We Love to Hate Nickelback (and Lulu)


Last week, the NFL put out a defensive-sounding press release that had nothing to do with the conduct of its players or the outcome of a game. Instead, it was about the halftime show at the Thanksgiving Day tilt between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, and it opened with these words: “Nickelback will take the stage for the 2011 United Way Thanksgiving Halftime Show.”

In most cases, the announcement of a halftime-show performer might be met with smiles, mental notes to set a DVR, or the immediate forgetting of said news. But Nickelback is no ordinary band, despite its steady output of music sounding like a carefully calibrated recipe for “Modern Rock.” The Canadian post-grunge outfit became a lightning rod as soon as they were announced as the game’s entertainment earlier this month, which inspired a lot of grumbling and an online petition against their appearance that garnered more than 50,000 co-signers. (The fact that their name is a football reference did not, apparently, placate the masses.) “Detroit is home to so many great musicians and they chose Nickelback?!?!?!” the plea read. “The Lions ought to think about their fans before choosing such an awful band to play at halftime,” it concluded.

The pop-cultural position held by Nickelback is a particularly curious one. Nickelback is one of the few remaining rock bands that can have the adjective “popular” credibly used to describe it; Dark Horse (Roadrunner), the band’s last album, came out in 2008 and went triple-platinum in a time when few records came close to hitting the seven-figure sales mark. Its 2001 breakthrough single “How You Remind Me” still has enough heat to return on occasion to the Hot Digital Songs chart (which tracks purchases on iTunes and other online-music services) some 10 years after its release.

Yet if you were to conduct a person-on-the-street interview about Nickelback, you’d probably find popular sentiment running about two-to-one against the band, with the occasional “who?” thrown in until you belted out the chorus of “Remind.” “Nickelback” has become shorthand for “shitty corporate rock,” and that usage has become even more stark as the genre has all but receded from the pop charts, and the number of stations given over to it has steadily declined.

What is it about Nickelback that makes people seethe? Is it the band’s utter willingness to color inside the lines presented to them by the Radio-Ready Rock Coloring Book? Is it Chad Kroeger’s voice, which sounds like the vocal of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, only copied at 150 percent on a malfunctioning Xerox? Is it the icky ogling of tracks like “Something In Your Mouth”? It could be any or all of those factors, but then again, there are other bands—Staind, Seether, the list goes on—that commit the same litany of sins but escape the widespread ire of the commenting masses.

Could Nickelback be penalized for being the big gun, for wildly succeeding at their cynical appropriation of rock’s most tired? It probably speaks to the motivations of the Nickelback decriers that the guy who came up with the petition didn’t want to replace the Canadians with Kid Rock, arguably Detroit’s biggest non-Eminem pop star and the artist probably closer in spirit to Nickelback than any of his Motor City–born brethren; instead, he was wishing for a White Stripes reunion. Real rock, indeed.

Which leads to Lulu, the collaboration between downtown icon Lou Reed and thrash pioneers Metallica that landed in record stores earlier this month. The album is conceptually based on the plays of German writer Frank Wedekind; his titular character went from being a bright young thing to dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper. In interviews, both Reed and the members of Metallica sound thrilled to be working with one another. “This is what I call a great thing,” Reed told the New York Times.

Many did not agree, thanks to the pronounced clash between Reed’s nasal intonation of graphic lyrics (taken from Wedekind’s work as well as Reed’s own mind) and the chugging, sometimes rote metal backing it. If any of the petition-signers wanted to hear a record that was antithetical to Nickelback’s parade of verses, choruses, verses, and bluster, Lulu is it: It gleefully dispenses with coherence in favor of chaos, ending with a nine-minute drone that seems designed to serve as a comedown, a pause for the listener to think about what happened during the preceding 80 minutes of grinding and groaning.

More importantly, Lulu seems designed to go against every grain of the current age, when people feel comfortable making snap judgments on full albums after hearing little more than a 30-second snippet. In the weeks leading up to Lulu‘s release, music trickled out bit by bit: first 30 seconds of the growling “The View,” then the full five-minute song, then the whole album. The taste prepared people to dislike what was to come (my first impression involved a heat-warped Pantera cassette and the rantings of a man who felt inspired to unleash his wrath on anyone within earshot), and dislike they did. More than a few “worst album of the year, if not ever” judgments rained down upon Lulu almost immediately after it leaked, even though the time elapsed between its hitting the Internet and those proclamations being made could barely have fit in a spin and a half of the album.

After listening to Lulu repeatedly—quite the undertaking in a world on fast-forward—I softened, somewhat, to the charms lurking underneath its prickly exterior, and found hooks here and there and appreciated the spry basslines of Robert Trujillo. (The occasional bleats by James Hetfield and the “edgy” modifications to Wedekind’s text spewed out by Reed, not so much.) But by the time I’d come to that realization, the chatter had moved on; Lulu had come out to lackluster first-week sales, closing the book on it until, say, five years from now, when some intrepid critic will try to herald it as a lost classic. The speed of the cycle is, on one level, understandable—there’s so much stuff out there that it’s easier to mobilize discourse around disliked cultural products, as opposed to things people have enjoyed, or even sat on a bit and had a generally mixed reaction to. But it’s a shame that it’s difficult to imagine what would happen if, instead of an anti-Nickelback petition, the frustrated Detroit folks had tried to come to a pro-anyone consensus, and if Lulu had been more harmonious, it might not have acquired half the ink it did, despite the pedigrees of its principals.

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