. God, they were good)

    ‘Sitting At Home’ Honeycrack (This is sugar-rush, power-pop, tasty treats in aural form)

    ‘Weak’ Skunk Anansie (As soulful as it got, and bit of a belter)

    ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ Garbage (Yeah, three-quarters of them were American, but it’s my list, so there).

    And more to numerous to mention.

    So there.

  3. 28
    AMZ1981 on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #11 I approached my comment thinking Pretty Fly was a dig at Vanilla Ice who was trying to reinvent himself as a gangsta rapper at the time, then I remembered that he’s name checked in the song. I’ve always remembered the target as a rapper although fifteen years on I might be mistaken.

    #25 I won’t steal your thunder but the record we would otherwise have been talking about was an awful novelty record by a band who had briefly been one of the bright hopes of British rock before Britpop blew them out of the water. I remember being intrigued at the time that we had a rock top two – the fast moving chart of the late nineties did tend to throw up things like that.

    Thinking about it now the late nineties/ early noughties did throw up a lot of rock songs that are now classics of their genre – I often go to a rock club in Harrogate and watch eighteen year olds pogo to stuff that was in the charts when I was their age (including this) – while the critics of the time were still anticipating the next wave of Britpop releases.

  4. 29
    Tommy Mack on 10 Sep 2014 #

    “my own memories of the time agree, the non-metropolitan British rock audience and the UK audience for black music were strongly distinct, and occasionally hostile”

    In my experience the skate-punk and nu metal crowds always liked a bit of hip-hop and drum&bass (but never gurls’ music like garage or RnB) It was always indie types (both Weller/Oasis and Radiohead/Morrissey tribes) who were all ‘it’s not proper music though, is it?’ about both rock and most black pop.

  5. 30
    flahr on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #26 SURELY “Self-Esteem” is INTENTIONAL reheated Nirvana – a Yank rock band wouldn’t write a riff that similar to “More Than A Fe”ERM I MEAN”Smells Like…” by accident only three years after the fact.

  6. 31
    Auntie Beryl on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #30 hadn’t reckoned on the intentional pisstake thing. I’d gamble on the punters I served taking both at face value though. Them being 12 at the time.

    “The Kids Aren’t Alright”

  7. 32
    fivelongdays on 10 Sep 2014 #

    Flippin’ heck, Auntie Beryl, wouldn’t have liked to have been a customer in your shop!

    (And why does every scene from the States which is loud, rocky, and Not Grunge get the whole ‘yah, well, it’s the new hair metal’ spiel, even when it isn’t – and it’s not like that would be a bad thing!)

  8. 33
    Nixon on 10 Sep 2014 #

    “Why Don’t You Get A Job” is a direct and laughable lift from Ob La Di Ob La Da. So in a sense we have already talked about it on Popular!

  9. 34
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Sep 2014 #

    @33 I’d like to think that was paying homage to the Happy Mondays’ “Desmond” (on the earlier pressings of “Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carn’t Smile (White Out)”, but quickly removed once the lawyers caught up)….but I doubt it.

  10. 35
    Nixon on 10 Sep 2014 #

    That Melody Maker cover, blimey. I’d stopped buying it before the move to A4 Big Issue format but I still remember that happening. There were actually two Craigalike-on-toilet images, one on the cover (“UK Garage my arse” was the hilarious wordplay Tom’s remembering), and one on the naff covermount CD (“Born To Do It Better”). Google hasn’t forgotten either of those phrases.

  11. 36
    Ed on 10 Sep 2014 #

    @6 I always heard the Ricki Lake line as “at least you know you can always go and regulate.”

    A Warren G reference.

    I still like it better my way.

  12. 37
    Ed on 10 Sep 2014 #

    A second UK number one with counting in Spanish in it, after ‘Theme From S’Express’.

    There’s at least one more coming up, from a not-bunnied Irish band… Oh all right then: it’s U2.

    Question: Have there in fact been more UK number ones with counting in Spanish than in English?

    Erm…. ‘Space Oddity’… Erm….

  13. 38
    Utter Dreck on 10 Sep 2014 #

    @#6 Welcome to the experience of being a foreign-type listening to songs with lyrical references to, say, ‘Terry Wogan’ and feeling out of it.

  14. 39
    PurpleKylie on 10 Sep 2014 #

    I remember when I heard this for the first time I was like “what on earth is this?!”. While I was familiar with rock music I hadn’t heard anything like this record. After a couple more listens I grew to really like it because of the wittiness of the lyrics, even though I didn’t understand the implications of why an average white guy trying and failing to be a hip-hop gangsta was embarrassing. Outside of this song, I don’t like the pop-punk genre, I’m a fan of old-school punk from the 70s but the South California pop-punk scene just seemed to be really fratboyish and more concerned about making awful toilet humour than any kind of statement.

    Interesting you brought on the whole gender and regional differences in attitude and music. Having grew up in South Wales I very much know how the predominant taste of my peers in my teenage years seemed to be either pop or some form of rock genre.

