2014-01-28

Why Doesn't Nickelback Sound Like Soundgarden?

Part One:
Photo courtesy www.nickelback-albums.net
It has been written (so widely, in fact, that it is stated as a fact at Ask.com) that Nickelback's primary influence was Soundgarden.

I first heard about this years ago, back when Nickelback's popularity was really starting to peak. As fate would have it, I was living in Alberta, Canada (Nickelback's geographic origin), at the time. Whether this gives me any extra insight into the truth of things is highly debatable, but I bring it up simply to say that there was a whole lotta Nickelback going on where I was, when I was there. Nickelback on the radio. Nickelback on TV. Nickelback in the clubs. Cover bands would even play Nickelback. It seems odd nowadays, because they are such a widely panned group despite their popularity, but for a while there, Nickelback really was "it."

And this is the question that absolutely fascinates me: How is it that a band whose primary influence is Soundgarden became the Poison of its generation? How does that happen? How does one set out to become Soundgarden and end up becoming Nickelback?

Part Two:
Another fascinating situation is walking into a dirty bar on Wednesday or Thursday night and listening to one of the many terrible local rock bands that play original music in every major and minor city in the United States and Canada. Many people believe that video killed the radio star, that hip hop killed rock, that MTV ruined everything, that the music business destroyed artistic integrity, and so on. I, on the other hand, have argued (see here and here and here, for example) that music isn't very good these days because musicians are bad at making good music.

See the average "local band" perform live is not merely a case in point, it is the entire case. I don't fault any artists for trying and failing. There is no shame in aspiring to be great and coming up a little short. What does strike me as odd, however, is that most local bands are under the impression that they are putting forth a quality product.

Wait, hear me out.

It is obvious to the band that they are not playing high caliber music. They know it, the audience knows it, everyone knows it. The issue is not whether the musicians are playing perfect or legendary music. The issue is: If they're playing such bad music, why don't they write something better? I know, I know: it's easier said than done. But still, if you idolize Soundgarden and yet your music comes out sounding like something of a cross between Chicago and The Sex Pistols, you have to know something went wrong. Don't you?

This isn't simply a matter of not being good enough. This is a question of having ears. Compare the chord progression of "Black Hole Sun" to the chord progression of "How You Remind Me." They are not merely dissimilar. They have virtually nothing in common. It's not just that two different people wrote those songs, it's that one is elaborate, making use of time-signature-, key-, and mode-changes, while the other is a single four-chord progression repeated over the simplest possible rock beat. It is only one step above Andrew W.K.'s claim that he was influenced by Beethoven. (Don't remember Andrew W.K.? Don't worry...)

About the only thing Nickelback and Soundgarden have in common is the fact that both bands sometimes play music that involves distorted electric guitars. That's it.

Part Three:
Nickelback has no obligation to sound like Soundgarden, nor is any local band required to make music that sounds like their favorite bands. That's not the point.

The point is that the moment one becomes aware of the fact that one is falling far short of the stated objective is the exact moment one typically pauses to reflect on what one is doing, and sets about to change course. That is to say, a young basketball player can only miss so many free throws before he stops to ask himself whether he might have better luck if he modified his form. Maybe he needs to put more spin on the ball. Maybe he needs more arm strength. Maybe his shot needs more loft. Maybe a million things. The point is, if he misses enough shots, he comes to one or both of two conclusions: (1) "I need more practice," (2) "I need to modify my technique."

In that respect, music is comparable to sports. If one sits down to write a great, heavy, riffy song like "Hands All Over," and comes out with "Someday," one has to be aware of the fact that the result doesn't match the intention.

"Every time I try to write something like Led Zeppelin, it comes out sounding like Pat Benetar!" Don't you get it? The problem is you. You need to hone your craft. You need to study up on what makes a Soundgarden song a Soundgarden song. You need to figure out why it is that Poison sounds more like Kiss than like Van Halen.

