The moment you tell people you're seeing Creed and Nickelback in concert — on the same night, at roughly the same time, in two different venues — it suddenly becomes a stunt. Just describing the premise seems schlocky; it's like Def Leppard playing on three different continents in 24 hours, or maybe something David Blaine would attempt if he worked for the Fuse network. The immediate assumption is that this is some type of sonic endurance test, and that no person could possibly enjoy the experience of seeing the most hated (yet popular) rock band of 2001 followed by the most popular (yet hated) rock band of 2012. But this is what I wanted to do: I wanted to see Creed at New York's intimate Beacon Theatre (performing their 1997 album My Own Prison in its entirety), followed by Nickelback in front of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden.
Last Thursday, this dream was accomplished.
I did not do this because I particularly like or dislike either band. I did it because other people like and dislike them so much.
Thursday evening, seven o'clock. A thin man stands outside the Beacon Theatre, smoking a cigarette and compulsively checking his phone (from across the street, he looks a little like Martin Starr). The man's name is Adam Semanchick, and he's a 26-year-old cab driver from Bayonne, New Jersey. We stand on the sidewalk and chat about Creed; he's envious that I'm seeing both Creed and Nickelback on the same night, and he asks if I know how to get tickets to tomorrow night's sold-out Shinedown show at Best Buy Theater. This is a person who really, really likes rock music.
"Creed was always more pop-ish," he tells me. It dawns on me that Semanchick would have been 13 when Human Clay was released in 1999. "I usually preferred stuff like Slipknot and Disturbed. Heavier music. And the fact that Creed seemed Christian made them uncool. But they always wrote good songs, and they were a safe band. That's the key word. Safe. They didn't oversell their theatrics. Plus, they sing about things that any normal person is going to relate with. One of their songs talks about being 'six feet from the edge.' Depression is universal."
It's disarming to hear someone discuss Creed with such evenhanded lucidity; normally, people who talk about Creed want to position themselves as distanced from what Creed is alleged to represent (and perhaps that's what Semanchick is doing here, but it doesn't feel like it). "I like all rock music," he continues. "Why would I make an exception for Creed? To be honest, I think rock is dying in the culture. They don't even play it on the radio anymore. At this point, there's really just underground metal and classic rock. That's all 'rock' is now. So I wanted to see this show."
Closer to the venue's entrance, two women from Brooklyn are waiting for someone. These women are sisters, both 41 years old. "You're twins," I stupidly note. It turns out they're actually triplets and the woman they're waiting for is sister no. 3. We have a brief discussion about Creed's iconography. The first sister (her name is Nia)1 rejects the idea that Creed's lack of respect is remotely meaningful to the experience of loving them. "I don't listen to what anyone says about music," she tells me. "If I like a band, I like a band. I've seen Creed six times. They're never boring. Never. And I've seen a lot of boring shows from other people." I ask her what bands have been boring. Her instantaneous response is Incubus. But she was also disappointed by Bon Jovi, Chevelle, and Duran Duran. "I was so disappointed by Duran Duran," she says. "I really wanted that night to be great."
I slink into the Beacon at 7:20 p.m. The first thing I see is a huge poster promoting a memoir from Creed vocalist Scott Stapp. The book is titled Sinner's Creed: The True Story of Fame, Grace, and Redemption as Only Scott Stapp Can Tell It. The interior theater doors don't open until 7:30, so people are milling around the lobby, drinking beers and frozen margaritas. Obviously, this is an older, balding crowd; one guy has brought his own homemade popcorn in a cylindrical Tupperware container, which is something you probably wouldn't see at a Japandroids show. I'm shocked by the distance some of these people have traveled to see this concert. One couple (George and Stacey Wilson-Howell) flew in from Dubai, a 15-hour flight. "Just a flick of his sweat," Stacey tells me. "That's all I want. Just a flick of Scott Stapp's sweat." This sentiment symbolizes his fame, her grace, and my redemption (as only Scott Stapp can tell it).