    And speaking of pop-punk, I distinctly remember when I was around 13 the boys at school wore those thick black hooded sweaters with some sort of pop-punk/nu-metal band logo on the back. I didn’t know anyone locally who was exclusively into rap music, contrast to that of my cousin who grew up in London and he became a massive rap fan. Having moved to Manchester a couple of years ago I notice a lot more flyers for rap/R&B concerts, so I do agree that hip-hop in the UK is more of a metropolitan thing.

  15. 40
    Garry on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #18 Yay for TISM though I agree ‘Homeboys’ is not their best, though the Machiavelli and the Four Seasons album is overall one their best. This is the album which introduced me to the band and I have never looked back. The biggest joke about the band was they were always wearing balaclavas or other masks and no one knew who they were. There were rumours they were members of famous bands. The joke was various members were regularly pulled into the mosh pit and unmasked and sometimes unclothed by the crowd. Even with the masks off no one still knew who they were. They were nobody in particular except for being a member of TISM. They were the very anonymous suburbanites they sung about.

    I joined the student radio station in 1997 and it was all rawk and Belinda Carlisle and Roxette. But 1998 was the year of punk, ska and hardcore. This coincided with the rise of Australian bands The Living End, Area 7 and The Porkers, the latter like many American punk and ska bands had been doing their thing for years in greasy beer gardens but suddenly found their moment. We will see this again when the Strokes bring back stripped back rock, but in these latter years the likes of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Offspring and Green Day etc we’re suddenly everywhere in Oz.

    While the likes of Alien Ant Farm would try to keep it going by mid 1999 punk had made way for Eminem with the Strokes on the horizon.

    Meanwhile at the station 1999 saw the first Uni students born in the Eighties which meant they all wanted to play Eighties pop. Which was fine by me.

  16. 41
    Tommy Mack on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #33, #34 – I’ve always heard Why Don’t You Get A Job as a lift of Simon and Garfunkel’s Cicelia rather than Ob-La-Di.

  17. 42
    Alan on 10 Sep 2014 #

    My favourite examples in the genre of digs in the same vein are from a few years later, both in 2002… Ali G indahouse (tho first appearing on 11 o’clock show in 99?) and Sparks “Suburban Homeboy” (Sparks rarely first on the scene, but always doing it better)

  18. 43
    swanstep on 10 Sep 2014 #

    @41, Tommy Mack. The middle 8 in ‘Get a job’ is pure Ob-la-di Ob-la-da middle 8, but otherwise you’re right that Cecilia could be as much of a source. (That said, Ob-la-di had a pretty high profile in the US throughout the ’90s as it was used in the credits of a show called Life Goes On.)

  19. 44
    Kat but logged out innit on 10 Sep 2014 #

    #25 Time Bomb is a cracking tune – always a big dancefloor hit at our ol’ indie disco.

  20. 45
    DanH on 11 Sep 2014 #

    This was one of two moments where I grooooaned when looking at the #1’s in Britain in that era….the other being an early 2001 bunny. I had no idea either of those would be a chart topper in Britain.

    Re: Offspring….they are a one song wonder for me. I dug “Come Out and Play” when it came out 1994, and looking back now it was one of those seminal post-grunge alternative hits that tried to make the U.S. rock scene more upbeat (esp after Cobain died). Much like “Longview” that same summer. But while I stayed interested in Green Day over the years*, I heard the rest of Smash at the time and my brother and I were underwhelmed. So when they came back with “Pretty Fly,’ I was 14 and well in my ‘if people at school like it, I HATE IT!’ phase. Worse, I derided it as a total “Play” rewrite. Tried listening it to again, still don’t care for it.

    *#9: Heyyyy, I liked Warning a lot at the time!!!! It got me re-interested in Green Day for good throughout high school. Ironically, by the time American Idiot came out when I was 20, I felt like I had outgrown the band, and didn’t really pay a lot of mind. I missed that definitive mid-00s twentysomething milestone I guess.

  21. 46
    Rory on 11 Sep 2014 #

    With this coming hard on the heels of Fatboy Slim, it’s time to dig out this Offspring versus Fatboy Slim mashup from a few years back. No idea if Norman Cook was officially involved.

  22. 47
    Another Pete on 11 Sep 2014 #

    Sorry but 15 years on it’s still Greg Proops on the hoedown round on “Whose line is it anyway”(without Richard Vranch at the piano).

    #27 The Wildhearts were behind the one of the oddest promotional gimmicks going in the mid 90s, namely the free grass seed with their Sick of Drugs CD.

  23. 48
    Shiny Dave on 12 Sep 2014 #

    #37
    UK number ones with counting? We’ve just sped past one of them, “Gym and Tonic.” I can’t off-hand think of any others, but I’ve nowhere near the knowledge of some people on here!

  24. 49
    anto on 13 Sep 2014 #

    This record is firmly date-stamped right from the beginning with that Jerry Springer style opening couplet. It’s appearance in the charts coincided with Ali.G becoming a phenonemon so this kind of thing was in the air. As a hip-hop non-believer it never especially bothered me wheter the white guy was fly or not especially as the jokes were so poor (the one about Vanilla Ice for instance). I’m more interested in the sound of the song which is compellingly thin, cold and sharp – If you zone out the shouty vocals it’s like a sort of freeze-dried bubblegum.

