Look at these photographs: my day with Nickelback
Down a lonesome prairie highway in Alberta, Canada, and over an hour away from anything in either direction, the sleepy town of Hanna rests. A well-known Tim Hortons pit-stop for those travelling between Saskatoon and Calgary, Hanna is also home to a modest 2,300+ people. Incorporated over 100 years ago, the town mainly served as a crash-pad for the thousands of men and women employed at the nearby Sheerness Power Plant and Coal Mine. But in 2001, humble Hanna would have a new claim to fame.
Nickelback’s meteoric rise (and subsequent fall) has been an industry punchline for over a decade. It was backlash that the embattled butt-rock band initially scoffed at — lead singer/songwriter Chad Kroeger theorized that the widespread Nickelback hate was a result of inescapable radio success, and others mused that perhaps it was a critical misunderstanding of the band fueled by poor marketing choices. Even the town of Hanna quietly removed “Proud to be the home of Nickelback” from their newly designed town sign. But despite the infectious disdain that soured their career, Nickelback remains one of this century’s most successful rock bands.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these Nickelfacts:
- 50 million albums sold
- 50 billion worldwide streams
- Between 2000 – 2009, the second most albums sold in the US by a non-US artist (The Beatles were #1)
- “How You Remind Me” was the most-played song on US radio between 2000 – 2009
- Played live to an estimated 10 million people
- Six Grammy noms, 7 Billboard music awards, 2 American Music Awards, 12 Junos, and a People’s Choice Award
- They wrote “Photograph”
Twenty-plus years since their first major hit “How You Remind Me” peaked at #1 on the US Billboard Top 100, the pendulum has swung back in Nickelback’s favour. After embracing the infamous “Pants, Feet” mashup, creating their own entry into the meme vernacular, and a fresh induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, it’s clear that the Nickelbackaissance is in full swing.
On June 25, Nickelback cemented their mark on the Canadian Music Hall of Fame with a glitzy ceremony at the National Music Centre in Calgary. Following the honour, the band held a short media scrum and public Q&A where fawning fans flocked to the pavilion to catch a glimpse of the adopted hometown heroes in person. The band was humble, with Chad Kroeger and guitarist Ryan Peake handling the bulk of the questions. There was laughter, joy, and genuine connection with the small audience. One couldn’t help but feel that these were just a couple of guys being dudes, simply making music and having fun.
I spoke with a few super-fans about the band, like Laura, who had travelled to two of their shows in a row and was headed to the show again in Calgary that same night.
“Their music reminds me of growing up in a small town,” she said, remarking how she had been a fan for decades and refers to Chad humorously as “her boyfriend”. The general consensus was that it was the emotion behind the songs, all impressively penned by Kroeger himself, that had built a rock-solid connection with their fanbase. Another Nickelback fan said, “Everyone used to say they hated Nickelback. And now people say they never actually hated Nickelback, they just said so because everyone else was saying so.”
It’s clear that there are mixed opinions about the legacy of the band, but what is undeniable is their significant cultural impact. Nickelback has firmly cemented themselves as an enduring presence in meme culture in addition to their swelling repertoire of hits. Complaining about Nickelback has itself become stale, and their music has long since outlasted the criticism. Why? Perhaps, as this humble writer will argue, it’s because the hits are good — and always have been.
I arrived at Calgary’s ageing Scotiabank Saddledome a few hours ahead of Nickelback’s headlining performance. It was a Sunday evening, but that didn’t stop the crowd from stumbling out of their Ubers with raucous “WOO’s!” The show felt like a dress rehearsal for the city’s annual Calgary Stampede, with a whole gaggle of good ol’ boys and gals rollin’ up in search of a good ol’ time. Thousands of Kaylas and Braydens dotted the arena, along with every possible variation of their names (Kaeghla, Braedyn, etc.) The lads were dressed-down in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts, and the gals were dressed way, way up in jean skirts, crop tops and budge-proof cake faces. It’s God’s day, after all!
I watched as two grown men attempted to take a picture together, afraid to put their arms around one another (to eventually fail with a strangled “Fuck that!”) I then went inside to catch the first few songs of Nickelback’s regrettable opener, Brantley Gilbert. The Georgia-born singer was dressed like a comic caricature of a redneck, accompanied by a huge beard and cut-off sleeves, completely yolked and covered in tattoos. Gilbert rifled off an excruciatingly long set of country butt-rock anthems, complete with aggressive grunts and startling oinks. As a queer writer, I would be remiss not to mention Gilbert’s staunch hateful stage antics. There’s no space for queer folks in his world, and thus no space for him in this review.
