They’re not really country, but they’re not rock 'n' roll either. They’re barely even a band that can still attract critical attention, yet their continually commercially successful songs still incite waves of anger from their haters.
Despite the isolation of the global pandemic and their perceived lack of current cache, people have time to hate Nickelback together — which the internet demonstrated again on Aug. 10, when Nickelback piqued people's interest with a single tweet: a red square, its name in all-caps and the text “FRIDAY 8/14.”
Was it a new album? A tour amid social distancing rules and the pandemic?
What arrived on Friday — to make 2020 all the more painful — was a Nickelback cover (featuring Canadian guitarist Dave Martone) of the late singer-songwriter Charlie Daniels’ No. 1 country hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” In true Nickelback cringe mode, Chad Kroeger’s gravely tone-deaf voice destroyed the classic tune over guitar riffs that sounded like car tires screeching on pavement.
I hadn’t thought seriously about Nickelback since middle school, when I once locked myself in my room (probably crying about some girl who'd broken my heart that week). “This is how you remind me of what I really am!!!” I wailed to myself while furiously journaling about my feelings.
On the surface, I felt I truly understood Kroeger’s broken heart. But I took one look at then-him more recently, with his bad blonde dye job and sad smile, and thought, “You are trying to be Kurt Cobain and failing miserably.”
That must be why Nickelback resonates: the mid-'90s vibe; the washed-out, wannabe-grunge feeling; the way it rips off the best parts of Nirvana but is so incredibly not Nirvana. It's the musical embodiment of the shame a vegan health nut feels when they admit they secretly love Dairy Queen Blizzards. Every song has that soapy commercial feel of a suburban mall or a bland department store — the most boring, corporate, commercial, lackluster place in the most depressing of suburban Americana.
Nickelback is everything we love and hate about ourselves.
They're like the white suburban guy who thinks he’s been through a lot but, really, the saddest thing that ever happened to him is that someone jacked his skateboard. Nickelback wouldn’t do something particularly bold or dumb to impress a girl; they’d hide out in a mold-infested suburban basement writing vapid clichés like, “If today was your last day/ And tomorrow was too late/ Could you say goodbye to yesterday?/ Would you live each moment like your last?”
That’s a line from its song “If Today Was Your Last Day” from the 2008 album “Dark Horse,” but it would be easy enough not to know that. Every single song sounds essentially the same: a mid-tempo rock beat that revs up with “feeling” and “intensity” about things like being broken-hearted, angry about something, wanting to heal (for a moment anyway, until the next song) or getting wasted to deal with, you know, life.
“To make it Nickelback you have to sing with a growl, but not a cool growl — like you have indigestion,” said YouTuber John Fassold in a 2017 video called “How Every Nickelback Song Is Written.” “The chorus is going to be like, when you’re singing you’re taking the biggest dump of your life.”
Despite all the hate on the internet (and sometimes off), Nickelback is still one of the most commercially successful bands in Canada: Since it formed in 1995, Nickelback has released nine studio albums and sold more than 50 million of them worldwide. In the United States during the first decade of the 2000s, “How You Remind Me” was the most-played song on the radio, clocking in at more than 1.2 million times.
I'm pretty sure fans of Nickelback just have a taste for a certain type of masculine white whine — which is to say they probably also like similarly terrible-sounding bands like 3 Doors Down (five white guys) and Creed (four white guys).
But to hate Nickelback is to bond with other haters, and to hate yourself a little because Nickelback is like the Borg: You will be assimilated. If you grew up in the mid-'90s or early 2000s, you know that you know all the lyrics to “How You Remind Me,” and if it comes on in the car while you’re driving, you will stop everything to sing along at the top of your lungs.
You’ll sing and kinda hate yourself for singing, but you'll love releasing some feeling out into the world.
You will not, however, ever sing Nickelback's version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." (Even the devil may disavow that one.)
But the release of its awful Charlie Daniels cover did do one good thing: It brought the haters together during a time when we need some sense of connection more than ever.