No band in recent memory has been as simultaneously adored and despised as Nickelback. On one hand, the Canadian group regularly plays arenas (such as Hartford's XL Center), sells tons of records (2011's Here and Now topped Billboard's Rock Album charts), appears on loads of soundtracks, and has sustained all this success since Silver Side Up and “How You Remind Me” became breakout hits in 2001. But over the years, a stream of bile has been running — and slowly growing — concurrently.
In 2004, college student/musician Mike Smith created a recording that compared Nickelback's singles “Someday” and “Remind Me” by playing one song out of each speaker. The mashup was a big hit online, and the clear similarities between the two evidenced that Nickelback was cashing in on the same idea repeatedly. The fire on the villagers' torches was lit, and over the years, Nickelback's become an easy go-to joke online.
Last fall, Dennis Guttman made an online petition to keep Nickelback from playing the halftime show during the Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving game. The petition argued, “This game is nationally televised, do we really want the rest of the US to associate Detroit with Nickelback? Detroit is home to so many great musicians and they chose Nickelback?!?!?! Does anyone even like Nickelback?” Though the petition didn't derail the original plans, it gathered 55,850 signatures out of its goal of 75,000.
A Facebook campaign called “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickelback?” actually managed to work (Similar campaigns have been launched against Justin Bieber, Barack Obama, Twilight, etc.), and a Tumblr page called “is nickelback the worst band ever?” constantly reminds you “YES” in giant letters. Google “world's most hated band” and the first result to come up is a Montreal Gazette article about Nickelback. If you type in “why do people hate” and leave the answer to be automatically filled in by Google, one of the first results — if not the first — is “Nickelback.” If the world's most popular search engine recognizes how hated something is, it's a legit issue.
Around the Thanksgiving game, Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston generated three key reasons why Nickelback are hated: 1) They represent not just one but two bygone aesthetics (those being grunge and arena rock), and their combination is embarrassing; 2) Nickelback was placed inside the "OK to joke about them" box and hasn't been able to break out of it yet; and 3) Hating Nickelback is a pretty easy way of taking a stand against the "mainstream." All of these are true. Let's move deeper into the abyss, even if we don't have room to list every reason Nickelback are hated. (There are a lot.)
They play their routine — hard rock songs with big choruses and no experiments — so safely that they're unbelievably bland. They're a rock 'n' roll band who don't have anything cool or countercultural about them, even if they indulge in rock clichés like drugs, sex, self-indulgence and casual misogyny. They're on a major label and play like it. They play music that's probably popular with people that shop at Walmart (this is a class thing, too), and they dress like guys who would shop there themselves. These goons must deserve every ounce of animosity, right?
Well, no, not entirely. Nickelback can be mind-bogglingly lame, yes, but frequent lameness in and of itself doesn't make them worthy of sustaining deep hatred. They've become so easy and frequent a target that they're not worth shooting anymore. Why not stage a mass protest against Katy Perry, who is riding a career high even as she puts together songs that are somehow more emotionally vacant than Nickelback's, or revisit the catalogue of Linkin Park circa the early 2000s and mock some of the lamest, whiniest lyrics ever sung on record?
Hell, scratch the idea of deflection. Instead, scan through a few Nickelback songs and you can find merit in scattered pockets. Detractors commonly cite “Figured You Out” for its misogyny (“I like your pants around your feet/And I like the dirt that's on your knees/And I like the way you still say please/While you're looking up at me”), which it is. No, a blow job song isn't flattering to women, but front man Chad Kroeger (who, to the public at large, is Nickelback) does himself no favors either as the other lyrics paint a relatively complex portrait of him as an emotionally manipulative prick. Meanwhile, “Rockstar” is a dumb fantasy about indulging in all the luxuries that stereotypically come with the music biz (women, money, etc.), but Kroeger uses the song to deliver a couple of snappy lines (He wants “a bathroom I can play baseball in”) and acknowledges from the outset that he's a loser who just wants to win, so what's so wrong about an occasional grandiose daydream? If you want something sorta touching, check out “Photograph” to hear the guy get all nostalgic about being a dumb ass as a youth. The imagery won't penetrate your soul, but it is occasionally sweet.
Music-wise, “How You Remind Me” and “Burn It to the Ground” deliver with solid crescendos, lots of energy and stupid-fun hooks. It's pretty junky junk food, but even a Twinkie is satisfying every once in a while.
None of this is to say Nickelback is a fundamentally good band, it's just that they're not the worst. As they've become the quintessential online punchline, it's important to not buy too seriously into the groupthink anti-hype and occasionally give the worst criminals another parole hearing. A little open-mindedness can do a lot of good.
Nickelback w/ Bush, Seether, and My Darkest Days. $49.50-$79.50, doors 6 p.m., April 27. XL Center, One Civic Center Plaza, Hartford, xlcenter.com
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