“We’re just a garage rock band with a lot of fuckin’ pyro!” – Chad Kroeger
Opening with the first track off their latest 2022 album Get Rollin’, Nickelback veered out of the gates with one of their heaviest rock’n’roll songs. Like a Metallica B-side, “San Quentin” is a strong nod to their pre-fame first two albums, when Kroeger was doing his best post-grunge Chris Cornell impersonation. Without a pit, the photographers were relegated to the soundboard, jockeying for position and holding cameras above their heads in a desperate attempt to snag a half-decent shot. This proved to be a daunting task when the band proceeded to play the 2005 hit “Savin’ Me” and the crowd’s iPhones shot up into the air.
Nickelback has significantly more hits than I remember: “Someday”, “Faraway”, “Too Bad”, “Animals”, and “Hero” get full-fledged sing-a-longs from the packed house. “I need a shot!” grunts Kroeger, as a stage-hand in the local team’s hockey jersey hands him a solo cup. “Some people say that we’re not really drinkin’ on stage and that it’s just water. If I wanted water, I’d drink this!” Kroeger continues while gesturing to his mic stand cup-holder where a Fuji bottle sits, unopened.
There are lots of moments like these which reveal how the band perceives how they are perceived. 17,000+ loyal Nickelback fans in the year 2023 would not doubt that Kroeger is drinking booze on stage, but the band has always wrestled with the perception that they’re not as hardcore as their hard rock counterparts, despite their immense success. This self-consciousness becomes even more apparent as Kroeger intros their much lamented song “Figured You Out”, stating that the song may have gotten them “cancelled” had they written it years later. No Chad, being horny on main is not cancellable.
During a changeover, the lights dim and the screens begin to play a video. An AI generated version of the van from the cover art of Get Rollin’ barrels down a desert landscape before entering a portal, astonishingly shifting shapes and backdrops as the video pulls from a seemingly randomized series of visual references. Dull cheers ring out when the AI van suddenly transforms into the Ghostbusters wagon, then a bastardized TIE fighter replete with Star Wars sound effects. Michael Keaton’s voice can be heard saying “I’m Batman”, for some reason. It might be impressive if it weren’t so cringe, but Nickelback’s AI van exists as a perfect sign o’ the times — entertainment as a series of stolen bite-sized cultural references. The brain twinges with dopamine as it processes the Lorelai Gilmore-esque minutiae, responding with a muted “I recognize that!” before moving on. Where are we again?
Thankfully the theatrics are brief, and after rolling through the band’s de facto title track “High Time”, the titular moment of the show arrives. It’s time for “Photograph”.
“When we sang this song everywhere around the world, it always made me think of Calgary,” says Kroeger. “When we played it here the first time I was [almost crying]”. Kroeger and guitarist Peake stand alone in the spotlight, drawing out the first few chords into an extended intro. It’s a stirring and emotional rendition in front of their hometown audience. Unprompted, cell phone flashlights light up the crowd, and the pastiche of the show melts away. It’s in these moments that it becomes clear why the band has had such an enduring presence — “Photograph” is a wistful and affecting ballad with undeniable universal appeal.
At the core of understanding Nickelback is an acceptance that there is a disconnect between why people like them and why the band and their team thinks people like them. As Kroeger boasts their rock’n’roll bonafides in swear-laden banter, he is met with muted cheers. This music is hard, this is a fuckin’ rock show, this is whiskey I’m shootin’— all of these assurances coming from Kroeger aren’t necessary. The music speaks for itself, and the music at its core is emotional, self-reflective, and nostalgic.
When I spoke with fans like Laura at Nickelback’s Hall of Fame ceremony, they emphasised how their music made them feel: the memories it evoked, their personal struggles, growing up in a small town. At the heart of every Nickelback hit is a relatable truth — wistful reminiscing, relationship ups-and-downs, the faux-glamour of rockstar life, and childhood memories coming flooding back after one drink too many.
In an interview with WRIF, Kroeger partially addresses this disconnect. “I think that there’s been some misrepresentation of this band over the years,” Kroeger quips. “We’ll be in a photo session… you’ve got all these candid shots and we’re laughing…and then… it’s always the same thing. ‘Alright guys, give me a little bit of attitude.’ And that’s the picture [they use] every. Single. Time. It’s like, ‘Look at these douchebags taking themselves so seriously,’ and it’s just a terrible misrepresentation of the band.”
Distractions aside, the show continues with a raucous and triumphant encore. There are no signs of the negative public perception, only signs of support. I came from Thailand to see Nickelback reads one such sign. The flag for the town of Hanna waves in a distant corner, later making its way to the stage where the band signs it, impromptu. The crowd was with Kroeger and the boys every step of the way, and Nickelback cruised through their set with precision and a gentle dusting of bravado.
“I fucking love you Calgary”
“We love you Chad!”
Photographs and words by Jarrett Edmund.