Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nickelback: the Whipping Boys of Rock 'n' Roll

Nickelback are simultaneously the most loved and the most reviled band on the music scene. They are one of the few "rock" bands that are fortunate enough to sell shitloads of albums nowadays, so they deserve some respect for that feat. There is the stereotype that commercially successful artists must, by nature, be ravaged by the critics while obscure artists get rave reviews. For the most part, this has been the case throughout the years. For every Beatles who the critics and the masses universally adore, there are twenty MC Hammers who sell millions of albums and twenty Nick Drakes who merely sell thousands.

It's pretty obvious where Nickelback sits on the musical spectrum. The boys from Hanna, Alberta have been the favourite whipping boys of critics, bloggers and fellow musicians across the world for the last few years. Perhaps it's the power of the internet, but I've never seen such an outrageous amount of HATE expressed towards one band or artist. The only case that might be comparable would be the brief backlash against the Beatles after John Lennon said they were bigger than Jesus. But it's safe to say that their reputation sufficiently recovered after that.

So why do people hate Nickelback so much? Before the NFL Thanksgiving game in Detroit, there was an online petition to get Nickelback NOT to play. And this attracted a shitload of people. A similar situation occurred when it was announced that Nickelback would play the half time show at the Grey Cup. To the band's credit, they've had a sense of humour about it. This is especially evident in a pretty clever bit they filmed for Funny or Die.

The level of hate has grown to almost comical proportions. But for a band that everyone seems to hate so much, they sell millions of albums in an age where no one buys albums. They also sell out arenas across the world at the drop of a hat. So who exactly buys Nickelback albums? It seems like the "cool" thing to do nowadays is to hate Nickelback. I'm sure that since so many people claim to hate Nickelback that there are people in the hipster contingent who like Nickelback now... but strictly in a post-modern, ironic kind of way. Regardless, Nickelback get the most publicity of any rock band on the planet. But why?

Before I continue, I may as well let the cat out of the bag. I don't like Nickelback's music. Since the day I first heard of them, I thought they were just watered down post-grunge music. "Leader of Men" was an ok song, but it was so... bland. And since then, they've only gotten worse. However, I must note that I do respect Chad Kroeger and company for making a damn good living doing something they love. They're talented musicians so I have to give them credit for that. It takes balls to go onstage and set yourself up for judgement. And they seem okay with the fact that people like myself really don't like their music. Plus, Chad and company seem like genuinely nice guys. So kudos to them for making money playing music.

So why do people hate their music? I can't speak for everyone, but here is why I cringe whenever I hear a Nickelback tune. I mentioned before that I find their music so watered down. In 1996, I thought Bush were a watered down version of Nirvana. Well, Nickelback are a watered down version of Bush. They make Bush seem like Iggy & the Stooges or the Sex Pistols by comparison. They may play guitars, bass and drums... but any trace of rock 'n' roll has been completely sapped out of their music. They are the worst thing that a rock 'n' roll band can be:

They're safe.

The cinematic equivalent of Nickelback would be a Happy Madison production starring Kevin James, and would feature talking animals, plenty of fat jokes... and at least ten scenes of guys getting hit in the nut sack. If they were a talk show host they'd be Jay Leno. If they were a beer they'd be Molson Canadian. If they were a burger they'd be a Big Mac. Nickelback is the soundtrack for people who buy their music from Walmart.

But why do they sell so many albums and sell out so many shows? See above.

The majority of the population don't want to be even remotely challenged when it comes to entertainment. With Nickelback, people can just turn their brains off and sing along. To Chad Kroeger's credit, he's found a formula that works very well commercially. In a nutshell, Nickelback are a (shitty) country band with cranked up guitars. If you combined country music with hair metal, you would have Nickelback. Chad Kroeger doesn't write metaphors. He just lays everything out for the listener. No one will listen to a Nickelback song and wonder, "I wonder what he means by that?" "I like your pants around your feet" means exactly that. They pick the standard country and rock 'n' roll subject matters: sex, booze, fights, sex and booze... with the obligatory ballad and "socially responsible" song to sway the chicks. Their music is ideal for guys getting off a 12 hour shift on the rigs. This type of listener doesn't want to hear the latest Arcade Fire or Radiohead tune. They want to get shitfaced, watch some UFC and crank up some AC/DC.

In commercial terms, Chad Kroeger's formula is brilliant. They found what sells and they stick to it. AC/DC had their formula and they stuck to it. The Ramones had a formula and they didn't change. I guess I just have a problem with Nickelback's formula because it comes across to me as pandering. I love lots of mindless rock and pop tunes. I even find LMFAO somewhat brilliant. They're dumb... but they know it. They're smart about being dumb. But Nickelback? I just don't get how people can just flock to their tunes. Yet, so many people gladly lap it up. And so many people rail against it. But they have people talking so I guess they're doing something right. In a recent Spin magazine, The Roots' ?uestlove said that he only differentiates music between being "effective and ineffective." I guess Nickelback's music is effective to lots of people.

