LEO Weekly: Does Nickelback Really Deserve the Hate?

Originally published in LEO Weekly

Saying people hate Nickelback is like saying the ocean is wet. Yet, if Nickelback wears the crown as the world’s most hated band, how did they fill up well over 10,000 seats on a blistery Wednesday night in February? And why does a music writer, someone genetically predisposed against this sort of band, walk into this show with a completely neutral opinion, ready to write about it for LEO, a publication no stranger to snark?

Hating Nickelback is an opinion as safe and prepackaged as their music. For years, Nickelback has offered up the default low-hanging fruit for jokes and the benchmark of what’s “bad” with arena-selling rock, not just by tastemakers, but by the same friends of yours who may or may not own Primus albums. Undoubtedly you’ve seen a few viral waves of an app on Facebook called “Who to Unfriend” that, when clicked, will reveal which of your friends like the Nickelback page. Football fans launched a petition to keep the band from performing during halftime at the Detroit Lions’ 2011 Thanksgiving game. The band lost a popularity contest to a pickle (which isn’t fair because pickles are truly agreeable). And Nickelback with their ilk inadvertently begat a prank genre known as “Butt Rock” — the encapsulation of a supremely odd stagnation in “modern rock,” starting around 1998 with a horde of bands aurally terrorizing the nation with a “here’s our Nirvana impression” mindset and machismo to spare.

On my own volition, I would not choose to drop the needle down on “Silver Side Up.” But hate? “There are so many reasons to hate Nickelback,” says David Greenwald, music critic for The Oregonian who’s penned words for the likes of The L.A. Times, Billboard and Rolling Stone. “I think the biggest is that the hate is proportional to their popularity. They were the most successful rock act of the 2000s, sales-wise, and that makes them a gigantic target for people who like to point out how vapid and awful mainstream music is. It made them hard to avoid.”

Hate comes easy when you’re on top, like a form of reverse-Reaganomics for authenticity. For me though, I’ll unfriend someone on Facebook for writing something boneheaded about how vaccines cause autism, not for liking Nickelback. You do you.

Popularity aside, is Nickelback truly more offensive than anything else? I grappled with this question for days before the show.

Their songs are formulaic and boring, sure, but that’s true for a lot of acts. Jump on social media and read a thread about any given festival lineup in the country for a list of artists people have fresh takes ready to share, “boringness” included. Personally, many critically-lauded indie rock bands have put me in a fugue state. Nickelback writes some rather misogynist lyrics, sure, but for some reason we’re still collectively cool with Pharrell Williams, co-writer of “Blurred Lines” and the national anthem of rape culture. Their songs all sort of sound the same, sure, but so do songs by The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and other beloved bands splattered across T-shirts available at Target.

None of these reasons are particularly compelling, unique or adequate in explaining why Nickelback has been singularly and unprecedentedly hated for so long, save for perhaps shared values on what’s offensive. Speaking to a Louisville audience specifically, shouldn’t it be more offensive that, say, Mumford and Sons, young men from posh West London, pose as mountaineers and appropriate the music of Kentucky, while making more money than every artist out of Renfro Valley combined? Considering they sold out Waterfront Park in 2012, I guess not. Or maybe so, if we accept that offending the senses sells tickets. While Nickelback couldn’t boast a sellout Wednesday night themselves, they packed an arena with people impervious to the band’s well-documented loathing lightning rod.

We met Stephen shortly after he photobombed my girlfriend and me. He drove in from Lexington, which I deduced from his pullover with an embroidered Solid Platinum logo (the city’s classier gentlemen’s club, not suggesting I’ve patronized it before). I spoke with Stephen about why he and his wife came out, and he quickly admitted Nickelback’s sonic uniformity. “The new album is really interesting,” he said. “There’s folk on there, even a funk song. I wanted to hear how those songs sounded live. We’ve seen them a few times before. I didn’t want to come at first just to hear the old songs again, but the new album [“No Fixed Address”] has really different stuff on there.” He also mentioned his wife’s love for The Chad and his for actress Taylor Momsen of supporting act The Pretty Reckless, and their family unit’s facetious mutual understanding if, ahem, the best case scenario came to be. I liked Stephen. We yucked about for a few minutes, and while I won’t say I plan to fire up Spotify to explore “No Fixed Address,” I found his reasoning more solid than most anti-Nickelback arguments. He’s totally someone I’d drink some beers and toss some corn hole bags with.

While standing in line before the Yum Center’s concession (which separated me from $18 for a red wine and well drink), I spoke with Eric from Louisville. Under an acutely bent-billed ball cap and in a heathered beige form-fitting long sleeve shirt and snap pocket jeans, he exuded that intangible All American quality. Like the guy I run into at Akiko’s who earnestly karaokes Hot 40 Country all night every time I’ve walked in there or the clips I’ve seen of Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle, though I got the distinct feeling he was more of a pacifist. “It’s just nice to hear some real rock, stuff that rocks on the radio,” he said. “There’s no hard rock anymore, not really. I don’t really like metal or anything like that, but I like stuff that gets you going when you’re exercising or going about your day, and it’s catchy.” He also likes Pink Floyd.

