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In defense of Nickelback
Contrary to popular belief, hating a band you know everyone else dislikes doesn’t make you cool.
This week, a British man named Craig Mandell launched #DontletNickelback, a Tilt crowdfunding campaign to ban Nickelback, the Canadian pop/rock band and possibly the most hated group of musicians in the entire Western hemisphere, from performing in the U.K. ever again. “With your help, we can ensure that the band do not schedule any gigs here, do not attempt to come here—nor even phone here,” Mandell writes on the campaign webpage, which has so far raised a little more than a tenth of its goal, or $117. “Just imagine, thousands—perhaps tens of thousands of music lovers—all not witnessing an exclusive concert by Nickelback in London.”
The campaign raises a number of questions, chief among them being how Mandell thinks raising $1000 will physically prevent Nickelback from booking any shows in the United Kingdom. (Is the money going to United Kingdom customs officials to bribe them to deny Mike and Chad Kroeger entry into the country? If so, the legality of this tactic is at best ambiguous.)
But my primary response to #DontLetNickelback was a vague feeling of discomfort, the kind you get when you watch your friend make an unfunny, stupid joke in front of someone they’re trying to pick up at a party. Because in launching his campaign, Mandell clearly thinks that hating Nickelback is the kind of thing cool and funny people like himself are wont to do, but the fact is it’s no longer cool to hate Nickelback; if nothing else, it’s exemplary of a lack of wit and subtlety and imagination. And I think we all just need to take a breath and agree, as a people, as a culture, as a nation, to try to reach a détente with our neighbors to the north and just stop making fun of Nickelback.
To me, hating Nickelback is not like hating the Eagles or Aerosmith or U2, three bands I truly think are terrible and, like Nickelback, have enormous fan bases and share the same bloated, middlebrow sensibilities. There are legitimate, interesting reasons to hate those bands, none of which have to do with the fact that the lead singer was married to Avril Lavigne or has a shitty goatee (the reasons most often cited in pieces on why Nickelback sucks, like this eloquent missive on Thought Catalog, the argument of which reaches its rhetorical apex with “their music sucks massive ass.”)
Hating Nickelback is like hating global warming, poverty, or another amorphous, non-concrete concept that’s bad and everyone says it’s bad. Saying you hate racism, for instance, is an instant conversation-starter, not only because everyone agrees on it, but because it’s inflammatory; no one wants to be thought of as a racist, even if they are, so everyone automatically and vociferously comes out against it. But even though it might give everyone the opportunity to massage each other’s egos and pat each other on the back for being so progressive and enlightened, ultimately, saying you hate racism is a completely meaningless statement, because who doesn’t?
It’s the same thing with hating Nickelback: Because no one wants to think of themselves as a Nickelback fan, they’re lightning-quick to come out against them. With the possible exception of Lena Dunham, there is no conversational topic in certain well-educated, urbane, twenty-something hipster circles as inflammatory and quick to spark heated discussion as Nickelback, but not because it’s divisive; it’s because everyone agrees, and everyone knows they agree. Bringing up Nickelback at a party is the ultimate form of conversational clickbait.
I’m coming out in support of Nickelback not because I’m a fan of Nickelback’s music, or because I spent my girlhood dreamily doodling the lyrics to “Photograph” on a Chad Kroeger-themed Trapper Keeper. (To be honest, I’m a bigger fan of Creed, the other most-reviled band of the past 20 years, in part because of their unabashed bombasticism and in part because when I was thirteen I thought Scott Stapp was really hot.)
Nor am I particularly motivated by deeply held populist principles, the argument that is most often invoked when people write defenses of critically reviled yet commercially successful bands like Creed or the Eagles.
I’m not of the opinion that just because everyone likes something means there’s some covert artistic or intellectual value to it, as James Aviaz of the Australian publication Faster Louder tried to argue in a piece defending Nickelback in a section titled “You can’t argue with (fucking huge) numbers.” While it’s true that Nickelback’s numbers are fucking huge—their breakthrough album, Silver Side Up, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, more than the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill or Led Zeppelin’s eponymous album—I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that commercial popularity necessarily equates to quality. Lots of people might like Arby’s beef and cheddar, but that doesn’t mean it’s as objectively good or good for you as, say, the trout roe and matsusake dish at Alinea.
