In Defense of Nickelback
I should start by explaining that I am not a Nickelback fan, nor am I a Nickelback hater. I did not listen to any Nickelback in writing the paper, and I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m interested in the band because of the seemingly contradictory nature of the reactions that the band produces; it is both remarkably popular and widely despised. A 2012 NPR article states that Nickelback has sold more than 50 million records in an era of industry decline, but also suggests that the name of the band itself “is musical shorthand for everything music aficionados love to hate about modern rock.”
In this paper, I use the intense reactions that people have towards Nickelback to think about populism and popular culture. I begin by engaging the notion of taste and the way in which rock critics and members of a certain cultural milieu engage the culture of the masses through a disapproving lens. Carl Wilson, among other scholars of popular culture, has worked to rethink mainstream music in less dismissive terms, and I use Nickelback as an example of a pop cultural artifact that can bridge what Wilson describes as the “ever-present gap between critical and general tastes [that] threatened to become an entrenched war of position” beginning in the 1990s (13). From there, I work to highlight the phenomenon of centrist populism that produces a large fan base, but fails to inspire either the rebellious populism that characterizes some popular music, or the elite positioning of hipsterism, which cannot even tolerate Nickelback on an ironic level. Finally, I question the political potential of centrist populism by articulating the concept of populism with what Matthew Jordan calls an aesthetics of post-politics. Ultimately, I hope that this paper can serve as a point of departure for thinking about how those invested in political change can mobilize a middle-of-the-road mainstream by rethinking aesthetic value in less polarizing terms.
In 2012, the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece about attending a Nickelback show on the same night as he attended a Creed show — another enormously popular band that is roundly reviled. Klosterman claimed that he attended these concerts not because he particularly liked or disliked the bands, but because other people like and dislike them so much. Klosterman tries to explain the intense hatred that people feel for Nickelback. He writes that the reason people hate Nickelback is tautological. “They hate them because they hate them. Sometimes it’s fun to hate things arbitrarily, and Nickelback has become an acceptable thing to hate.” I want to trouble this seemingly simplistic understanding of the hatred towards Nickelback. In other words, I want to understand better the cultural work accomplished by hating the band. Thus, the paper is not as much a defense of Nickelback as it is an attempt to understand the hatred that exists for the band in a way that moves beyond the tautological. Hating Nickelback is not just fun as Klosterman suggests; for him, “hating something always feels better than feeling nothing at all.” Rather, hating Nickelback situates the hater within a complicated matrix of cultural taste, and thus speaks to issues of class, populism, and elitism. Hating Nickelback does not assure the hater of having good taste, but hating them is a prerequisite for entry into a particular stratum of musical connoisseurship. As Bourdieu famously argues, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier (6). Because of the polarizing responses that the band evokes, Nickelback serves as a bellwether for entry into a particular taste class.
In his analysis of Céline Dion, Carl Wilson projects Bourdieu’s schema onto popular music, and provides a useful point of departure for thinking about cultural taste and artists that are widely despised, at least by a certain sector of rock critics and fans. In Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson troubles any easy dismissal of mainstream pop, and further challenges the Cultural Studies notion of “resistant readings,” which “can be merely a reverse justification of personal taste” (126). Writing about Céline Dion, Wilson suggests that mainstream popular music offers an opportunity to examine democracy, noting that Dion “stinks of democracy” (151) and that the hatred expressed towards her restricts “our approval to what we can love, and sever[s] ties with any less certain constituencies” (152). Hating Nickelback works to sever ties with the constituencies who enjoy the band. It also works to disassociate the hater from a particular version of populist democratic cultural taste. In “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight MacDonald famously quipped that popular culture, what he called masscult, “is very, very democratic, it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is the grist to the mill and comes out finely ground indeed.” MacDonald’s critique of popular culture echoes in the hatred of Nickelback, as many of the haters assume that the throngs of people who enjoy their music are unable to discriminate against or between any versions of popular culture.
MacDonald levels his critique mainly against popular culture itself, but I argue that some of the hatred towards Nickelback is pointed at the fans, not just the music itself. Nickelback’s existence may be problematic, but what makes them reprehensible is their dogged popularity. In 2012, music critic Josh Gross published a mock review of an upcoming Nickelback show in the Boise Weekly, in which he told the potential audience what they could theoretically do with forty-five dollars instead of spending it on a Nickelback concert. “That $45 would also buy you a lot of pickles, which have more fans on Facebook than the band. It would also buy you an introduction to rock guitar video course that would allow you to surpass the band’s skill level in five hours of less.”
