What Memes Mean: Nickelback and the Psychology of Punching Bags

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

Nickelback has become one of the most vilified rock acts in recent history. To many serious music listeners, they exemplify the remnants of the corporate rock machine (at least in presentation, I’m not sure where they actually stand corporation-wise). Their music is considered obvious and “radio-friendly,” and their continued existence seems ironic in the age of indie. Not the kind of ironic that will make you cool amongst hipster culture-keepers, though.

A few years back, one sardonic Facebook user even set up a Facebook group labeled, “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickelback?” For the social media clique with its dill pickle avatar, it turned out that the answer was very much a yes, and for a time, the number of fans of a pickle surpassed the number of fans on Nickelback’s official Facebook page. People love to hate Nickelback.

And the mass derision continues. Nickelback is set to play the halftime show at Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Lion’s game, but a number of the city’s residents are not too happy about it.  They’ve set up an online petition in the hope that it will get Nickelback removed from the event. It’s likely the petition will receive the 50,000 signatures the anti-Nickelback residents are looking for by the time you read this. Needless to say, the story of the petition went viral, it was posted and tweeted countless times, and the commented “LOLs” were many.

As is sometimes the case with a meme, the Nickelback story centers around someone or something we all “love to hate.” The group psychology of the communal punching bag is something we have all experienced since sixth grade: common enemies and dislikes draw people together, often more readily than common loves and interests. Memes like Rebecca Black and the double rainbow guy and the current Nickelback petition are something we all laugh at together—partly because they are all jokes at someone else’s expense. This is one of the things about the Net and memes that makes me uncomfortable: When “going viral” really means “going freak show,” we can all get pretty mean pretty quickly.

But here is my second difficulty: I’m not a Nickelback fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I would obviously try desperately to include myself in the “serious music listener” camp. Given a chance to review a Nickelback album, the word “kind” would not be a descriptor of my final draft. And if you and I were at Starbucks discussing the ills of modern music, I might even use the derogatory phrase “Nickelback-esque” at a certain point in the conversation to describe a band I disliked. I personally don’t think Nickelback is making music that is meaningful or relevant, to the point that the music that they make is anti-meaningful and anti-relevant.

I’m often torn by memes of this sort. The humor is obvious and poignant, but the people behind them are real. Maybe holding this tension well is the proper Christian response. In other words: maybe it’s OK to not like Nickelback, but not OK to be a sixth grader about it. Obviously there are certain contexts when criticism is appropriate and other contexts when it is inappropriate, and maybe the anonymity of the Net has mixed these contexts. But I’m not sure where the lines should be drawn yet—I’m still thinking it through.

This is an obviously picky issue with a number of facets to discuss. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  • Ben Bartlett

    Great thoughts, Kirk!

    One note: If I may take a moment to defend my beloved homeland, it’s not just dislike for Nickelback that is driving the Detroit petition… the big issue is that Detroit has a fabulous musical heritage, and the Lions are being pretty tone-deaf by featuring Nickelback on our traditional Turkey Bowl. After all, we’re the city of Motown, of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Eminem, Jack White, Kid Rock, Madonna, and a host of others. They honestly couldn’t find someone with ties to Detroit to do the show?

    Now, the drive to fund a Robocop statue in the city of Detroit… that is definitely acting like a bunch of sixth-graders.