The concept of musical taste is one of the most subjective things you can discuss. There’s no telling or way of predicting which songs will get your brain to flood the body with dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone.
Certain songs make you want to dance and give you shivers. Others induce no emotional or physical reaction at all. And others still fill you with antipathy, disgust, and maybe even rage.
This brings me to Nickelback, the Alberta band that has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and the most successful rock band in the world of the 2000s. How You Remind Me from 2001’s Silver Side Up album was the top rock song of the decade, the fourth-best selling song overall, and the most-played song on U.S. radio between 2000 and 2009.
READ MORE: (March 8, 2019) U.S. congressman declares Nickelback as ‘One of the greatest bands of the ’90s’ during House floor debate
Groundbreaking? Certainly not. They are a pure mainstream post-grunge rock band that knows how to deliver anthemic, party-on songs both on record and in concert to a global fanbase. Revenue generated by the band is used by their various record labels to develop new and emerging acts, making their success a vital part of the ecosystem of the star-making machinery behind the popular song.
Yet out of virtually every other musical act on the planet, Nickelback attracts the most hate and abuse. Admitting to liking Nickelback is akin to saying you hate puppies and kittens. The anti-Nickelback memes are endless. Invoking their name is universal shorthand when you need to describe something awful.
I mean, people really, really hate Nickelback.
Yet Nickelback is a more than competent rock band. Do they follow a certain formula for writing songs? Yes, but so do millions of other acts.
Is their sound derivative? Absolutely, but that hardly makes them unique.
Are some of their lyrics misogynistic and in poor taste? Certainly, but much less so than so many other acts (cf. Brown Sugar by The Rolling Stones; Warrant’s Cherry Pie; most of Eminem’s catalogue; and an unfortunately large chunk of the hip-hop world).
Did the band sometimes engage in some frat boy antics? Sure, but that’s standard rock band behaviour.
Chad Kroegers DUI? Can I introduce you to, oh, THE REST OF THE ROCK’N’ROLL WORLD?
Deadpool defends Nickelback in argument with Fred Savage
None of this makes sense to me. Why so much hate? I have a couple of theories.
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First, most critics are situated in the big music centres, such as New York, LA, Toronto and London. There’s a strong tendency toward elitism when it comes to judging music that’s doesn’t fit their definition of hip, progressive, and worthy of attention.
Big market tastemakers decided long ago that Nickelback were hacks, filling the ears of impressionable audiences (read: mid-continent music fans) with rock’n’roll drivel that was almost too standard for words. Nickelback wasn’t just worth their time. Their music was so mainstream — so exquisitely ready for the CD buyers at Walmart — that it was beneath them. Therefore, the more successful the band became and the more radio airplay they got, the more they needed to be attacked and denigrated.
Then there’s the Comedy Central theory. In the early 2000s, the network ran a program called Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. In May 2003, comedian Brian Posehn was asked to respond to the results of a study published on May 5 of that year that linked violent song lyrics to violent behaviour. Posehn had this to say at the 2:47 mark: “No one talks about the studies that show that bad music makes people violent. Like, Nickelback makes me want to kill Nickelback.”
That clip was used in a promo for Tough Crowd for months, ingraining the idea that Nickelback = bad. Yes, Smash Mouth, Creed, Limp Bizkit, and Hoobastank were all painted with this brush, but no other band had a national comedy network hammering away with the message that they were awful.
But I still needed to know more about the cause of this (in my opinion) disproportionate hate. So I sourced the crowd with a post on my website.
Here are some of the dozens and dozens of answers I got back.
CALE: I feel like they get all this shade thrown their way due to their ability to write catchy songs with a hook that sinks into your brain with what seems relative ease. BUT they do this with the look of a boy band in a rock world, and the music has a very high production value which can come across as “no way they actually do all this without a giant team from some rich record company” kind of feel. With the genre they (inhabit), this is looked down upon as “selling out” and doing it for all the wrong reasons. And they seem to explode in popularity rather quickly, which again can be a downer if people don’t feel they “paid their dues in the biz.”
JOHN: (This) hate is one of the earliest cases of how internet mob mentality was manifested. With songs on high rotation on the radio, they became an easy target. It could have been any band, but it became a meme and with the acceleration in Facebook and other platforms. the feedback loop made it fashionable to pile on Nickelback. As younger people are the biggest consumers of music, it goes without saying, they are the most fickle with ensuring they are on the right side of a trend.
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BARRY: I think the hate they get started due to the fact that they were an OK rock band that was turned into a “product.” It’s like someone said, “Hey, these guys look kind of boy band-ish and they have catchy riffs, I can sell this!” We ended up with music that was catchy (some of it), heavily produced, overhyped, and overplayed.
ANDREW: Nickleback is blandness personified. They’re a band completely devoid of artistic expression and personality. That would be fine if they could back it up with good lyrics. But, no, they’re very rote lyrics delivered over and over again without an ounce of subtlety. Thanks to corporate radio, you got to hear that every day and every hour no matter where you happened to be. The ’90s were a rich decade for alternative and Canadian rock. It just felt like the bar was already so much higher.
KYLE: Here’s why (some fair, some not). (1) They’re just another quality rock band yet they get put on a pedestal by the music industry, media, (and seemingly just a small number of fans). (2) Chad Kroeger comes across as very arrogant; he dyes his brown hair blond (so did Kurt so, hmm…), he’s had “frosted tips” in the past, he’s great looking, and I’ve never seen or heard of him doing anything humble or helpful (I’m sure he does in reality). (3) Their music is often super weak, shlocky, commercial, radio-friendly, and worst-of-all poser-heavy. (4) They’re rich, famous, popular, so much worse musically than hundreds of better rock bands.
There were many more responses, theories, and a few unhelpful screeds, but you get the idea. I’m not sure we’ve figured this out. Meanwhile, Nickelback endures as do their legions of fans. So who’s laughing at who?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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