The Good Listener: Why Do People Hate Nickelback So Much?

Leave Nickelback alone! (Courtesy of the artist)
Leave Nickelback alone! (Courtesy of the artist)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside flyers that assume we have the means to acquire luxury items is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: thoughts on the intensity of online backlash.

Andy S. writes via email: "Why do certain bands get singled out for seemingly out-of-proportion online hate? (See: Nickelback.)"

Looking beyond bands for a moment, it's hard to pin down the exact cocktail of emotions that harden to form online hatred: There might be resentment, fatigue from overexposure, sincere fundamental dislike, allegiance to a rival, and/or strong emotions tied to differences in politics, tastes, identity, cultural association, and so on. And many of those are perfectly viable, valid, understandable feelings: Not all hatred falls into categories that can be brushed off with dismissals of the haters-gonna-hate/you're-all-just-jealous variety.

But hatred of bands, specifically, is often about the story of ourselves that we're comfortable telling the world. A shorthand word for it would be "vanity," and it often comes back to a need to either pick a popular side or cast ourselves as bold contrarians. Given that contrarians are, by definition, outnumbered, the popular-side-pickers often find themselves contributing to a pile-on once the tides of public opinion shift toward mass opposition. That's where the Nickelbacks and Coldplays of the world — and the Gwyneth Paltrows, and the Shia LaBeoufs — come in for what almost has to be, by definition, wildly disproportionate public antipathy. Once that particular tipping point has been reached, the chorus against them becomes loud enough that joining it offers little risk of blowback.

So, why Nickelback, specifically? Many of the reasons listed above come into play: Nickelback sold millions of records in a style that's fallen out of fashion through overexposure. The genre to which the band has typically belonged — umpteenth-generation copy-of-a-copy post-grunge, dispensed with urgent, Creed-esque self-importance — has seen the scales of public opinion tip overwhelmingly against it. Specifically to Nickelback, you also have the similarities between its own hit singles, not to mention (let's face it) that name, which rolls off the sneerer's tongue with a special kind of venomous ease.

It's worth watching the way Nickelback has tried to proceed against those headwinds; to stick together, still on a major label, and attempt to adapt its sound amid the changing times. I wouldn't call the band's most recent singles resoundingly successful — "She Keeps Me Up" has a "skeevier Maroon 5" vibe to it, though the would-be Occupy anthem "Edge Of A Revolution" is at least urgently, thuddingly fervent — but it's been strangely fascinating to watch Nickelback try a few left turns. Its new songs are the sound of a much-maligned juggernaut, reduced to an underdog. Which may, ironically, light the band's way out of punching-bag purgatory: After all, where's the fun in hating an underdog?

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