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.

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