Nickelback: Why They Don’t Suck As Much As We Think

15 Dec

It’s come to my attention that Jim thinks he knows me a lot better than he actually does. In an effort to incite my ever-present and ever-seething rage, he likes to bait me by sending me stories he figures will push me over the edge. But this time he’s miscalculated somewhat.

It’s a well-known fact that I’m very opinionated when it comes to – well, everything, but specifically all things music. I’ve been known to harp on topics ranging from washed-up artists to the validity of peer-to-peer file sharing, but I’m always pretty polarized, and my regular readers have a pretty solid grasp on what I’ll agree to and what I’ll call out as bullshit.

So it may come as something of a surprise to you, my friends, when I say I was not enraged by what Jim sent me this morning.

For interested parties, the article can be found here, but the gist of it is this: Billboard Magazine just released their annual “best of” music lists, including their picks for Best Artists and Groups of the Decade. The first six of the top ten are all individual artists (Eminem comes in first), but seven entries down, the first traditional band on the list (Editor’s Note: “traditional band” denotes Rock-Band archetype – 1 to 2 guitars, bass guitar, drums, singer) is the entry Jim assumed would send my blood pressure rocketing through the ceiling.

Nickelback. The Best Group of the Decade.

Let’s all pause to give the hipsters among us time to digest the fact that Animal Collective didn’t even make the Top 100, and then we’ll continue.

The guys in Nickelback have come a long way from their Hanna, Alberta beginnings, and to put it politely, there are a few people out there who consider their success somewhat unwarranted. To put it impolitely (and somewhat more realistically), there’s a significant fraction of the musically-inclined population who would like nothing better than to see these guys drawn and quartered in a public square, their dismembered body parts displayed in every major city across North America as a warning to any who would ever again deign to take up the gravelly-voiced, super-Protooled, too-late-for-Seattle-grunge, post-alt-rock banner.

They’re widely accepted as one of the most criticized groups in the history of music. Rolling Stone Magazine particularly likes to take their potshots at these guys; of their 2005 release All The Right Reasons, RSM had this to say:

“Like all Nickelback releases before it, All The Right Reasons was made for all the wrong ones and follows all the formulas and clichés you should be bored to death of by now.”

(Unimaginative and cliched, eh? Kind of like, I don’t know, Rolling Stone Magazine. But I digress.)

Nickelback has been lumped in with other disciples of the late grunge movement, prompting my good friend E-Dubb to come up with the nomenclature “Theory of A NickelCreed” to describe the legions of bands who have adopted the characteristic vocalization and guitar-heavy angst-rock typified by the likes of Lane Staley and Eddie Vedder. I’ve argued this point myself: when Staley sings “Down in a Hole”, I believe him: likewise when Vedder sings “Jeremy” – but when Chad Kroeger tries to convince me that someday, somehow, he’s going to make it all right (but not right now) I somehow doubt his conviction.

And yet, somebody has to like these guys. The proof is in the pudding: Billboard charts are based on album sales. Nickelback has sold over 30 million albums worldwide, and they’re ranked the second-best-selling foreign act in the U.S. in the last decade – right behind the Beatles, of all bands. And an ideal case-in-point: when I typed “Someday lyrics” into Google just now to verify the chorus of that shitty song, Nickelback was the very first search return to pop up.

I have yet to meet someone – anyone – who will cop to actually liking Nickelback, much less owning an album, but there are quite obviously several million people out there who have Silver Side Up or Dark Horse hiding in their collection, and I genuinely don’t understand why people are so secretive about those purchases.

See, this is where I prove Jim wrong. I don’t actually think Nickelback is bad at what they do.

Don’t get me wrong; I can’t personally stand their music. It’s trite, boring and repetitive. I hate the amount of slick post-production they employ. Their lyrics are banal. Their videos (especially the one for “Photograph”) are hideously literal, and I think I grew out of their demographic around the same time I turned on MuchMusic one Saturday morning and realized that I no longer cared about any of the music they were airing (somewhere around 1997).

But let’s take a step back and look at exactly what Nickelback is and isn’t.

After the release of 2008’s Dark Horse, music website ChartAttack had this to say:

“Chad Kroeger is a genius because he knows exactly what people want and how far he can go. He turned out an extremely racy album that’s loaded with songs about gettin’ drunk and doin’ it all without breaking any taboos, and with enough love and moral authority to grease its passage into the mainstream. Rejoice, North America. This is your world.”

Even Billboard, who prompted my penning this article, got on board with pseudo-praise:

“The bulletproof Nickelback provides affordable fun that promises good returns in hard times.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this serves to illustrate my point. Leave aside the question of artistic integrity; leave aside all your preconceived notions about what “art” is and isn’t. Nickelback is a product, and that product sells like hotcakes.

I don’t mean to sound cynical or jaded when I say this. Quite the opposite. There has always been a market for consumable music, as long as there’s been music for sale. We’re just seeing more of it now than maybe at other times in history.

Think about it. Has anyone ever accused AC/DC of being musical pioneers, or important songwriters? Hell no. Most of their songs are tributes to driving fast, rocking out and sleeping with more women than is probably advisable, and you can fairly easily trade one AC/DC song for another without really noticing a significant change in pacing or musicianship. And yet, if Q107 or their Weekend Warrior demographic are to be believed, the boys from Sydney are classic-rock gods.

And AC/DC is the tip of that iceberg. Music has always been about entertainment, even when it’s also about art and introspection and the human experience. What’s the most popular track from Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking concept album The Wall? “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II”. Why? I’m no musicologist, but I’d lay good money that it’s because it’s a catchy tune you can easily sing along to, and one that amateur musicians can learn the basics of with little to no difficulty. Leave aside the vast, sweeping, experimental scope of the record, and give me the one song along with which I can drunkenly pound the pub table.