Gross goes further and points his vitriol not only towards the band but also towards the people who enjoy the band. In an interview, Julie Moos from the website Poynter asks Gross who gets hurt by liking Nickelback. Gross responds that everyone is hurt by the popularity of Nickelback. “What makes Nickelback so reprehensible is how boldly bland it is. Art and culture should challenge people to experience new feelings and have new ideas.” For Gross, Nickelback is “music for people that hate music. […] Its mediocrity is oppressive in its omnipresence because everyone has limited bandwidth, and everywhere that Nickelback is occupies the space that could be devoted to something worthwhile.” Most of Gross’s critique mirrors a traditional critique of mid-cult, as popularized by MacDonald in the middle of the twentieth century. However, by characterizing Nickelback as “music for people who hate music,” Gross is implicating the fans of the band and producing a schism between himself (and presumably all people who love music) and Nickelback fans, who not only demonstrate bad taste in music, but also show a distain for the concept of music itself. Gross’s language may be hyperbolic, but it is telling; he suggests that the people who share his taste in music should be in charge of choosing the music for everyone, because in his schema, music is a finite resource in a finite world, and in this world there’s just not enough room for Nickelback or for people who hate music.
I suggest that Nickelback synechdochically stands in for the undifferentiated middle ground of popular culture, and subsequently for the people who legitimately enjoy that culture. The band is not cool enough to receive critical acclaim, nor is it kitschy enough to be enjoyed ironically. Nickelback demands to be enjoyed sincerely in a popular culture that is increasingly dominated by snark. Nickelback becomes terrific fodder for snarky popular culture by refusing to engage on those terms. They thrive on a massive audience that enjoys them unironically and goes to the shows to sing along to songs they sincerely enjoy. Klosterman notes a large contingency of professional and amateur critics who thoroughly despise the band and its lead singer Chad Kroeger; Kroeger and the band are consistently reminded of the hatred of the band that permeates the snarky pop cultural zeitgeist. However, “Every night, he plays music to thousands of enraptured superfans, many of whom love him with a ferocity that’s probably unhealthy. Every concert ends with a standing ovation.” The band seems completely satisfied in playing to the hordes of people who legitimately enjoy them, rather than trying to placate the critics, and their refusal to engage on the critics’ terms works to fuel the hatred further.
A Bourdieuian reading suggest that part of the discrepancy in the evaluation of the band involves markers of class and perceived status. One of Klosterman’s observations is especially telling. He is surprised at “the degree to which the security staff at Madison Square Garden clearly loves the music; you don’t often see singing along with the band that’s onstage, but that’s what was happening here. They knew every word to every chorus.” Nickelback is able to bridge a divide in which security guards stand in for “the man,” existing in tension with rebellious rockers. In the case of Nickelback, the band and “the man” are on the same team, and the rebellious tension that exists as one of the preconditions for legitimate rock and roll evaporates. The usual tension between the fans and the security guards also speaks to the notion of cultural capital. Klosterman notes that the security guards rarely enjoy the band at other shows, which suggests that they lack the coolness or hipness that defines much of the world of popular music. Cultural capital only has power if it exists in short supply; if even the security guards can enjoy the music, then there is no chance for the band to exist in the realm of the cool. In his piece, Klosterman notes that Chad Kroeger, when asked why his band is widely hated answers: “because we’re not hipsters.” Klosterman resists this answer, but I think that Kroeger is somewhat correct. Kroeger refuses to concede to the hipsters, who yearn for some degree of exclusivity in their culture, but he also refuses fully to embrace rock rebellion by appealing to “the man” and his manifestation in the form of the security guard. Nickelback borrows widely from the signifiers that constitute “rock-ness” without embodying either the rebellion of the Stones or the hipness of the Talking Heads. If popular music exists in a tension between rebellious populism and hipster elitism, Nickelback exceeds the logic of that tension. Further, the refusal to engage this rock and roll logic while borrowing from the tropes of rock excites many fans, while enraging many critics. The next step in my project, which is in its early stages, is to connect the logic of popular culture to the logic of politics, especially as it manifests in the form of populism.
In “Contesting the Populist Claim on ‘The People’ through Popular Culture,” Benjamin de Cleen and Nico Carpentier outline a connection between popular culture and populism. They argue that “both popular culture and populism build on the juxtaposition between people and elite” (176). They go on to state that “popular culture and populism arguably have a similar core structure, and in some cases become intertwined and interlocked” (176). De Cleen and Carpentier examine the ways in which political movements take up popular culture as a means of forwarding a particular agenda. Using the populist framework of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the authors demonstrate the ways in which right-wing political movements have implemented empty signifiers in order to take engage popular culture in the service of populist politics. Theirs is a cautionary tale about the power of populism and the popular, as the term pivots around multiple meanings.
