People are in a bit of an uproar over this week’s announcement that Nickelback—the Canadian post-grungers whose seventh album, Here And Now, comes out later this month—would be the halftime entertainment during the Thanksgiving Day NFL tilt between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, which will be played at Ford Field in Detroit and which is one of the two NFL games beamed all over the country on Turkey Day.
There have been numerous blog posts. There’s a petition, which has engendered even more blog posts and actual news stories. Nobody from the band’s camp has commented yet, but I’m sure they’re wondering what I am: Why are Chad Kroeger and his rock comrades pilloried, when, say, bands with similar aesthetics like Seether and Staind are still around, too? It’s not just the sort of misplaced patriotism that recoils at the idea of a Canadian band serving as the centerpiece of televised entertainment on the most American of holidays.
Let the record state, first of all, that this inquiry is not a defense of Nickelback’s music at all. I spun through Here And Now earlier this week and it’s pretty crummy; the above song, one of the album’s first singles, is a very blatant rewrite of the F2K-honored ode to oral fixations “Something In Your Mouth,” only this time it’s about drinking. (Perhaps the working title was “Something Else In Your Mouth”?) They do have a couple of decent tunes—their breakthrough “How You Remind Me,” the slight “Remind” flip “If Today Was Your Last Day”—but try as Kroeger’s snarl might, their blandness is probably the most aggressive thing about them.
Still, though, the vitriol sent in their direction is ridiculously high—particularly when you compare it to the ire raised against other artists of their ilk, or of their sales stature. It wasn’t like people started petitions about the Black Eyed Peas being the Super Bowl halftime show last year—and that was for a much bigger stage than a football game that’ll be viewed through a collective tryptophan haze. Here are some hypotheses as to why this came to be.
They represent not just one, but two bygone aesthetics. Nickelback straddle the not-as-vast-as-people-think chasm between grunge and arena rock; they’ve worked with Mutt Lange, the producer who’s epitomized a certain maximalist aesthetic since Def Leppard’s 1980s breakthroughs (there’s a reason Lady Gaga chose him to produce her end-of-the-night lament “Yoü And I”), while Kroeger’s yarl sounds like Eddie Vedder’s voice copied at 150% on a malfunctioning Xerox.
Put those two factors together with the way that some of their songs just work on a pop-song sense—dislike “How You Remind Me” as much as you will, its structure is pretty impeccable, as anyone who’s performed it at karaoke can attest—and the end result is that listening to Nickelback and enjoying it can be sort of embarrassing, like being confronted with an awkward-teen-years photo.
Nickelback was placed inside the “OK to joke about them” box, and hasn’t been able to break out of it yet. Every pop cycle has its whipping posts for late-night comedians, hacky bloggers, and other members of the peanut gallery to “take a stand” against—those musicians in the box over the last decade included Ashlee Simpson (herself a victim of a bad halftime-show performance), Clay Aiken, Fred Durst, and a couple of the artists name-checked here. Despite and because of their fame, these people were deemed culturally OK to dislike by a wide swath of people, from ordinary joes to morning-show shock jocks.
The guy who started the petition has some recursive logic for his Nickelback Sucks crusade: “It’s because they suck,” Dennis Guttman told his hometown paper. The bile-filled response to Nickelback is, in a sense, a reaction to greater forces in the culture—call it the PRification of everything. You don’t see artists who are on Entertainment Tonight or commercial radio, or who are featured in the ever-shrinking non-critical sections of newspapers and magazines, get the art they’re releasing analyzed in any way beyond “this exists.” The promotion offered by interviews and gossip-columnmentions, then, becomes a tacit endorsement—because after all, if something isn’t good, why would it, or the people responsible for it, be worthy of attention? (It’s a phenomenon that’s echoed by the morass of music blogs out there that post MP3s with minimal commentary; eventually, all those “OK”s add up to “good,” and if there’s enough critical mass, those “good”s can become “great.”)
So why is Nickelback one of these bands? Blame the aforementioned squickishness that their music induces in people; blame that terrible song for the Spider-Man reboot, or that other terrible song with Santana; blame Chad Kroeger’s goatee; blame Canada. The reasons are actually immaterial when you get right down to it, because if they weren’t in the box another artist would be; reactions to Nickelback and their much-hated ilk almost serve as a release valve, as a way for people on both sides of the media-consumer coin (this part is important!) to assert the fact that they aren’t just being fed a diet of promo-campaign materials. That loathing on such a grand scale is so culturally rare could be in large part why the reaction feels so outsized. (Nickelback certainly isn’t the only band dealing with this peculiar problem right now.)
Hating Nickelback is a pretty easy way of taking a stand against the “mainstream.” “I’m sure they’re great people, but I can’t stand their music,” Guttman said. “If people want to see them perform, go buy a ticket to their concert.” Well, they might—in 2010, the band grossed $19 million and netted $6.4 million from a tour. Surely the people tasked with bringing eyeballs to the NFL’s halftime show noticed this as well, and planned their ratings bonanza accordingly.
What can the 22-year-old Guttman stand as far as his own musical tastes, anyway? (Thankfully, the reporter asked, instead of just letting him exist in an all-hate bubble.) His dream “Detroit-centric” lineup to replace the Canadian act is perhaps unsurprisingly free of the hometown commercial juggernaut that is Kid Rock; instead, he wants “a White Stripes reunion, with guest appearances from Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder.” Now, “Seven Nation Army” might pep up crowds at sporting events, but saying “I want a band that was more critically than commercially beloved and that’s only been broken up officially for about nine months to headline the halftime show of a nationally televised NFL game” is the pop-cultural equivalent of asking for a pony. (Perhaps Jack White could play backup for Stevie, but really, is nostalgia for the Motown era better than ’90s nostalgia?) Guttman’s certainly taking a stand in favor of a certain type of “good” music here—Rolling Stone-approved, starring an up-and-comer from the last decade and an R&B artist who’s in the canon, instead of being currently on the charts; he told the Detroit News that other canonical artists like Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper would also be OK—but it’s the sort of calcified idea of “good” music that, when deployed in the laziest ways, winds up sounding, well, as tired as Nickelback.
During this whole hullaballoo, people have referred to Kroeger & Co. as America’s Most Hated Band. But as one colleague of mine noted earlier today, when the petition has been signed by 22,000 people, the band’s last album—2008’s Dark Horse—sold 329,000 copies in its first week here, and eventually went triple platinum. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Here And Now—which drops the same week as that fateful football game—similarly overperformed. And even though there’s a five-figure-strong slew of people on the Internet who want to shame them out of doing so, the idea that some of those record buyers will tune into the game for the purpose of seeing a band they like spin through one or two of their new record’s songs isn’t all that far-fetched.