It’s the same thing with so-called “new country”, a genre for which we can largely attribute credit to the sound-engineering genius of Mutt “Presents Shania Twain” Lange. He married the characteristic vocal twang, steel guitar and fiddle combo of traditional country with sleek, pop-friendly production, and in so doing launched an entire subgenre that gets more and more popular with every passing year (the likes of Toby Keith, Taylor Swift, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and others all feature in Billboard’s Top 50 Artists of the Decade).

If we base our criticism on pop-sentiment (i.e. they have nothing new to say; they sound generic; etc.) we have a huge network of artists on whom we can drop the hammer of our elitist musical disdain. So why is it we have such a hard-on for Nickelback, specifically?

Frankly I think it boils down to a few base human reactions, the first and most important of which is jealousy.

Somebody once said that Modern Art equals “I could do that” plus “Yeah, but you didn’t”, and I think that applies here. From a purely musical perspective, Nickelback isn’t doing anything particularly groundbreaking – half their songs follow exactly the same rhythm and chord progressions, and their lyrics aren’t anything to write home about either – like I said before, they’re pretty pedestrian. In short, it’s nothing your average musician doesn’t think he or she could do just as well. But that’s not entirely true.

I’ve written before on the question of music versus consumable product, and I’ve had conversations of considerable length on the subject with many of my Correspondents. If we take my preceding comments about Nickelback’s music to mean their songs are indeed consumable products, it changes the way we gauge their inherent value. We’re no longer looking for artistic credibility in “How You Remind Me” – we’re looking at its value as a product to be sold, and that calls for a new set of criteria. That’s the point a lot of jealous wannabe rock stars seem to miss. They look at their own music and say, “wait a minute – there’s way more value in what I’m creating musically than in what Nickelback does; how come I’m not making money hand-over-fist?” But in a lot of ways, (at least in my opinion) it’s actually easier to write songs that “mean something” than it is to write cookie-cutter pop.

The reason for this is directly related to the question of changing concepts of value. “Art” is subjective, and therefore you can very easily write something that is subjectively appealing to you, and maybe your group of friends, or even a specific minor demographic. But to write something appealing in the larger scheme of things, well, that’s not nearly as easy as you think it is. Everything has to be in place: the lyrical hooks, the guitar licks, even the rhythm plays a subconscious role in whether or not people find your music aesthetically pleasing. It has to be catchy; it has to be singable and playable from an amateur perspective; it has to be slickly produced; and maybe more than anything else it has to be marketed correctly. Nickelback has the whole package: they’ve got the right look, the right sound, the right attitude. They might be corporate “sellouts”, but damned if they aren’t really, really good at it.

And that’s the other thing: I’ve never gotten the sense from them that they’re in it for any other reason. I read a fantastic interview in Canadian Musician a few years ago (and I really wish I could find it online, but I can’t) with Chad Kroeger, talking about the ins and outs of his band – why they’ve made the decisions they have, what they want to get out of their career. The way he presented himself sounded very much like he and his band mates are in this business to have a good time and make some money – there was no rhetoric to suggest that he fancies himself an “artist” or the saviour of rock and roll or anything else a lot of his contemporaries put on airs about (Billy Corgan, I’m looking at you).

And for my money, there’s nothing wrong with that. Surprised?

See, I think people take themselves a little too seriously at times, and I count myself in that number. Sometimes it’s okay to take the big existential stick out of your ass, crack a beer, and listen to some guilty pleasure music. That Nickelback sold more albums than any other band in the last ten years doesn’t signify anything – certainly not the “end” of rock and roll. Frankly I’d be more concerned that Nickelback was the only traditional band in the top ten – and only one of three in the top twenty (by the way, the other two were Creed and Linkin Park, and given a choice of the frying pan or the fire, I’d take Nickelback over the other two any day – at least they’re not whiny emo dudes trying to rap or pretentious douchebags trying to sell me on God). With the rising prevalence of online file sharing, record sales don’t mean a hell of a lot anyway, so quit worrying about it.

With that said, I’m going to go fill my ears full of Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and James McMurtry before my Good Music Radar atrophies.

5 Responses to “Nickelback: Why They Don’t Suck As Much As We Think”

  1. Boozur December 15, 2009 at 3:29 PM #

    There was a time when Def Leppard, Bryan Adams & Shania all sounded exactly the same, minus a slightness in the lead vocal. Care of Mutt Lang of course but your treading water by having the Rat King and AC-DC on the same page as Nickelback.

  2. Canadian Sports Chick December 15, 2009 at 5:20 PM #

    I admit it, I have a copy of “Silver Side Up” kicking it around here, somewhere. I was 18, had way more disposable income than I do now (though how that was possible since I didn’t have a job???) and really liked “How You Remind Me”. I also agree that Nickleback isn’t as bad as everyone things, but then I don’t pretend to know much about music–I just listen to what I like.

  3. Shayla December 15, 2009 at 5:27 PM #

    I think if music were food, Nickleback (and most new country, for that matter) would be a Big Mac: ridiculously processed, totally unsophisticated and bound to make most of us puke.

    Personally, I can’t stand them, not even as a guilty pleasure. It’s not just that every song sounds exactly the same, it’s that every song sound so exactly the same that I (and many people I know) run screaming to change the station every time I hear Chad Kroeger’s growly voice start up.

    Sure, there are probably worse mainstream, popular bands out there, but frankly I think you’d have a hard time finding a more annoying one.

  4. AC/DC Abruzzo December 16, 2009 at 9:22 AM #

    AC/DC back in Europe in 2010!!!

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