Scraping Genius Off The Wheel

On Nickelback and Narratives

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I’ve been thinking about Nickelback lately.

When you read that sentence, what was your immediate response? What emotion, feeling, thought, or involuntary bodily function occurred in you? Unless you’re really out of it today, you experienced something, however miniscule. More likely than not, you probably had a negative reaction of some sort, towards the band, towards me, or both.

Nickelback have a reputation, one that resonates throughout our culture. Sure, they play massive venues all over the world and, amazingly, sell records and top charts in these trying, austere times for the music business. But that success only amplifies the distaste. You probably don’t hold their fans in high regard either, likening them to tasteless idiots, painting them as spoon-fed suckers who work menial Red State jobs and probably own personalized NASCAR paraphernalia.

But why? I’d posit that those who have nothing but ire and snark for Nickelback haven’t actively listened to a note of their music in years, most likely not since 2005’s All the Right Reasons. Indeed, the band’s most vitriolic detractors — save for Canadians who are subject to CanCon tyranny — probably couldn’t even recall the names of their last two albums.

Blame it on the ballads, some might say. From the cynical inside-looking-out view of “Rockstar” to the preachy eye-rolling idealism of “If Everyone Cared,” Nickelback have churned out some of the most instantly recognizable rock softies of the 21st century, giving way to a new generation of mixed-bag soundalikes including American Idol also-ran Daughtry. As a music critic, I’ve heard more than my fair share of these formulaic modern power ballads, so I can empathize with that sentiment.

But I don’t think that fully explains why they’re so hated by so many. (Conversely, Carl Wilson’s terrific book on similarly reviled pop queen Celine Dion tried to dig deep into why so many people like her music.) I think we’ve been forcefed a narrative. I believe we’ve been conscripted into a groupthink mentality of willfully ignorant elitism, not unlike what tabloids push repeatedly for troubled celebs like Lindsay Lohan. We’ve been told not to like Nickelback so long we can barely recall why he hate them.

Practically speaking, metalheads especially have little reason to disdain these Canucks. Discounting those overwrought radio-baiting ballads, Nickelback’s albums typically feature well-constructed, over-the-top hard rock in the seemingly disparate traditions of Motley Crue and Soundgarden. Cuts like “Bottoms Up” and “Something In Your Mouth” are pure hedonistic anthems, reveling in the pleasures of the flesh with chunky riffs and shouts. Overdriven swamp blues stomper “Follow You Home” recalls Alice In Chains circa Dirt. Every album in the Nickelback discography has tracks like these, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

So before you simply parrot the party line in the misguided spirit of nonconformity, check out those three tracks on Spotify or Mog or iTunes or wherever. I’m guessing at least some of you will come to realize that there’s more to Nickelback than you thought.

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