If Green Day are the Replacements of the 90s, then the Offspring are the Fugazi. The Replacements’ first record, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, was about adolescent boys avoiding the girlfriends they dumped (“Don’t Ask Why”), acting like geeks at the 7-Eleven in front of the gorgeous clerk (“Customer”), and admitting they were “shiftless when idle.” Twelve years later latter-day punks Green Day sing similar songs for high school stoners. The Offspring, the other punk band resting in the top ten right now, appeal to a more focused crowd.

Like Fugazi, Ian McKaye’s venerable D.C. hardcore-based outfit, the Offspring are your college English major/high school math nerd punks. Fugazi is the epitome of the uncompromising, avowedly indie outfit achieving success on its own terms. Reeking of righteousness and firmly on the side of every liberal cause, Fugazi members lie awake at night worrying about dying or about women being harassed on the street. The Offspring, similarly, transcend the mere politically correct. Their concerns about the state of the world include gangs at school (in the radio hit “Come Out and Play”), random highway violence (“Bad Habit”), and a list of social ills that would do Sassy proud (“Not the One”). While they unquestionably play punk rock, the Offspring and Fugazi have nothing in common with the nihilism and self-destructiveness of punk’s hallowed past; instead, they concentrate and work hard. That’s paid off for the Offspring: their album Smash, talisman for a new generation of punk fans softened up by Nirvana, sits in the top five; with more than two million sold, it’s the largest-selling release ever on an independent label.

There certainly wasn’t a 70s punk revival happening the Monday the Offspring sold out the Vic. The band’s early support came out of the boisterous male skate-rat contingent, giving them some underground credibility. But at this show the fans ranged from junior high to college age and seemed to patronize the Gap and Sears. Many of them were female. (Mall chicks like the Offspring’s combination of punk energy and warm voices.) The band themselves looked like an older version of their audience, healthy and fit, evincing an implicit “straight-edge” punk credo–a bad attitude, liberal politics, an aversion to drug use, and a deep love for the skateboard. No mohawks or leather jackets here; in their place were the baggy outfits that can be seen on almost any rock video and singer Dexter Holland’s baby face and blondish braids. When they weren’t drinking their Evian water they splashed it on the crowd, and they smiled with an unpunklike cheeriness and tore into their songs with a melodic, chanting energy. Skateboarders have a word for the combination of graceful technique and unexpected tricks: “shredding.” That’s what the Offspring were doing at the Vic.

The merits of such safe new punk may seem dubious to longtime devotees. But the crowd’s utter abandon showed the success the music’s had in putting a genuine voice to one generation’s low-key but very real teen angst. The concert’s highlight was the album’s second single, “Self Esteem,” which pulled the band and its followers out of bland Gapland. The vast majority of the crowd knew every word of this catchy tune, which chronicles a guy’s exploitation at the hand of an insensitive girl. As many women as men sang along to the line “I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem”–proof that the line bridges a gap between the sexes in a way that the most ringing Fugazi anthem or Nirvana antirape lyric has never been able to. The cheering only grew louder at the lyrical clincher: “That happens more than I like to admit / Late at night she knocks at my door / Drunk again and looking to score.” The less commercially popular Liz Phair song “Fuck and Run” describes the same situation from the woman’s point of view. But maybe it’s more comforting to women to hear a man talk honestly–after all, we often turn to male friends when we’re having boyfriend trouble.

“I hope the Didjits aren’t going to sue us,” Holland announced as the band launched into an appropriately pummeling version of the Chicago band’s “Killboy Powerhead,” the only cover on Smash and a tribute to one of the Offspring’s predecessors. But what defines the Offspring–and Green Day, for that matter–and what sets both bands apart from all of their predecessors, including the Didjits, is their realization that even a mall kid will find his or her energy, rebellion, and outspokenness mirrored in punk. It doesn’t matter that they’ve never heard of the Sex Pistols, and that they discovered the Offspring and Green Day through videos. Some veteran punk fans will hate the new punk, but in true punk spirit, the young audience of these two bands don’t care what other people think.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James T. Crump.