Rockin' a hard place

A piece in defense of the band Nickelback.

Are Nickelback the spoilers or saviours of rock 'n' roll?

The members of Nickelback consolidate their status as arena-rock gods with the new album Dark Horse. ((Chapman Baehler/EMI Music Canada) )

"Who’s the most famous music critic who ever lived?" groused Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger in a Playboy interview this April. "They’ve never made a statue of a critic." While Kroeger’s statement isn’t exactly true, it illustrates the disdain he has for music critics and rock snobs in general.

The feeling, of course, is mutual. "For hard-rock ridiculousness, Nickelback is tough to beat," New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote about the band’s 2005 album, All the Right Reasons. Sanneh described the disc as "another brash but sullen CD with more of the worst rock lyrics ever recorded."

What critics seem reluctant to admit is that Nickelback is very good at what it does: producing radio-friendly rock at a time when rock groups are having difficulty gaining traction on sales charts.

"They are no more than post-Nirvana garbage (not to put them in any league with Nirvana!!!)," wrote one music fan in a Facebook group titled "Everytime Nickelback Is Played, God Kills a Llama," which has more than 17,000 members. "Trash rock for trailer parks and tone deaf dopers!"

With a new Nickelback album, Dark Horse, out this month, it seems certain that music critics will unleash their word horde of negative superlatives on the Vancouver-based hard rock group. What critics seem reluctant to admit is that Nickelback is very good at what it does: producing radio-friendly rock that achieves a fearsome ubiquity at a time when rock groups are having difficulty gaining traction on sales charts dominated by pop and hip-hop artists.

Nickelback’s previous four albums have sold a combined 25 million copies worldwide, so the band’s success is no fluke. Judging the Juno Award-winning quartet by the cleverness of its lyrics and the fineness of its musical allusions rather than its ability to craft hooks is like reviewing a thriller novel solely on the quality of its prose without mentioning its plot.

Last year, Nickelback bassist Mike Kroeger complained in the Georgia Straight that "a lot of album reviewers develop an opinion even before they get the album, and then they write what they feel." Indeed, many criticisms of Nickelback reek of smarminess — the broadsides are intended not only for the band, but also its aforementioned "tone deaf" fans and their perceived "trailer park" tastes. 

In previous interviews, Chad Kroeger has been candid about his desire to give fans what they want. "I would dissect every song that had ever done well on a chart," the growly singer told Canadian Musician magazine in 2003. "There are so many things you can do to make a song stick in someone’s head." (In the same interview, the band’s engineer refers to Nickelback as "corporate-sounding rock" — it was intended as a compliment.) Say what you will, but Kroeger-penned hits like How You Remind Me or Hero, his solo contribution for the Spider-Man soundtrack, are nearly impossible to scrape out of your brain.

(EMI Music Canada)

On first emerging, Nickelback was derided as a wannabe Creed or even Pearl Jam; later on, haters complained that the melody to Hero was lifted from Seal’s song Kiss from a Rose. Like Coldplay or Kid Rock, Nickelback takes a green-friendly approach to songwriting, repurposing the conventions of rock with little shame and no irony.

Dark Horse is chock full of familiar musical and lyrical tropes. Produced by Robert (Mutt) Lange, the new album is a judiciously assembled mix of riff-stuffed rockers about tequila and strippers ("Pretty little lady with the pretty pink thong / Every sugar daddy hittin’ on her all night long," Kroeger growls on the ZZ Top-flavoured Somethin’ in Your Mouth), sweetly strummed power ballads ("If today was your last day / and tomorrow was too late / Could you say goodbye to yesterday?" he sings on If Today Was Your Last Day) and even a socially conscious number about addiction titled Just to Get High ("He was my best friend, I tried to help him / But he traded everything, for suffering / And found himself alone").

For me, Nickelback prompts a synesthetic experience: As soon as I hear one of their songs, I immediately smell the dry ice of a smoke machine and beer spilled on the floor of a hockey arena. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The routine criticisms about Nickelback’s lack of originality are flawed for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the group has largely shed the Alice in Chains-style grunge influence of its earlier albums. The heavier guitar lines on Dark Horse are more reminiscent of classic rockers like Deep Purple and — on Shakin’ HandsCreedence Clearwater Revival. The lighter songs are buffed to a poppy sheen in a style reminiscent of Lange’s previous work with Def Leppard and Bryan Adams. What’s more, Kroeger’s distinctive, thorn-brushed baritone gives these songs an immediately recognizable brand identity.

For such an ostensibly derivative band, Nickelback has attracted scores of imitators — bands like Theory of a Deadman and Black Stone Cherry, who have emulated the Nickelback sound to moderate success. Like it or not, Nickelback is the industry leader of 21st-century arena rock, a rough equivalent to the Guess Who in the 1970s or Bon Jovi in 1980s.

It’s also worth noting that since shedding its grunge trappings, Nickelback has brightened its disposition, adding some levity to a once dour oeuvre. Dark Horse’s closing track, This Afternoon, is an ode to the unambitious, mildly illicit pleasures of a "Bob Marley day." One of the more appealing tracks on the band’s previous album, All the Right Reasons, was Rockstar, in which Kroeger sings about a life of glamour and excess: " ’Cause we all just wanna be big rock stars / And live in hilltop houses driving 15 cars."

With its accompanying video, in which celebrities and civilians lip-synch the song, Rockstar comes off as charming rather than smug, because the sentiments feel like a tacit acknowledgement of Kroeger and co.’s good fortune. Even when he’s singing about what he already has, Kroeger can’t help but place himself in his fans’ shoes.

Dark Horse is in stores now.

Kevin Chong is a writer based in Vancouver.