My issue with hating Nickelback has less to do with my fondness for their music as it has to do with the fact that hating Nickelback is so profoundly boring and intellectually lazy that it makes me so much angrier than their sexist lyrics or silly songs or stupid goatees do. For one thing, as my editor Cooper Fleishman puts it, hating Nickelback is “so 2005,” and while he’s a little off on the exact date, it’s not by much, if this Google Trends search for “Nickelback sucks” is any indication:
Little tip to Craig Mandell: If the band you hate enough in 2014 to start raising money to ensure they never play in your country again reached its critical nadir at the start of the Obama administration, it’s probably time to start looking for a more culturally relevant object of your loathing.
Aside from being totally played out, however, hating Nickelback is stupid because the fact is, Nickelback is just not that bad. I know there are people who will start pounding on their keyboards when they read this and ranting about how their melodies are grating and repetitive and their lyrics inane and misogynistic (sample: “you look so much cuter with something in your mouth”) and that Chad Kroeger’s voice sounds like a constipated Eddie Vedder on a bad middle school PA system.
But you know who else sounds like constipated Eddie Vedder on a bad middle school PA system? Eddie Vedder, you guys. And Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp, and Bob Seeger, and Joe Cocker, and Bob Dylan at a certain point in the 1980s, and pretty much every well-respected male rock vocalist of the past thirty or forty years.
And you know who else wrote grating and repetitive melodies, and inane and misogynistic lyrics? John Mellencamp. Has anyone actually listened to “Jack and Diane” for more than thirty seconds? And check out Bruce Springsteen on this choice lyric: “The only lover I’m ever gonna need is your soft sweet little girl’s tongue.” Or what about Bob Dylan? One would be hard-pressed to find a Nickelback song quite as bitterly and nakedly aggressive toward a former lover as the description of the fragile, sexually manipulative subject of “Just Like A Woman.”
Without going so far as to assert that Nickelback is on the same artistic level as those artists (because obviously they are not), it’s pretty difficult to argue that they’re not guilty of at least some of the cardinal sins Nickelback is so often accused of.
Furthermore, it seems pretty obvious to me that Nickelback’s biggest hit singles—”How You Remind Me,” “Photograph,” and “Hero,” among others—are not nearly as patently terrible as everyone likes to claim they are. In fact, some of these songs are objectively pretty good, or at least as objectively good as any of the other songs that have been on the Top 40 charts in the past ten or twelve years. (I’m looking at you, Owl City. “I get a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs?” Tell those lightning bugs to blow me, why don’t you.)
Look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t sing along to “How You Remind Me” with gusto whenever it played at your middle school dances, or “Hero” if you’ve had a few at your local karaoke song. There’s a reason why those songs are so catchy and singable: Because Kroeger and his band write them to be catchy and singable, and they know what they’re doing.
In his piece on seeing Nickelback and Creed perform a concert doubleheader, Grantland writer Chuck Klosterman summarizes the appeal of Kroeger’s music best: “Kroeger is a borderline genius at his craft: He listens to the radio, studies every hit, deconstructs how those songs succeed, and then creates a composite simulacrum that cannot be deconstructed by anyone else,” he writes.
And it’s true that when you listen to some of Nickelback’s better songs—”How You Remind Me,” for instance—they tend to be instantly evocative of the work of other, usually better artists. You hear Pearl Jam, you hear Green Day, you hear Soundgarden. But above all else, you hear the guttural caterwaul of Kroeger, a guy who sounds like he’s spent an awful lot of time sitting by himself in his car or bedroom, listening to all three.
Depending on the standards by which you judge pop music composition, you probably think that type of songwriting process is either brilliant, or stupid. (Or brilliantly stupid, or stupidly brilliant.) But I’m of the opinion that mimicry is an art form in itself, and even if you find Nickelback boring and unnecessarily loud and painfully derivative of every other pop-metal song that’s come out since the 1980s, you have to appreciate Kroeger’s ability to sound like so many different people, so incredibly consistently. In some respects, he’s basically the world’s highest paid, most successful Eddie Vedder impersonator. (In fact, Nickelback’s biggest album, the aforementioned Silver Side Up, was co-produced by the same guy who produced Pearl Jam’s biggest album, Ten.)
