The Curious Case of Nickelback

Victor Barac

Ever since the November release of Nickelback’s latest album, "Here And Now," just about every news outlet in Canada has been using the occasion to revisit why Billboard’s "Band of the Decade" is also the band people love to hate.

More than Toronto mayor Rob Ford, more than the HST, Nickelback is the most despised homegrown phenomenon in Canada – or so it would seem if you believe the overwhelmingly bad press:

“It’s official: this is the world’s most hated band,” declares Mark Lepage in a special anti-Nickelback report published in April in The Montreal Gazette.

Related: Tired of Nickelbickering? Nickelblock Them From Your Browser

“Chad Kroeger has one of the most plain and static voices in rock music,” writes James Fell of Calgary, a self-confessed un-musical music critic who has repeatedly attacked Nickelback on AskMen.com and other online blogs.

“He shouts and grunts rather than sings,” Fell says of the band’s front man, a fellow Albertan. Perhaps the most intriguing part about the hatred toward Nickelback is how touchy rock music critics appear to be with music that is of the same genre.

Fell rants that the band has “no discernible talent” and that their lyrics are “awful.” Lepage gets personal after allegedly sharing a few drinks with lead singer Kroeger in a local bar, writing that beneath the passion and success exuded by the Canadian rock star, he detects an “undeniable inward flinch.”

Then comes the fatal judgment: "You slog up through the ranks and prosper in what is undeniably the coolest vocation known to the western world, claw and riff your way into Valhalla, the winner’s circle. You’re in a rock ’n’ roll band. And you find yourself labelled … uncool."

Way more "uncool" is how much of the abuse hurled at Nickelback comes from critics who avoid a serious discussion of the band’s music altogether. They choose, instead, to focus on the band’s limited measure of political correctness.

In reviewing Nickelback’s 2008 album, "Dark Horse," Jordan Brimm of NOW Magazine – a free Toronto community tabloid kept afloat by prostitution ads dominating its back pages – sanctimoniously writes: "Nickelback’s constant promotion of reprehensible behaviour may be uber-high-concept attempt to show how creepy it is, but I seriously doubt that their Joe-the-Plumber following would get the message.”

The “reprehensible behavior” Brimm refers to, is identified by the subject matter of some of Nickelback’s song lyrics which, he says, deals with “familiar themes like strippers, sex, prostitutes, drugs, sex, drinking, and sex.”

Tsk. Tsk.

But scarcely anyone ever writes about the band’s hardcore sound.

From Rolling Stone right on down to the rock magazine’s parrots in student newspapers and beyond, those writing critically about Nickelback complain that the music is derivative, repetitive, and predictable.

Related: Canadian Artists Hold Four of Top Five Albums in U.S.

Such vague characterizations, however, could just as easily be leveled at most rock bands and popular music, in general. As jazz great Cecil Taylor once explained, anything in 4/4 time is basically unoriginal. It all depends on what one expects from music.

Judging rock music has to begin with an understanding that it has mostly been heard before, and then identifying its rock aesthetic and what, if anything, is new about it and whether the novelty has any value. But even that’s a stretch for most rock critics to follow.

Like Fell, who openly brags that he has no musical training, most rock critics are ill-equipped to provide credible criticism on the music itself simply because they have no real grounding in the subject matter.

As a result, and largely to compensate for a lack of real musical knowledge, so-called rock critics tend to absorb themselves in the extra-musical facets of their subjects, such as rock bands’ life-style, "street cred," authenticity, political commitments, and commercialism. It’s a defense mechanism.

Some, like Lepage, actually think what they write matters. In the Gazette report, he declares that without the critics’ approval Nickelback will probably never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But tell that to the legion of fans who to date have bought 50 million of Nickelback’s albums. If they ever actually read what the critics write they have also learned to drown out the drivel by upping the volume. What fans like is rocking to the sonic booms that Nickelback consistently delivers.

In a review of "Here And Now" in the ultra-cool online magazine The Void, British critic Sion Smith writes, “It should be noted that the production is white hot … [and] that the production values have been raised with each successive album,” proving that not all rock critics are oblivious to what makes Nickelback one of the signature rock bands of our era. It’s in the sound, the music seemingly appreciated by 50 million Joe-the-Plumbers worldwide.