In Defense of Nickelback or: How I learned to stop worrying about having credibility

When I started this blog, if someone had asked me what the last thing I’d ever write on here would be, I’d have quickly answered: “a post defending Nickelback.” Then the question-asker and I would have had a good laugh, do an awesome high-five and a jagerbomb, compliment each other on our great new haircuts, and then go back to talking about some obscure indie band that neither of us had actually heard of, but pretended to out of fear of being judged as less than cutting edge by the other.

The other thing I never wanted to do with this blog was write a run-on sentence with too many commas. As you can see, I’ve already done that. Now, here I go with the whole defending Nickelback thing. Of course, I understand if that means you’ll stop reading this post at the end of this sentence…

I should probably admit something else before I go on: I was a teenage Nickelback fan. I grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, a few hours drive from the band’s hometown of Hanna. Which meant I got to see the band live a lot before they hit it big, and was just another rock band playing around Central Alberta – although their stages and audiences seemed to be getting bigger all the time. They played hard rock songs like “Breathe” and “Leader of Men,” and did a good job of entertaining the crowds at their gigs. Their set at the Stage 13 festival in Camrose in the summer of 2001 seemed especially well-received, as did the new songs they played from their upcoming album.

This was, by the way, taken a few years ago

Then came September 11 2001, when everything changed. People always ask each other where they were that day, and I, well, was at the record shop buying the new Nickelback album Silver Side Up. An album with songs like “How You Remind Me” and “Never Again” that helped the boys from a small country town sell out stadiums in the biggest cities around the world. I was at their show at the big hockey rink in Edmonton – I sat beside a girl who didn’t stop crying the entire show. Saying she was an old girlfriend of Chad Kroeger, she was beyond excited to see her friends living their dream. And…she also said the song “Old Enough” was written about her (and “Leader of Men” was about doing mushrooms).

With the success came the criticism, and over the years Nickelback has become the public enemy number 1 of rock music – the punchline for any joke about a band that isn’t really any good, or fans that don’t really know anything about music. And all the while, Nickelback continued to play stadiums around the world.

Why has Nickelback faced such a backlash? Yes, they’ve embraced their fame. Yes, they continue putting similar songs on the music assembly line which keeps them in the spotlight. But, they’re not the first rock ‘n’ roll band to do this by far. It’s kinda part of the whole rockstar attitude to celebrate being on top.

Maybe it’s because of all the bands that sound exactly like Nickelback, and are responsible for musical abominations like this: “The Bitch Came Back” – Theory of a Deadman (don’t watch the video if you’ve just eaten, or have any self-respect).

Or maybe it’s because people have gotten sick of them cashing in again and again, with this as the closest thing to guilt or criticism of their own celebrity:

Then again, maybe it’s because they’ve come after bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Nickelback’s “grunge-lite” approach of borrowing sonic characteristics from the genre, but none of its social awareness (except perhaps for “Never Again”), seems to irritate the heck out of people. They launched, for example, into fame through a song that celebrated self-hatred and angst, but without the authenticity that Kurt Cobain carried with him off stage. This diet version of grunge shamelessly taps into the same attitude, but only as far as the bank.

NO.

In the last few months, Nickelback has played the halftime shows of some pretty big football games in both the United States and Canada, and suffered outrage from people that didn’t think the band deserved to play some songs while some really big athletes took a short break from running into each other. Then, to top things off, the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney singled them out as the reason “Rock & Roll is dying” in an interview with Rolling Stone (he also called them “the biggest band in the world”). This was followed by a facebook and twitter frenzy of people supporting Carney’s comments – and many of those people probably didn’t read the whole interview. Who knows? Maybe Carney went on to say, “…and by the way, I love Nickelback!” It’s the 21st century, and we might not have hoverboards yet, but we do have the ability to take a quote out of context and run with it on the internet.

In that moment, I knew I was going to have to forsake all my personal values and defend Nickelback in response to the remarks of a member of one of my favourite bands of all time ever. If rock ‘n’ roll is dying, it’s because things are becoming stale and cliched. What’s more cliched than singling out Nickelback as the enemy of good rock music? People have been doing that since (at least) punk in the 1970s, when musicians were fed up with the overblown corporate rock of the era, and tried to bring rock ‘n’ roll backs to its roots. All Carney was doing was voicing his opinion, however, and that band he’s in? The Black Keys’ music is a throwback to the perceived earlier and better times of rock ‘n’ roll…just like punk rock was.

But, the hype machine in which he was voicing his opinion can spin things any which way they want. Just ask that band from Almost Famous, or heck, even General Stanley A. McChrystal. It’s like how radio stations run “No Nickeback Guarantees,” but play all kinds of other terrible bands. It gets them attention and listeners – hating Nickelback has become marketable. And the same thing goes for a generalized attack against the band in a popular magazine. It’s the easiest means to an end. It sells copies of magazines.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop Harper from getting a majority.

