Nickelbacking: The Futility of Self-Definition by Exclusion
This is how you remind you of who you really are
Some bands have an appeal that’s relatively easy to explain. To the extent They Might Be Giants are popular, it’s because they appeal to people who like to be aggressively nerdy in a bizarre, fun way. Weezer’s better songs are mostly about being an introspective teenager with an offbeat take on love. Most metal is about complexity for complexity’s sake (which is fine, that’s also true of the entirety of jazz), and Nirvana is for people who like interesting backstories. There’s other reasons to like each, but you can at least articulate it.
But some bands are a little harder to define, seeming less like they were planned than that they just spawned somewhere and fell into stardom. Of all the bands that exist, there is one band in particular that takes “just sort of existing, somehow” to the highest heights possible: Nickelback.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying I hate Nickelback. Nickelback is fine. And not only is Nickelback fine, but it’s arguable that being aggressively OK-ish is their entire brand. If it’s 2005 and you want a rock song, Nickelback has you covered in the same way the Honda Fit has you covered if you want a gas-efficient commuter car; it is to rock what office complex café sandwiches are to lunch. It’s OK. It’s there. It is, as Louis CK put it once, a rug.
For reference, this is what every Nickelback song that ever got serious radio airplay sounds like:
When I say every Nickelback song sounds like that, I mean it. For instance, here’s the nearly identical song Photograph. Here’s the nearly carbon-copy Someday. There’s a ton of mashups like this making fun of the similarities, and it’s not unfounded. This is something Nickelback does1.
The formulaic nature of the songs is one of the main complaints about the band. But arguably this is just another example of them being good-not-great; yes, it would be better if they could put out better and better albums by constantly recreating their sound, but basically nobody can do this, and “giving the fans more of what they like” is the least offensive failure mode available (for alternative worst-case scenarios, consider Dramarama-type one hit wonders or Weezer spending 25 years refining themselves into shittier and shittier versions of the Foo Fighters).
If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan. But the music is so generically mediocre in every way that it’s always been confusing to me that there was a 5-10 year period where it was incredibly popular to hate the band.
You know that joke about how to find out if someone is a vegan where the punchline is “don’t worry: they’ll let you know”? Whether or not the vegan joke is true, anti-Nickelback at its height was something like that. It came up in conversations a lot; people would performatively turn off the radio when it came on. It was just sort of everywhere; you couldn’t get through a week without running into it somewhere.
Some people actually had good reasons for disliking the band, or at least as good as anyone has for an opinion on a subjective experience. It could be they didn’t like commercialism in music, or that they didn’t like that particular kind of rock, or that they were so into first-wave grunge that anything derivative of it was suspect.
It’s anecdotal to my experience, but I don’t think most people were using those reasons. I knew people who had no other strong opinions on music at all besides this; it was top 40 radio all the way with this one exception. I famously knew a guy who enthusiastically talked about how much he hated Nickelback while simultaneously loving both Creed and Puddle of Mudd (note for people not in the exact age range I am: all three of these bands are very nearly the same band).
Theories to how it all got started vary (I really like this one) but I think anyone who lived through the era will admit it’s at least plausible that this was a viral meme. Normally, for a person to communicate that they had good taste in music would be a lot of work; at the least, you’d need someone to sit still long enough . The Nickelback-is-bad meme was a great shortcut; for as long as Nickelback was relevant, you could imply you had good taste in music by loudly disassociating from them.
Intentionally trying to coin a phrase almost never works. That said, I think Nicklebacking would be a useful addition to the bucket of obscure phrases. It’s defined as an attempt to imply something positive about the shape of one’s personality by pointing out the negative space it doesn’t occupy, especially if it’s attached to a popular “this is bad” meme.
Simple, unimportant examples of Nickelbacking aren’t at all impossible to find. Ten years ago, some people didn’t like pineapple pizza and presumably still exist now, still genuinely disliking it. Now there’s mighty army of anti-pineapple internet warriors proudly swearing they’ve always hated it. Either everyone’s taste buds suddenly changed en masse, or something else is going on.
An internet friend tells me the video game Call of Duty is similar; it’s incredibly popular to hate it and call it crap, with the added bonus that the people who do this the most are enthusiastic players of the same game. Another friend pointed out that “I love all music - except for rap and country” was pretty common 10-20 years ago (in my experience, among teenagers to whom music was not particularly important), and is a fit; it latches onto then-popular-hates in certain groups without giving any useful information outside of the signaler’s dislikes.
Slightly more serious (and a slightly worse fit) are things like hating GMOs; some people have better reasons than others, but most couldn’t explain to you how a GMO is supposed to hurt you, much less know if it does. But by hating them, they differentiate themselves from the unknowing and the evil, tricky business fella in one fell swoop.
Note that in most of these cases you are looking at a person trying to demonstrate that they are full of good (whether that good is musical taste, a gourmand sophistication, or middle-class healthful habits) by the absence of something (appreciation for a mob-hated band, a mob-hated food or a food perceived as evil that’s fed to those who can be tricked, in order to hurt them). But an absence of mold does not indicate bread, and does not fill.
More serious is something like “traditional” racism, the kind where you might have in the past (or, more rarely, today) run into a white person who hated every minority or every member of a particular minority. I’m sure there would have been somewhere white people who would have come to hate all people of a certain skin-tone even if nobody else around them did, but most were probably Nickelbacking. They needed to feel better about themselves, found nothing in what they were, and looked to what they were not for validation, backed by a powerful hated-group meme.
Today’s serious versions are probably things like what we generally think of as wokeness, where a group of people who aren’t particularly known for volunteering, charity or altruism end up defining their self-worth mostly by finding people to destroy, to indicate in the strongest possible terms available to them that they must be something because they have demonstrated they aren’t the other, bad thing. As they run out of applicable bad guys, the labels expand; you can’t be something solely by not being something else.
See also: Partisanship (I do this one!). See: Christians who define themselves solely by not being atheists and vice versa, which is also a pitfall I’ve fallen into in the past and might again.
The purpose of singling out Nickelbacking isn’t to say that Nickelback is good, or that some people don’t genuinely dislike it. Pineapple pizza might abstractly be a sub-par flavor combination, I don’t know, it’s subjective, and some people actually hate the flavor. It’s not a phrase that’s inviting an argument about the actual quality of the thing; it’s about why we dislike something, and what we do with it.
Avoiding bad food is not negative, but it does not in and of itself feed you; the absence of bad taste does not by itself indicate that you can discern quality. We all have the chance to be something - to be full, fed and to exist in a meaningful way. But proving you are not someone else does not make you the significant, satisfactory form of someone you are looking for. Find something that does.
I’m trying to link to more similar-audience-size writers. I think there’s a subset of y’all that would enjoy Eleanor’s Iceberg, which is eclectic in a history-and-fiction-and-art-and-links-and-research way I like. This is one of art/history ones I’ve liked recently.