  25. 50
    Mark M on 13 Sep 2014 #

    On the Kerrang! channel right now, they’re running 99 Highly Addictive Pop-punk Anthems, which I guess is testament to what a persistent and productive niche it has become. It would be foolish to underestimate the significance of Green Day…

    On the subject of Kerrang!, there were rumours at Emap Metro throughout the ’90s that Sounds was going to be resurrected, but turned out to be unnecessary as Kerrang! (who lived on the floor above Select and Q) proved very adept at moving with a fast-changing rock world while the IPC mags were immersed in Britpop and its after-effects. The Melody Maker’s final U-turns were too little, too late and misguided. Kerrang! did survive a potential disaster when I turned down the chance to put my name forward for the reviews editors job* – I should have gone for, if just to experience the most comic job interview of all time…

    *One of those ‘we need to pretend we’re trying not to make you redundant’ situations.

  26. 51
    Mark M on 13 Sep 2014 #

    Re 44: Yes, Time Bomb is a belter.

  27. 52
    Ed on 13 Sep 2014 #

    Question: is this the first ironic use of hip-hop dancers in a video? If so, it’s the start of a long and pretty dubious tradition that stretches right up to Lily Allen and Taylor Swift today.

    Having watched the video a couple of times, and also seen a clip of PFFAWG being played at one of the Woodstocks, I am not as confident in the song’s good intentions as Tom is. At the very least, Tom’s interpretation of the way it was received in Britain is right there to be taken.

    Yes, one message is: “Hip-hop culture is great, and this silly boy doesn’t understand it.”

    But the alternative message Tom talks about is there, too: “Hey white teenager, don’t make a fool of yourself trying to get into the most exciting music on the planet right now. Nobody will respect you for it. Stick with our tired generic pop-punk instead: it’s safer.”

    Bringing the character from the video on during life performances to pull some ridiculous dance moves and be laughed at by the crowd certainly sharpens the edge of it, and brings that second meaning to the fore.

  28. 53
    iconoclast on 14 Sep 2014 #

    @52: “Tired generic pop-punk” just about sums this up for me: it’s not something I want to spend too much time on, in other words. FOUR.

  29. 54
    William on 15 Sep 2014 #

    @52: The alternative message is there, but only the first sentence, in my opinion. The song, for me, is simply a light-hearted mocking of white people who appropriate minority culture but lack a comprehensive understanding of what it is they’re appropriating.

  30. 55
    Tim Byron on 16 Sep 2014 #

    It’s funny with songs for 13 year old boys.

    1994: I was 12. I remember first hearing ‘Come Out And Play’ in school – people had to choose songs as part of a music course and then we’d discuss them in some way, and someone chose ‘Come Out And Play’, and I was a little attracted to it, and a little repelled – I liked the rhythm of ‘Come Out And Play’ at the time, the contrast between the vaguely-Latin flavoured intro and the punk bits, but it all seemed a bit heavy/scary for me at the time (a bit like Tom and the Beastie Boys).

    1997: I was 15, and Ixnay On The Hombre was in the right place at the right time. It had spoken word interludes by Jello Biafra; I didn’t know who he was, but liked the idea of a guy called Jello Biafra. There was an intermission featuring intermission music (a kitschy sample of ‘Tea For Two’), and there were a bunch of fairly lighthearted silly things. I dug it.

    1999: I was 17, and too old for the Offspring and ‘Pretty Fly’. I initially liked the song – it had hooks aplenty, after all – but I rapidly got tired of it. I was no longer the target market, and the wave of pop punk of that era – Sum 41, Good Charlotte, Blink 182, etc – left me cold; I was listening to Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith by then.

    PFFAWG is notable to me now for being pretty out of date in 1998/99. Surely it had been 8 years since anyone had actually confused the various Ices at the record store, and a tryhard hip-hop guy in 1998 would surely have been hung up on Biggie and Tupac instead? I don’t think it really works as humour, because I think the caricature is skin-deep. But then I don’t think it was really a serious attempt at humour/social commentary in the first place; instead I suspect the lyrics etc were something that the band put in to make it slightly less obvious the song was largely a hook machine.

    (And yes, the first time TISM were mentioned in the comments according to Google, #18 – I personally think their height was either ‘Greg! The Stop Sign’ or ‘Whatareya?’)

  31. 56
    Andrew Farrell on 16 Sep 2014 #

    Dexter Holland’s struggle against cultural appropriation continues to the present day!

  32. 57
    ciaran on 20 Oct 2014 #

    A few local lads close to where I lived setup a band in 1995 with all complete rock and grunge obsessives so in addition to Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Metallica a band called Offspring and an album called Smash was around the practice room but I never asked them for a loan of it as I did with Appetite for Destruction or Nevermind.

    My abiding memory of PFFAWG was a schoolmate in the know saying that the worse thing they ever did was now the biggest hit of their career.I knew every word and the humourous element was the big selling point but I was a bit baffled as a band that was on the radar of rock/metal fans could even think of making this.

    Theres a decent narrative there but Blur did this kind of thing much better with the likes of Parklife and Charmless Man. 3 or a 4.

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