Which gets to the nut of the issue for why people like Nickelback. The corporate structure and ancillary details that allowed for Nickelback’s ascension throughout the aughts could fill a dissertation, but ultimately there’s a lot to like with Nickelback if you’re a passive listener of music. Drew Miller’s well-written but hot take-laden piece for Noisey touches on this idea. If you’re a working class family man, your priorities don’t lie in crate digging and rock history pissing contests like you and your asshole friends. You flip on the radio to and from work, and if your tastes align with major key heavy-distortion rock more than Lady Gaga, then, well, Nickelback offers a working and readily available solution for you. To shame someone for such is not only a completely boring opinion, it’s condescending and kinda shitty to boot. Nickelback and the team behind their music have a specific agenda, and they execute it successfully. Just like with teenybopper pop. They make dumb radio rock. So what? They’re not posturing something they’re not, like Mumford & Sons. Because I see such beliefs as so unequivocally uninteresting and pedestrian, here I am, finding myself in the odd position of defending a band I don’t like. Such is the burden of holding nuanced opinions. And on the floor of the Yum Center Wednesday night, I was going to see if I could call my own bluff.

The concert kicked off with “Million Miles an Hour,” an industrial-informed fist pumper that wouldn’t sound out of place betwixt the weird twilight of grunge and electronica in the mid-’90s where Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills live. The visual production matched the sound with flying fractal lights that resembled the Trapper Keeper I kept in 5th grade.

“The rock and roll has started. Your buzz has just started, let’s get raunchy,” announced Chad Kroeger before ripping into Dark Horse’s “Something In Your Mouth.” I joked on Twitter about how maybe the song is about food; Louisville is a foodie paradise after all. Guys… it’s not about food. I immediately started thinking about all the families we saw walking into the Yum Center earlier that evening. Do they sing along? The stage visuals switched between a light show and an audience Jumbotron that zoomed in on a group a teenage girls throughout the song. Then 15 to 20 foot columns of pyrotechnic fire shot from behind, flanking the stage with symmetrical patterns resembling the Monster Energy logo. Hands down one of the weirdest experiences of my life.

Still, despite the gross sophomoric lyrics and questionable production choices, Chad Kroeger’s stage banter was generally congenial when he wasn’t mimicking South Park addressing a crew member named Tim as, well … you can guess. A mighty “thank yaaaahhh” followed each song. Their performance of “Edge of a Revolution,” aka Nickelback’s politix korner, vaguely resembled their own version of ZOO TV, with rapid cut footage of fires, Shepard Fairey’s sans serif OBEY branding, soldiers goose-stepping and other imagery that could easily ascribe to either left or right ideologies (like Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” political songs without agenda are big money for both rallies and sporting events). “Photograph” saw images of the band performing live within a Polaroid frame splayed across the colossal LCD screen, interspersed with shots of fans, American service men and women, and even The Belle of Louisville. Somewhere an art director is enjoying a well-deserved raise.

For however many times Nickelback is labeled “douche rock,” Chad and company came off totally affable. This was absolutely cemented after the band covered “Hotel California” and riled the audience to sing the words. They sincerely congratulated and cheered the audience rendition even though you sucked, Louisville. You all butchered the shit out of that song. They even managed to fit in “Hero” from the Spider-Man soundtrack (the Tobey-helmed one) and the funk song Stephen wanted to hear.

Managing expectations in a business relationship is paramount. I, and the band’s fans, expected arena rock spectacle, and Nickelback delivered, including a 5-minute tossing of red solo cups of beer into the crowd.

“Given that grunge came out of the underground, and first-wave bands such as Pearl Jam had genuine fights against Ticketmaster and corporate forces, seeing Nickelback use the style to joylessly celebrate the cliched hair-metal rock-star lifestyle that Nirvana tore down is subversive in the worst possible way. It feels like they’ve pulled a nasty prank on millions of people and somehow they haven’t figured it out yet,” Greenwald says.

I don’t reject this opinion. But that’s also assuming that the hair metal aesthetic is something deserving of disdain. Like Nickelback, I don’t care for the movement, but I don’t generally hate it (outside of Akiko’s) either. Despite the same formulaic songwriting, hyper-sexualized lyrics and self-parodying antics, hair metal ignites a soft spot for nostalgia, the same neural center that gets people so extremely excited about an ’80s-night event. Nickelback just ignites snark. Sans context and while closing your eyes, Nickelback feels at the very least in the same league as fondly-remembered hair metal.

Unlike the Sunset Strip acts though, of course, Nickelback has never developed an interesting visual presence. No androgyne, no theatrics or glamor, just unbridled aggression and sweaty beer-swillin’ masculinity. Maybe they’d be a little cooler if they had adopted more sexier rock ‘n’ roll tropes of yore, but some suits somewhere decided that, in such a fragmented micro-genre pop culture landscape, laying out unencumbered straightforward dudeness was the smartest marketing move. That same node that ignites at the faintest whiff of inauthenticity or posturing now feels confused — is such machismo overblown to create a high impact large-than-life rock totem, or is their simple-man image simply catching up to their monumental popularity and overcompensating in the process?

Shit, I don’t know. I have no plans to write a 33 1/3 book on Nickelback. What I do know is that I walked into Nickelback as a guy with a bunch of questions about the band, society and how we relate to music. I left with those questions mostly unanswered, but now with the brain-burning realization that I had a decent time at a Nickelback show — and if given the choice between that and seeing, say, something like Tennis or Hot Chip, I would totally choose the former. If I was asked how can you, Mr. Music Critic, geek out about the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor track that dropped earlier in the day then extol the virtues of Nickelback later that night, I’d say, well, you gotta see it live, as the old punk adage goes. To wit, I say the same thing when arguing why a noise band like Wolf Eyes is fun.