But as I said before, despite the fact that I think their music is pure drivel and that a kid in Grade 4 could write better lyrics, I do respect the guys for actually writing and performing their own songs... and being able to perform live. In an age where every pop song seems to have autotune and people pay outrageous money to see Britney Spears lip synch onstage, it is nice to see people succeed by playing a (bastardized) version of rock 'n' roll. As Sloan once sang, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans." I guess I don't hate Nickelback. I just hate that so many people have unquestioningly accepted that mediocrity rules. And I find that very sad.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Van Halen or Van Hagar? The Eternal Question

Most of my friends tend to be obsessive music geeks like myself so the usual music debates always tend to pop up in conversation: the Beatles vs. the Stones, the Ramones vs. the Sex Pistols vs. the Clash, 70's Aerosmith vs. 80's/90's/00's Aerosmith, why Rush do/don't suck, U2 vs. Queen, etc. Well, now that David Lee Roth has reunited with Eddie and Alex Van Halen for a successful comeback tour and now have a new studio album set to be released next month I figure now is a good time to weigh in on the Eternal Musical Question:

Diamond Dave or Sammy? Van Halen or Van Hagar?

To me, it's a no brainer. I'm a David Lee Roth fan all the way. It goes without saying that Sammy Hagar is/was a far superior singer. The dude has an amazing set of pipes. "Dreams" has to be one of the best male vocal performances in the history of 'rock n' roll... and it might even be my favourite Van Halen tune. So for pure vocal ability, Sammy wins in a landslide. It's no contest. However, rock n' roll isn't strictly about technical ability. If that were true, then Emerson, Lake and Palmer would be gods. David Lee Roth was never the best technical singer, but he made it work. He played to his strengths. But mostly, he had fun and he GOT IT.

DLR understood that a band like Van Halen should put on a a helluva show and HAVE FUN. The Roth version of the band wasn't trying to change the world. They were simply trying to provide the soundtrack to people having a good time. By combining the proto-heavy metal of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin with shades of glam rock and punk rock, Van Halen emerged from the L.A. club scene to gradually become arguably the biggest band in the world in 1984. For better or worse, Van Halen helped spawn all the hair metal bands of the mid-late 80's. Before Motley Crue could "Shout at the Devil", Van Halen were "Runnin' with the Devil." With Diamond Dave at the mic, the band understood that rock n' roll should be ridiculous at times. Most importantly, they never took themselves seriously as Artistes. Roth wasn't trying to be Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. The lyric sheets for "Hot For Teacher" and "Everybody Wants Some!!" couldn't be mistaken for long lost Elvis Costello songs. With Diamond Dave, Van Halen were a party band with the best guitar player on the planet. And DLR was one of the best frontmen. He had a charisma and swagger that few possess. But ultimately, it's the songs that matter. "Runnin' with the Devil", "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", "Panama", "Jump", etc, etc, etc. These songs still sound amazing today.

When Sammy Hagar joined the band, they pretty much became a new band. Diamond Dave probably left at a good time because it would be pretty hard to maintain that "party band" ethos for much longer before the schtick got old. With Sammy, Van Halen tried their best to be a Serious Rock Band. There's no way they could've done this this with DLR. I will admit that Van Halen had a few great tunes with Sammy ("Dreams", "Poundcake" and "Best of Both Worlds", for instance). However, I think Van Halen lost the plot when they decided to focus so much attention on power ballads. If you saw the song titles "Love Walks In", "When It's Love", "Why Can't This Be Love" and "Can't Stop Loving You" on a set list you'd think it was for an Air Supply concert... not a hard rock band. When Sammy joined the band, they went from "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" to songs that Dianne Warren could have written. In trying to be a Serious Rock Band, Sammy Hagar once referred to his lyrics as poetry. It's safe to say that Diamond Dave never made this claim. It's pretty obvious that DLR had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote most of his lyrics. On the other hand, Sammy reaches beyond his capabilities in the lyric writing department. As much as I love "Dreams", the lyrics are pretty cliche and would be perfect for a Tony Robbins infomercial.

Diamond Dave left the band when they reached a commercial peak with "Jump". So when Sammy joined the band it was kind of like a free agent signing with the New York Yankees after winning the World Series. So unless your name was Gary Cherone, it was a pretty sweet gig. The band went on to have more commercial success with Sammy Hagar because their music headed into a far more MOR direction. But just because they appealed to more soccer moms doesn't make Van Hagar a better band.

Sammy Hagar seems like a really cool, laid back guy. He just seems like a normal guy. I would much rather sit down and go for a beer with Sammy than Dave because, quite frankly, Dave seems like a bit of a douchebag. However, if I ever listen to Van Halen I always tend to skip over the Sammy songs... and I would much prefer to see the DLR version of the band than the Sammy version. For me, a band like Van Halen should be all about turning your brain off, letting loose and having fun. When Sammy joined the band they lost that key ingredient.

And as for Van Halen's new single "Tattoo" with Diamond Dave? Well... at least he has a cool hat. Unfortunately, the new single doesn't exactly help my case. But at least they'll play "Panama" in concert. You can check out the video below.

So who do you prefer? Van Halen or Van Hagar? Or do you actually think Gary Cherone was the best singer in Van Halen? Or do you not even care? Feel free to post your comments below.