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Monday, April 13, 2009
Updated: April 14, 1:59 PM ET
Nickelback, a little better than you think

By Paul Shirley
Special to ESPN.com

It's time for me to do the impossible.

Nickelback
Nickelback's biggest crime, besides the bad hair, was selling so many records.

It's time for me to defend Nickelback.

Nickelback gets a bad rap.

I get it. Nickelback is by no means cutting-edge. Nor is it a great rock band -- I've never heard a Nickelback song and thought afterward that it changed the landscape of popular music forever. I'm not sure I could say, honestly, that I even like those guys. But they're not nearly as bad as people think.

My history with Canada's most popular musical export since Celine Dion began in college. I heard the song "Leader of Men" on one of the two listenable radio stations to reach Ames, Iowa, and was intrigued. I found a used promotional copy -- marked "not for resale" -- for $2 somewhere and gave it several listens. I liked it.

For a few years after, all was quiet on the Nickelback front. Then came an explosion of popularity based on radio-friendly hits that mixed front man Chad Kroeger's growlish voice with accessible hooks and lyrics borrowed from that month of junior-year English when the teacher felt guilty and made his students try poetry.

With that popularity came the requisite backlash. But this backlash was different. Nickelback had touched a nerve with rock critics and scenesters. The band was too fake. All its songs sounded the same. The lead singer had bad hair, both of the facial and cranial variety. Most of all, though, Nickelback had made the grave mistake of selling entirely too many records.

I was along for the cynical ride. I groaned when I read that Nickelback was headlining a festival I wanted to see in Kansas City, Mo., during a collegiate summer spent north of Topeka, Kan. But because Local H and Our Lady Peace would be there, I swallowed my pride, bought tickets and asked the cute girl at the gym whether she liked rock music.

By the time Nickelback took the stage, the cute girl and I had run out of conversation. I debated leaving before the epitome of uncool went on, but my Scottish ancestors' reputation for "bang for your buck," coupled with a need to have something to discuss on the way home, intervened.

An hour and a half later, I was impressed. Nickelback had put on a straightforward, entertaining rock show. Bad news for me, though: The girl and I didn't have anything to make fun of on the way home. Except the mullet. And the goatee.

Fast-forward to the present day. After almost a month on the live music wagon, I was glad I would soon feed my addiction on a Tuesday with The Ting Tings at Kansas City's tiny Record Bar.

Then, two nights before that show, my friend Matt called. The company he runs, ARC -- my constant companion in personal training -- had extra seats in the suite for the Nickelback show one night after The Ting Tings' performance. I thought quickly. Would my brothers let me get away with this? I remembered that "Paul + Cool" stopped flashing through their brains a long time ago, and said yes, thinking I could justify two concerts in two nights as research into the difference between The Ting Tings in a venue built for 125 and Nickelback in a venue built for 19,000.

The Ting Tings
Like Nickelback, The Ting Tings were good, but not great, live.

The difference between the two: At The Ting Tings' show, I was made uncomfortable by the two gay guys grinding against each other while the band played a good but not great set. At the Nickelback show, I was made uncomfortable by the 400-pound woman grinding against a Sprint Center support pole while the band played a good but not great set.

The Ting Tings, of course, don't engender much of a reaction and probably never will. When I told people I was going to see them, the response was usually "OK" or "Cool." Nickelback, on the other hand, brought on responses of "What are you thinking?" and "Seriously?"

I expected their reactions. It was Nickelback. If you asked someone at Pitchfork.com to review the new Nickelback album, the shrieks of laughter would drown out a colicky baby tied to a jackhammer. My question to those people would be this:

Is Nickelback different from AC/DC?

Keep in mind that I'm no AC/DC fan, either. AC/DC is ungreat. But not "OhmygodIcan'tbelieveyou'regoingtoseethemlive?!" ungreat.

As I sat and watched Kroeger & Co. do their best to exhort, enliven and entertain the near-capacity crowd, a grudging respect for both Nickelback and Nickelback's fans seeped into my brain. It was all a fantasy, a circus. The band made no apologies for its over-the-top antics, and the crowd made none for its over-the-top responses. It was escapism, pure and in its most harmless form.

I can't say I loved the Nickelback show, nor that I love Nickelback, but not because I don't want to appear uncool. I don't know whether it is possible to love Nickelback or to love a Nickelback show. Nickelback is Pixy Stix, an episode of "Wheel of Fortune" and TV Guide. It isn't made to last, and that's OK.

AC/DC
AC/DC is just as bad as Nickelback, maybe worse.

But I think we all understand that. The question is why people truly hate Nickelback, while feeling nothing for -- or even liking -- a band like AC/DC. Because, if anything, AC/DC might be the worse band. Lyrics to Nickelback songs are childish, but AC/DC lyrics are downright inane. Nickelback songs are often similar, but AC/DC songs are near copies of one another. Listen to "What Do You Do For Money Honey?" and "Have A Drink On Me" back-to-back before you rebut.

None of which is meant to be an attack on AC/DC or on AC/DC fans. The point is not whether Nickelback is better or worse than AC/DC. The point is they're the same. They're entertaining rock bands that understand how to show their audiences a good time through renditions of bombastic, easily remembered rock songs often accompanied by pyrotechnics.

I pick out AC/DC, but there's a long list: Van Halen, KISS, even Aerosmith. Foo Fighters, The Darkness and Andrew W.K. Artists who know their audiences and entertain them.

Groundbreakers? No. Bands I would list in my top 50? No. But they're all bands spawned from a rich rock music tradition of selling an audience on a concept -- that concept being a debauched, rebellious, fun-loving lifestyle -- that neither the band nor the audience actually embraces on a full-time basis.

Of course, those audiences can be hard to digest. The cynical devil that sits on my shoulder told me to be disgusted by the fat lady on my left, and he was laughing heartily at the fortysomethings who thought Nickelback is "heavy." But I gave him a stern look and turned my attention back to the show. Progress, if for no other reason than that I willingly watched the lamest band in the world. (And then wrote about it.)

Those audiences may hold the key to the answer to my question. People hate Nickelback because music presents an experience shared like never before. Or, rather, because the hype surrounding anything -- be it music, film or literature -- is a shared experience like never before. That wasn't the case in 1973 or 1982 or even in 1998. Now, anyone's opinion -- including that of some unqualified white guy from Kansas -- can be beamed around the world in seconds. That's a far cry from a record store, a teenager's bedroom, a pair of headphones and a visceral response made without fear of the instantaneous reactions of a few thousand of one's peers. Today's world is critic-heavy, and as a critic, nothing is cooler than being aloof.

I can't tell you to give Nickelback a chance. If you were going to like Nickelback, you would have started by now. My hope is only that you'll consider what you say before becoming another face in the critical crowd, not because I care about the feelings of the dudes in Nickelback, but because I've made the same mistake before. Usually, nothing is as cool as they tell you. Nor is everything as uncool as they say.

So if you're given tickets to a Nickelback show, consider accepting. Your life won't change, and your friends probably will think you're 2 percent less hip than before. But if you let yourself go for just a little while, you might be entertained. There are worse ways to spend an evening.*

* -- Line intended for Nickelback promotional posters. For use directly underneath: "One thumb up" and "These guys totally didn't suck as much as I thought!"

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."