I want to look instead at the political possibilities of populism rather than lament its uptake in specific instances by the right. As Laclau and Mouffe have demonstrated, one of the features of populism is its ability to be mobilized by both left-wing and right-wing positions. Nickelback occupies a populist space in popular music different from previous populist iterations. I contend that Nickelback occupies a middle ground in popular music; it is not rebellious or hip, nor can it be explicitly tied to right-wing populism in the manner outlined by De Cleen and Carpentier. Rather, Nickelback occupies a position of populist centrism. They are not the silent majority that Nixon courted, but is a populism of the center. They want to rock, but in a reasonable manner, which doesn’t rock too many boats. Seemingly, a centrist populism would occupy an apolitical space, but as I extend this project further, I want to look for the ways in which a centrist cultural populism can mobilize politically.
Matthew Jordan presents a schema for conceptualizing the ways in which a centrist populism articulates with politics as such as he forwards the notion of post-political aesthetics. In “Obama’s iPod,” Jordan emphasizes the importance of populism in contemporary American politics and its multivalent nature. He writes that “populism, it seems, is very much a contested and ambiguous term. The struggle over the meaning and direction of populist politics has become central to the fight for political power in America” (99). He goes on to tie this struggle over the notion of populism to the agentic potential of affect that has characterized many studies of popular culture and popular music since the 1990s. He argues that just has populism has been a central question in contemporary politics, “the mobilization of the affective power of popular culture has remained central to the ongoing battle between hegemony and resistance” (99). Just as political populism can be taken up for rightwing or leftwing causes, aesthetic populism can mobilize affect in multiple directions. Jordan notes that “populist aesthetics animate powerful feelings, and hate is just as easy to activate as love (113). This evokes Klosterman’s claim that people enjoy hating Nickelback, but for Klosterman that hatred is arbitrary.
I agree with Klosterman’s assertion that hating Nickelback is pleasurable, but I disagree with his understanding of that pleasure as arbitrary. Not only is there a meaningful cultural logic that undergirds the hatred towards Nickelback, but that same undergirding produces the multitudes of diehard fans. The same conditions of possibility that motivate the powerful affection that fans of Nickelback feel at the concerts are responsible for the visceral hatred that characterizes many of the attacks on the band. Association or dissociation with Nickelback is a powerful force with no obvious political direction. Jordan calls this phenomenon post-political aesthetics, and argues that those on the left interested in politics should work towards mobilizing this aesthetics in ways that point to fundamental change. He ends his essay by claiming that populism must supplement the existing political aesthetics “by accepting the ineradicability of political antagonism and unite a heterogeneous people by directing its energies toward shared goals” (114). As I move forward with this project, I want to point to ways in which academics and cultural critics invested in transformational politics can understand the antagonistic relationship between cultural critics and mainstream cultural consumers. Further, the goal should not be to reinscribe elitist patterns of cultural distinction by cursorily dismissing the potential value of mainstream cultural artifacts and practices. While not perfectly, the divide between Nickelback haters and fans maps onto a blue state/red state divide that characterizes contemporary politics. If the predominantly left-leaning Nickelback haters fail to see the value in Nickelback fans, if not the music themselves, than the chasm between those groups will grow. Heeding Jordan’s call, cultural critics should work to unite the energy of heterogeneous populisms and explore the potentialities in the energy of a mainstream populist center.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
De Cleen, Benjamin, and Nico Carpentier. “Contesting the Populist Claim on “The People” through Popular Culture: The 0110 Concerts Versus the Vlaams Belang.” Social Semiotics 20.2 (2010): 175–196.
Gross, Josh. “Don’t Listen Here: Nickelback, June 13, Idaho Center.” 6 Jun 2012. Boise Weekly. 29 Mar 2015.
Jordan, Matthew F. “Obama’s iPod: Popular Music and the Perils of Postpolitical Populism.” Popular Communication 11.2 (2013): 99–115.
Klosterman, Chuck. “A Night With the World’s Most Hated Bands.” 24 Apr 2012. Grantland. 28 Mar 2015.
MacDonald, Dwight. “Masscult and Midcult.”
Moos, Julie. “The Story Behind that Viral Nickelback Review in the Boise Weekly.” 9 Jun 2012. Poynter. 29 Mar 2015.
[NPR Staff]. “Love to Hate Nickelback?: Jokes on You.” 10 Nov 2012. NPR.com. 28 Mar 2015.
Wilson, Carl. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. New York: Continuum Publishing, 2007.