How Nickelback brings us together

In an era where musical sub-genres breed their own sub-genres, Nickelback are the one band that unites us
Ian Gormely
Chad Kroeger performs with Nickelback at the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto on Sunday June 21, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A funny thing happened on the way to Detroit’s Ford Field a few weeks ago. After the Lions scheduled Canadian rockers Nickelback to play the NFL team’s Thanksgiving halftime show, University of Michigan grad student Dennis Guttman started an online petition to have the band booted from the bill. More than 54,000 people have signed on.

It’s long been assumed that the source of Nickelback’s popularity was the American Midwest, where blue-collar workers can connect with the band’s brand of everyman post-grunge. But a month before they revolted in Detroit, sports fans in Manitoba—pretty much the Canadian equivalent of the American Midwest—were similarly freaked out at the thought of Nickelback giving a free concert at their resurrected Jets home opener last month, prompting past and present music critics for the Winnipeg Free Press to pen an open letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman denouncing the choice.

The idea of ganging up on an easy target—say, a populist Canadian rock band with a well-worn reputation for raising the hackles of “serious” music fans the world over—seemingly feels good to music fans yearning for a collective experience. With pop culture having splintered into a thousand specialty channels and Tumblr pages, consensus is harder than ever to come by. These cases of betrayal from the band’s core audience were rare displays of decisive unison—evidence, perhaps, that despite today’s fragmentation, the one thing that brings us together is an unwavering belief that Nickelback suck.

That phrase should be familiar to anyone under 35, though it’s difficult to figure out how it became so widespread. Nickelback are one of the most innocuous bands out there; they play generic modern rock, rarely talk trash and have no political leanings. The most objectively obnoxious thing about them is singer Chad Kroeger’s hair. It seems people hate them for simply having the temerity to exist.

And yet, though few admit to actually liking the band, Nickeback have thrived, selling almost 50 million albums in an era where major labels were suing their own customers. They’ve amassed a following that ignores both the critics and the reality that vast amounts of music can be obtained for free via illegal downloading. The band’s anthemic tales of broken homes and rock star excess paint a world that’s both relatable and aspirational. In short, Nickelback are easy and reliable, the musical equivalent of a kick in the crotch: lowbrow and undignified, but sometimes it just gets the job done.

But, 15 years after the release of Nickelback’s first album, this wellspring of unwavering support seems to have run dry. No one is standing up to wave the flag for the band anymore. Perhaps it’s that identifying with four guys who clearly sit with the one per cent financially, if not spiritually, has become a tough pill to swallow; in the era of Occupy, Nickelback’s songs about hardship feel like pandering, and their songs about excess like gloating.

Of course, Nickelback aren’t stupid. They get that people are feeling betrayed and desperate for something to rally around, and they intend to make themselves that thing. Their new single “When We Stand Together” positions the band as one of the few cultural touchstones left, implying through the refrain, “That’s when we all win,” that those shared experiences make us better people. The accompanying music video takes this sentiment one step further, splicing in images of the downtrodden unified through the majesty of the band’s latest mid-tempo rocker. But if the events of the last few weeks are any indication, while Nickelback are capable of engendering unity, the band might not be happy with which side of the issue they end up on.