You can choose to love whatever music appeals to you. This is not about taste. It's about knowing what sounds sound like. "Love Gun" does not sound like "Hot For Teacher," even though they both have shuffle beats. There are important differences between the Beastie Boys and Kid Rock. If you plan on sounding like the modern equivalent of one or the other, then you need to know what those differences are.

Part Four:
This is my beef with local bands. They all say the same thing. They all love Led Zeppelin and they all want to be the next Nirvana. But when the lights go up and they take the stage, they all sound like Nickelback (if they're any good!). And through it all, none of them - not one - ever pauses to ask the question why they brought a map for the "Highway to Hell" and somehow ended up in "Margaritaville." 

Well, wouldn't you ask the question, if it happened to you? Why doesn't anyone ask the question?

It's not that the decline of music is any great mystery. Everyone who plays music in public is painfully aware of the fact that none of the bands out there sound anywhere near as good as [insert famous band of yore here]. We musicians - all of us - seem to know that there is no great appeal in what we're doing. The cover bands are still covering Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix - I know, because I cover those songs myself. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with covering classic rock songs when performing on stage for money. People like those songs, and the job of an entertainer is to entertain. If your objective is to play those songs, and you end up playing those songs, then you started with a map to "Highway to Hell," and you ended up on the "Highway to Hell." Success!

And my point is that people are covering the old songs precisely because the new songs aren't any good. Musicians stop playing original music because they don't enjoy playing original music. Why not? Sure, we can point to the control-freaks who drive people out of bands, but that just means that all the people driven out of bands should eventually end up in less-controlling bands with each other. So it's not that.

The answer, the real answer, the final answer, is that the musicians who are writing original music don't seem to want to hone their craft, at least to the point where they can figure out why their maps all say "Soundgarden," but the road signs all say "Nickelback." They can't seem to figure out why that's a problem. They get offended, and make excuses: "There's nothing wrong with writing a good pop song!" I agree, there's nothing wrong with that, if that's what you set out to do. But if you set out to write a complex, progressive-rock-inspired grunge tune and then ended up with a good pop song, then you failed in your objective.

Part Five:
I'll leave with a parting word to music fans: You're not helping.

When you buy into what Rolling Stone tells you about the history of music, when you subscribe to the idea that it was Elvis ---> Beatles ---> Zeppelin ---> [a bunch of terrible glam bands] ---> Nirvana (SAVIORS!) ---> The Strokes or something ---> Nickelback ---> OutKast ---> [wait, what?] ---> P!nk ---> Lady Gaga ---> uhh... ---> Imagine Dragons, I think ---> Lady Antebellum ---> or did the other one come first? ---> what's on Ryan Seacrest this week? ---> wasn't Prince kind of famous for something, at some point? ---> Green Day had a hit album before American Idiot? ---> OMG I love Sound City!

That sentence isn't coherent, and neither is the Official Rolling Stone history of music. So, my request to you music fans is: stop making up excuses for music. Stop trying to fit it into what you perceive to be music history. The history of music is a massive scatter-plot of individual artists doing individual things. Each artist has his or her own artistic vision, and that artist is successful to the extent that the end result matches the original vision.

Get that? Commercial success is not relevant to artistic success. Being famous is not the same thing as being good. Having a hit record chronologically later than Nevermind does not automatically mean that the hit record was "inspired by" or "influenced by" or "made possible by" Nirvana. And, no matter how much it rattles your view of the musical cosmos, you absolutely must repeat this exercise by substituting "The Beatles" in for "Nirvana" and any Beatles album for "Nevermind". 

In short, you, the music fans, must learn to form your own opinions about music and its evolution. You must fight against the desire to simply buy into whatever prevailing opinion is marketed to you most aggressively. If music is important to you, you must learn to treat it as though it is important. You must learn to listen carefully, critically, and consider all aspects of what you're hearing.

There is no harm in not believing that music is important, and not treating it as such. But if you believe that you can treat music as though it is unimportant, just so that you have enough intellectual wiggle room to declare any pile of crap "genius," then you are lying to yourself and others. That might be good for you, but it's bad for music

And so my request to you is: Please stop.