But because Kroeger sings about getting boozed up and receiving hand jobs in cars, instead of school shootings and the dangers of global warming, most people who don’t think seriously about music don’t think of Nickelback and Pearl Jam in remotely the same league; they don’t even think of them as playing the same sport. And that’s why liking Pearl Jam is shorthand for a socially conscious grunge-infused intellectual sophistication, while liking Nickelback is shorthand for being a red-state-residing sister-fucker in a Three Wolves T-shirt—even though songs like “When We Stand Together” and “If Everyone Cared” are arguably as socially conscious (if not as nuanced) as anything off Vs.
And ultimately, that’s the biggest problem I have with the widespread acceptability of Nickelback hatred: That it’s a conversation you can’t have without elements of classism seeping into it, that you can’t talk about hating Nickelback without talking about hating their fans and what they represent, and consciously separating yourself from your conception of them. Plenty of people hate U2, for instance, but because their fan base is more economically and socially diverse, that band will never attract nearly the same level of ire and contempt as Nickelback does.
The reason why it’s become so acceptable to hate Nickelback is because it’s similarly acceptable to hate the lower-middle-class people who make up a large portion of their audience. And they work hard to cater to that audience: According to a 2012 NPR piece on the band, they’ve struck deals with World Wrestling Entertainment, commercials for NASCAR’s Speed Channel, and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. “If something’s getting punched, smashed, broken or otherwise causing chaos, Nickelback is usually the background soundtrack to it,” reporter Ben Paynter told the host of All Things Considered.
Whether or not this stereotype is actually true is another story, but it’s pretty hard to argue that the people who hate Nickelback don’t know about it, and that their hatred for the band is, on some level, an attempt to differentiate themselves from the WWE- and NASCAR-watching rubes that constitute the bread and butter of their fan base. If you don’t believe that there’s a correlation between Nickelback hatred and Nickelback fan hatred, then take a look at this 2012 piece on how to identify and unfriend people who’ve “liked” Nickelback on Facebook. Whether or not you find “Rockstar” awesome can literally result in the termination of your online relationships.
The fact that Nickelback’s haters make such a concentrated effort to disidentify themselves with their fans is interesting, in part because we tend to think of this strong identification with the music we listen to, of using our favorite and least favorite songs and artists as a prism through which we see ourselves and the rest of the world, as something of an adolescent trait. Hanging out with people who like the Dead Kennedys and hate ABBA is OK when you’re in high school, but it’s not really OK if you’re still using that criteria in your twenties and thirties.
At a certain point in our emotional development, we realize that our cultural preferences, our taste in things like movies and TV shows and bands and ice cream flavors, are only small stitches in the Grand Tapestry of Us, and not the sum total of who we are and will be. But for reasons that I can only barely fathom, it is totally OK to view someone else’s enjoyment of Nickelback’s music as the sum total of who they are as people; it is totally OK to use whether or not a friend or partner or colleague likes “Rockstar” as a criterion for whether or not you’re willing to grab a beer with them. That is not only insane to me, it’s stupid, and because any discussion of Nickelback is implicitly or explicitly class-conscious, it also seems borderline offensive.
Whenever someone comes up to me and says they hate Nickelback, I automatically interpret it as “Bah, I hate poor people.” Whether or not all of Nickelback’s fans are poor is irrelevant, as is the socioeconomic level of the hater in question. It’s what Nickelback represents, and what their fan base represents, that makes the assertion so distasteful to me.
So let’s stop hating on Nickelback, and go back to hating other, more important things. Racism, sexism, poverty, war—those things will never disappear completely, but if we organize and work together, we can all do our part to make a dent in the problem, little by little. But regardless of what Mandell’s Tilt campaign might tell you, we can’t do the same for Nickelback, nor should we try.
EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.