Continental divide

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Look out for flying silverware next Wednesday night. The most polarizing presence in popular music is coming to town.

On the surface, Nickelback is the most inoffensive of rock bands. The Canadian post-grunge outfit began in the mid-'90s as a cover band in Hanna, Alberta, before zeroing in on a potent hit-making formula and becoming one of the most popular and successful bands of their generation.

The Canucks have sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Their tours have grossed more than $100 million in ticket sales. Last summer, they signed a $50 million-plus touring, recording and merchandising deal with mega-promoter Live Nation, joining the rarified class of Jay-Z, Madonna and U2.

With stats like that, there's no doubt that Nickelback commands a devoted legion of fans, many of whom will be at Nationwide Arena when the band's tour with Seether and Saving Abel comes to Columbus.

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to all that popularity: Nickelback also became the most reviled band of its generation.

"It's a pretty common trope that Nickelback just sucks. It's just understood," said Zack Brown, one of four hosts of the Columbus-based comedy podcast Happy Fluffy Bunny Hour, which mocked Nickelback in a recent episode.

Brown is not exaggerating. For hipsters and music critics, Nickelback has become shorthand for everything that is wrong with modern music. Mocking the band's post-Creed arena rock has become so commonplace that Brown felt a little guilty for targeting Chad Kroeger and company.

"It's just such low-hanging fruit," Brown said. "It's gotten to the platitudes now, like, you say 'Nickelback' and it's like, 'Alright, I've heard this before.'"

All successful bands have their detractors, but the sheer unanimity of disdain in progressive social circles suggests Nickelback has become a powerful litmus test for our culture's deepest divides - liberal versus conservative, rural versus urban, educated versus uneducated.

So what about this band is so entrancing and infuriating?

First and foremost, Nickelback's haters seem bothered by what they perceive to be an assembly-line creative process.

Mikey Smith, a college student from Nickelback's home province of Alberta, famously synced up the band's hits "How You Remind Me" and "Someday" to exhibit the songs' strikingly similar dynamics and chord structures. To Smith, the two songs sounded identical.

For Brown, the problem is not that Nickelback keeps copying itself. After all, musicians from AC/DC to Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland have won critical acclaim for sticking to a tried-and-true formula. Brown and his buddies are perturbed that Nickelback's formula amounts to mass-produced dreck with no redeeming exceptions.

"Nickelback's like Nicolas Cage, but they didn't have Moonstruck, and they didn't have Adaptation," Brown said. "They're like if Nicolas Cage was working on National Treasure 6 and Ghost Rider 3."

Some Nickelback fans openly acknowledge the band's self-cannibalism, but they don't mind listening to the same song repackaged repeatedly if it's a song they like.

"My personal opinion is the reason for their success is that they found the perfect song. Once you find the perfect song, there's no reason remaking it," said Dave Biederman, an English major at Columbus State Community College who counts himself a Nickelback fan.

"It's kind of dad-rock music," Biederman added. "I think it appeals to people who are not primarily looking for change."

Pickerington-based insurance agent Mike Breakey plays drums in Contagious Til 4, a local cover band whose repertoire includes Nickelback's "Never Again." He thinks people hate Nickelback simply because they can't escape the band's hits.

"In college, I hated U2," Breakey said. "Looking back, I love U2 when I hear them now because I don't have to hear them every two hours."

It's hard to imagine a future where today's Nickelback haters unironically embrace their favorite target. After all, Jeff Lebowski never came around on the Eagles. But perhaps the next generation of alternative types will appreciate Nickelback in the same way today's youth has embraced yacht-rock stars like Hall & Oates.

For now, though, Nickelback is as powerful as magnets get, attracting and repelling music fans like so much loose change.

What: Nickelback

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11

Where: Nationwide Arena, Arena District