Nickelback: Have You Seen Us Lately?

Elvis Presley. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Alice Cooper. Ozzy Osbourne. Marilyn Manson. Through the years, rock music has been adorned with artists with incredible faces and larger-than-life personalities whose personas were inextricably linked with the power of their music. But there’s always exceptions. Remember the Association? Well, back in the late ’60s, they had a string of hits-”Windy,” “Cherish,” “Along Comes Mary”-yet nobody knew what they even looked liked (and this was after they played the Ed Sullivan Show!). What about Chicago? All right, on a good day you might be able to pick that Karate Kid-singing Peter Cetera out of a police line-up. But the rest of the band? No way. They were faceless. Two touring companies of Chicago (the band, not the musical) could have played the country simultaneously and no one would have been any the wiser. 

Actually, there is an antecedent to this scenario, one that happened to another faceless band, Fleetwood Mac. No, not the Rumours-era group that included the incredibly photogenic Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. There was another Fleetwood Mac before that band, only this one, a hard-living blues-based ensemble from England, was so incredibly unphotogenic that their then-manager put a bogus Fleetwood Mac on tour when the real group was having problems with one of their many unstable guitarists-and nobody even noticed! Well, the real Fleetwood Mac noticed, and promptly sued their shifty manager. Hopefully, the judge in the case had an 8 x 10 of the actual band, if only for purposes of edification.

By the mid-to-late ‘70s, faceless bands had become a powerhouse in the music industry. Styx, Foreigner, Toto, Kansas-all cranked out mass quantities of industrial-strength AOR hits, and yet their members were virtually interchangeable.

Today, the tradition of the faceless band is alive and well and can be boiled down to one word: Nickelback. Consisting of four “regular Joes” from Canada, Nickelback have sold more than 25 million albums worldwide (15 million of them in the U.S.). And nobody knows who they are.

No one hit wonders, Nickelback have consistently produced chart-topping singles since their song “How You Remind Me” hit #1 in 2001. Since then, Nickelback songs like “Far Away,” “Too Bad,” “Someday,” “Photograph,” and “Savin’ Me” have reached upper positions on nearly every rock-oriented chart, including Mainstream Rock, Modern Rock, Adult Top 40, Adult Contemporary and Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles. Three of their albums have cracked the Top Ten of the Billboard 200, and the band has been nominated for four Grammys.

However, most music fans know very little about this well-oiled hit-making machine. In an informal survey of 10 people who said they owned Nickelback CDs, only one could name a member of the band—singer/guitarist Chad Kroeger—and six admitted that they wouldn’t recognize any members of the band if they saw them on the street. The four who did say they’d recognize the band admitted that they’d only recognize Chad Kroeger because of his distinctive Custer-like locks and goatee.

If you think all of this is lost on the members of Nickelback, think again. Not only are they aware of their utter un-rock starness, they champion it. “I'm gonna trade this life for fortune and fame/I'd even cut my hair and change my name,” Chad Kroeger sings in the hit “Rockstar,” mocking his gossip page-making colleagues. (Although, let’s be honest: If Kroeger had to cut his hair to maintain his sackfuls of loot, he’d be at the Fakkai Salon faster than you can say “Make me look like Pete Wentz.” In fact, Pete Wentz would probably be a good name for Kroeger.)

So the question remains: Just how did four nondescript dudes become one of the most successful rock bands of the new millennium yet still retain their privacy and anonymity? “It’s the music, plain and simple,” says Al Victor, a record store owner from northern New Jersey. “Their songs appeal to a wide range of people of all ages. You can put on a Nickelback CD at a family barbecue without offending anyone. The melodies are appealing to grandpa, who was probably a Who fan in the ’60s, but it still rocks hard enough to please pre-teen kids who like bands like Fall Out Boy.”

Sylvia, a 33-year-old single woman from Manhattan, says that her tastes have become more “adult” in recent years. “I used to love Marilyn Manson,” she admits. “Now I’m embarrassed to buy his CDs or go to his shows. I’m just not an angry young goth/metal girl anymore. There’s something about Nickelback’s music that seems to reflect where I’m at in life right now. It’s just more adult-sounding music.”

Some music critics have opined that Nickelback’s astonishing anti-rock star success story is a natural reaction to the grunge movement of the early ’90s. Although grunge produced several massive, charismatic stars like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Chris Cornell, their street clothes stage attire and regular-guy image hit a nerve with aspiring bands who realized you didn’t need all the image-conscious posing to break through. Post-grunge bands like Candlebox, Collective Soul, Creed, Vertical Horizon, Third Eye Blind, and 3 Doors Down stripped away all the pomp and pretense of previous rock eras and scored hits without a distinct image or novelty.

Others attribute this phenomenon to an aging rock audience and MTV’s transition from a channel that played music videos to one that trades almost exclusively in reality shows. The channel that made famous faces out of the Police, Madonna, and Nirvana was turning up its nose at new faces-and their music.

None of which apparently matters a hoot to Chad Kroeger. “We’re just a rock and roll band,” he says. “We write good songs that get played on the radio. There’s really no secret to our success other than good songs and a lot of hard work.”

Maybe he can throw a couple of Association songs into Nickelback’s set. Chances are, nobody will notice.