There are a lot of popular things in the world, and people think that some of those things aren’t that great and get more attention than they deserve. That’s fine: Everything can’t appeal to everybody, so there are bound to be disagreements about what’s “good” and what’s “bad.”
The internet is a pretty positive place where people talk about positive things (*sarcastic eye roll*), but when the populace does decide to criticize actors, style trends, or programming languages, they almost always compare the target of their disdain to one lowly pop culture punching bag:
Nickelback has been pelted with rocks in Portugal. Mark Zuckerberg trolled them with his home A.I. program. Canadian police threatened drunk drivers with a Nickelback listening party. Nickelback’s less-than-stellar reputation has been largely fueled by the relentless nature of the online world, so in the wake of the band’s just-released ninth studio album Feed The Machine, it’s time to re-ask the question that has been answered so many times, although (I believe) never definitively: Does Nickelback really suck this much?
A columnist once listened to the band for 24 hours and came to the conclusion that “Nickelback’s instruments sound like they are trading punches in a bar brawl,” which I suspect was not an endorsement. Science says people don’t like them because they lack a “sincere identity.”
Maybe the problem isn’t that they’re bad and artificial: Maybe the problem is that we’re bad and artificial, too easily influenced by an established narrative to give a taboo idea (“Nickelback might be kind of good”) any serious consideration.
I gave Nickelback a real fair chance a few years ago, to see if the world was right about them. In February 2015, I started a podcast called The Longest Album Review, which was heavily inspired by The Worst Idea Of All Time, a podcast in which a couple of Australian guys watched and reviewed Grown Ups 2 once a week for an entire year to see if it would drive them insane (it did). In my version, I did the same thing but with Nickelback’s seminal 2005 album All The Right Reasons… except I only lasted 16 episodes. As I tend to do, I was working on too many weird ideas at the same time and this one eventually fell by the wayside.
For the show, I did things like test how well the album works as getting-ready-in-the-morning music, attempted to improve the album with a re-ordered tracklist, and call Walmart and Target’s customer service numbers to see if I could get representatives to talk about “Photograph” with me (they did). Whether or not my podcast was actually any good — I suspect it might only be interesting to me and nobody else — I believe my heart was in the right place. I started the journey as a joke rip-off of another more popular podcast, yes, but over the course of the hours I spent listening to and talking about All The Right Reasons, I did a lot of learning (or at the very least, a lot of rambling into my USB microphone).
The biggest epiphany I came to through this process (which I didn’t manage to record before I gave up on the project): I discovered/interpreted that the record is a sci-fi concept album about an alien race trying to learn about humanity in order to enslave it. Please, hear me out: Each track is an exploration into, and therefore an education of, a different human emotion or feeling — “Next Contestant” is jealousy, “Animals” is lust, “If Everyone Cared” is empathy, and so on.
This is all handled in a relatively abstract way until album closer “Rockstar,” in which the head alien (the weird voiceover on the song) administers a test to the undercover alien (Kroeger) to see how much he learned, to see if the extraterrestrial race will be able to assimilate into human culture seamlessly enough to take it over before the Homo sapiens realize what hit them.
Read through the lyrics yourself, and you’ll find that this makes sense without dispute. If you’re reading this, Chad Kroeger, please hit me up on Twitter and verify the validity of this theory.
That’s the most nuanced reading I could come up with for this lyrically ham-fisted album, but judging music on its lyrics isn’t always fair: Pop songs generally aren’t about much either and we don’t place them under as much scrutiny as we do Nickelback. Pop music, by the way, is what Nickelback once once (more on that in a second). That leaves us, then, with the music, which you have to take for what it is.
All The Right Reasons, and Nickelback more broadly, is mostly post-grunge-inspired hard rock with a rock ballad or two thrown in, and it achieves the goals of the genre very well: It has aggressive guitar work, testosterone-centered themes and song structures, flourishes of technical instrumentation, and an overtly “tough” vocal delivery.
It is so very of its genre, and therefore so very of its era: Nickelback was popular in its time because the style of music they made was in demand, and they made it better than most of their peers did. Nickelback as a popular band made a ton of sense 15 years ago. Consider this: On the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles chart for 2002, the top song was the group’s biggest tune to date, “How You Remind Me.” In total, 26 songs on the list could be considered rock or at least rock-leaning, according to data I previously gathered.
Fast-forward to 2015, and that number drops to 13. It’s a lot harder nowadays for a rock song to achieve mainstream popularity, so like leg warmers, zoot suits, and a lot of trends from our past, Nickelback seems more ridiculous now than we once thought they were.
Nickelback used to work as pop music, and while that isn’t true anymore, they’re still capable of scratching the same itch they used to, even if that itch isn’t as widespread as it once was. So no, Nickelback doesn’t suck as much as unoriginal internet commenters like to think (or even at all). They’re just specific to and emblematic of an era that has little in common with present day. A phenomenally successful band like Nickelback shouldn’t be faulted for that. They’ve become low-hanging fruit, despite having achieved so much more than most other bands.
It was Jim Gaffigan who probably put it best on Conan last year:
“There’s this strange moment where people just decide that we’re all going to hate some celebrity for no reason at all. […] I don’t know anything about Nickelback, but I know that, like, my friends that are super cool despise Nickelback. [It’s] like they kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby, you know? It’s like, they’re just playing music. If you don’t like it, turn it off. […] I think it’s just people define themselves by criticizing other things, and I think that’s wrong.”
Open your mind, and give Nickelback a real, honest-to-goodness listen. After playing All The Right Reasons front to back 16 times, I found moments on the album that to this day I still enjoy. Sometimes, I’ll find “Far Away” in my iTunes library and play it for no reason besides I like the way it sounds and I feel like listening to it.
There are enough things in the world to dislike for real reasons, so in these high-stress times, let’s just relax. It takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile, a positive attitude is contagious, and as Father John Misty put it, “How You Remind Me” is “a f*cking great song.”