Pay the Man * The Offspring * Americana * 1998
Back when I cared what people thought about my taste in music, my love of The Offspring was a source of secret shame. In high school they weren’t punk enough. After they were that “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” band. Either way, The Offspring can’t win. Before Smash came out in 1994 they were just another anonymous California punk band. Then, suddenly, “Come Out and Play” blew up and now they’re soulless sell-outs forever, apparently. The funny thing is, outside of a little extra production value, the band hasn’t changed all that much. The Offspring were always one of the pop-punk forerunners, at least insofar as their sound. Politically and ethically? I mean, they never changed their sound to follow a trend, they never turned on their fans, they never really did anything, really, other than continue to make the kind of music they enjoyed making. The kind of music, incidentally, that I happen to enjoy.
Look, the ’90s were a great time for music. There was lots of creative energy all over the musical spectrum, and a lot of it was incredibly sincere and intense. There was a darkness that underlies most of that era’s art that, even at the time, could wear on you after a while. Christ, I was in full teen angst mode and even I sometimes had to lighten up occasionally. Thus my affection for upbeat punk and third wave ska. Of course, as we saw with Less Than Jake, sometimes the music can mask thematically heavier music. The Offspring are much the same, as we see with “Pay the Man.”
This is a song of two parts. The first section is a long, meandering, Eastern-influenced instrumental section with some lyrics that come in later which are almost whisper-chanted at you. It’s all very mystical, and lyrically there is a lot of blowing wind and twilight images involved. This lulls you into a false sense of security, and then The Offspring you might expect shows up and the song is suddenly noisy and pissed off. Lyrically, here is what I find to be the key of the song:
Look at you and your struggle for freedom
But you ain’t nothing
We all pay the man for living
Wouldn’t it be nice for a change now
To be unchained
My life is for me now
But this is life
Pay the man
That’s pretty bleak! Doubly so, considering the source. But this was the ’90s, which is a time relative ease in terms of the geopolitical situation. There were very few external threats to elevate anxiety as a society, but as it happens, humans are extremely good at finding things to worry about. This is not to say that there is no need to fight the power, of course. Quite the contrary. “Pay the Man” isn’t trying to be an anti-authoritarian anthem, however. It’s too long and strange for that. Rather, I have always felt this to be one of their more introspective songs. I also happen to think it’s one of their best.