So I guess I’m defending Nickelback not from the opinion of another musician, but the reaction to that view – and its commodification. Just like angst became a marketable commodity, so did hating Nickelback. It gets people to listen to radio stations, and it gets people to buy magazines. But then again, is that so bad, if it exposes people to the Black Keys?

It’s all relative anyways. Nickelback gets labeled post-grunge, but if I was gonna get all arrogant and put ’em in a category, I’d place them alongside bands like Kiss and Mötley Crüe. Bands that are loud, stress style over substance, and offer their audiences an escape from the real world. That’s what Nickelback does – they entertain, they rock, and they make their listeners happy. As Nickelback was playing the halftime show at last year’s Grey Cup, I was busy making general snide comments about their performance just a bit louder than the television volume. Then I got a text from an Irish friend at the game that didn’t know  he was supposed to hate Nickelback – he said he loved it: there were lots of flames and it was lots of fun. So my cheeky remarks were stopped cold. How could I be sweepingly critical of a band that was making people happy?

At the end of the day, a fan of Nickelback is like a fan of pro-sports – you go to the stadium prepared to be entertained by people whose job it is to put on a show for you. You can argue all you want about artistic or athletic merit, but these are people who clock in everyday for a big pay cheque that depends completely on putting people in the seats. They are playing to an audience that has certain expectations, and if they keep creating what they want to see, then they keep cashing in.

And alternatively, having an opposition to these entertainers means profit as well. Think Edmonton Oilers versus the Calgary Flames, or Oasis versus Blur. A rival sports team, or a band that stands for something else, and appeals to different sensibilities – well that brings lots of cash into the same entertainment industry too. Right now, lots of people are critical of Nickelback, but the cultural tide could shift, and the enemy could be the Black Keys. Those that hopped off the Nickelback train 5 years ago could get back on again, asking why the Black Keys don’t write songs of social importance like “Never Again.” As things loop back around and liking the uncool becomes cool again, folks could decide that El Camino isn’t as good as they thought, and songs like “Lonely Boy” are just ripoffs of ’60s garage rock bands from the Pacific Northwest, like the Sonicsthe Ventures, and the Wailers. Of course, it was really a matter of influence, not imitation.



The best way to be critical, I think, is to also be specific. So if you are going to tell people Nickelback sucks, say why. For instance, you could focus on the misogynistic lyrics of their song “Figured You Out.” I know I have a problem with adolescent girls singing along to a song that’s centered on the sexual objectification of women and male dominance.

And not to go off on a tangent, but do the girls singing and dancing along with the terrible LMFAO song “Shots” have any idea what the lyrics are? I’m not sure if knowing or not knowing is worse.

As for the members of Nickelback, any publicity is good publicity, and they handle the attacks beautifully. In response to the Black Keys’ article in Rolling Stone, Nickelback had this to say over twitter:

“Thanks to the drummer in the Black Keys calling us the Biggest Band in the World in Rolling Stone. Hehe.”

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5 Comments on “In Defense of Nickelback or: How I learned to stop worrying about having credibility”

  1. phil Says:

    good post Rylan!
    That article in Rolling Stone (or at least the headlines from it) sparked some conversation in our house too.

  2. Lee Chamney Says:

    Good post! I like the point about the commodification of hating Nickelback. That kind of thing always reminds me of a conversation with a Business major in China about tourism theory, where he said they use a concept called “authenticity principle” which quantifies perceived authenticity using the same metrics as perceived luxury or perceived savings. They can calculate it with models including the estimated cash value of authentitcity for different demographics of tourists, like backpackers, group tours, etc. I always wondered if similar calcultations were done in the music industry.

  3. Lime Says:

    Nickelback rocks! Woot!

  4. Jeremy Says:

    You know who was worse than Nickelback? Creed. Similar style, similar number of decent songs amid the crap, similar money-making machine, similar polarizing effect on listeners. But at least Nickelback sings about having a good time, while Creed songs were morality lectures from one of the most hypocritical douchebags ever to grace a rock and roll stage. I can live with Nickelback, but fuck did I ever hate Creed. Then again, it was important to have an opinion when I was a teenager. As I get older, I’m finding it easier and easier to ignore them and listen to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Blue Rodeo, or other middle-aged rock.

  5. David Attenborough Says:

    Great post =) When you say:

    “Then again, maybe it’s because they’ve come after bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Nickelback’s “grunge-lite” approach of borrowing sonic characteristics from the genre, but none of its social awareness ”

    I think you’re giving the average music listener far too much credit. It’s just simple bandwagoning. Nickelback got huge and have no real tangible, authentic, redeeming qualities which could cause a person’s judgement of them to come into question. It’s a very easy way for someone to brand themselves as being ‘above’ what’s most popular – all while having that opinion constantly validated by others whose opinions perceivably ‘matter’. It’s obvious in what you say – how radio stations can be ‘Nickelback free’ and then play back-to-back Buckcherry.

    But what’s important is that you and I remember how we listened to The Black Keys long before they released “El Camino” and became everything that’s wrong with two-person garage rock from Ohio ;-).


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