The music starts one minute before 8 p.m. Creed's opening act is called Eve to Adam. They are directly (and profoundly) influenced by Creed, all the way down to giving themselves a name that would prompt most average ticket holders to wrongly assume they're a Christian rock band. The singer brings a bottle of Jameson onto the stage, but he doesn't take a swig until after the last song. He sings exactly like Stapp and facially resembles Around the Horn host Tony Reali (this is mostly a compliment). The music is competent but unnervingly, relentlessly, idiotically straight-ahead; they're like a fictional rock band invented by Daniel Clowes, deliberately designed to represent the polar opposite of alt-cool. At one point they cover Alice Cooper's "School's Out," but the rhythm section appears to be playing Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It's the high point of the set. The lead guitarist wears a super-long scarf and reminds me of a grunge Warren DeMartini (again, this is mostly a compliment).
The singer is gracious, thanking the audience after almost every song (he will dedicate their final number, "Reach," to the U.S. Armed Forces). He likes people, but only if they are physically in front of him. "This next song is dedicated to all the Internet tough guys who talk a lot of shit on the computer but would never say shit to your face," he declares before they play a tune called "Run Your Mouth." With only 1,310 followers on Twitter, I would not have guessed there were a lot of clowns trolling Eve to Adam, but I suppose there must be. I mean, the band does exist.
The music of Creed is powerful. That's not necessarily the same as "good," but it's something. They perform a simple trick on (seemingly) every track: A song will open with an uncomfortably subdued constriction that abruptly drops into a pulverizing wave of melodic distortion, instantly generating a hyper-real level of drama that can only be discounted if you consciously pre-decide to view the technique as preposterous. This is the central potency of the band's songwriting, but also its downfall. The key to being appreciated by pop critics is the act of taking your own music less seriously than the people who adore it (Stephen Malkmus is probably the best contemporary example). Creed seems to exemplify the opposite. Creed seems to take itself more seriously than its own fan base does, which makes logical (but not practical) sense. Now, the reason I keep including the word "seems" is because I don't know if this is actually true; the band might consider the entire trajectory of their career totally hilarious. But their posture is serious. As I watch them onstage, they don't seem to be having fun in any context. The various musicians are dressed in a style best described as "business casual," assuming their business is happening in Texas.
In a histrionic world where American Idol and The Voice somehow represent the apotheosis of vocal culture, you'd think Stapp would deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor. His bearlike delivery defines the great/terrible conceit (when Stapp truly goes for the jugular, his howl is like an F-14 flying 40 feet off the ground). He paces around and seems randomly unhinged, periodically slapping his own chest like Kevin Garnett in the playoffs. Everyone in the front row wants to touch him, but respectfully so; sometimes they only need to touch his fingertips.
Creed's highest artistic achievement is the (excellent) song "My Own Prison," the first single they ever released. It's Creed at their upmost Creediest. Lyrical themes include despair, self-loathing, Golgotha, drugs, the shackles of self-awareness, metaphorical lions, actual lions, hypocrisy, Crime and Punishment, and the desperate notion of surrendering one's agency to a Higher Power. The payoff explodes at the end, where Stapp insists, "I created, I created, I created, I created, I created, I created my own prison." Free will: intact.
I've long wondered if this song is popular inside actual prisons.
My Own Prison" is the third number in Creed's set; by the song's conclusion, it's almost 9:30. I leave the Beacon and get in a cab to MSG, a stop-and-go ride that will take almost 20 minutes. Sitting in the back of the taxi, there's not much for me to do except think about the group I just saw and the group I'm about to see. And what I think about is this: Over the past 20 years, there have been five bands2 totally acceptable to hate reflexively (and by "totally acceptable," I mean that the casual hater wouldn't even have to provide a justification — he or she could just openly hate them and no one would question why). The first of these five acts was Bush (who, bizarrely and predictably, was opening for Nickelback that very night). The second was Hootie and the Blowfish, perhaps the only group ever marginalized by an episode of Friends. The third was Limp Bizkit, who kind of got off on it. Obviously, the last two were Creed and Nickelback. The collective animosity toward these five artists far outweighs their multiplatinum success; if you anthologized the three best songs from each of these respective groups, you'd have an outstanding 15-track album that people would bury in their backyards.
Or maybe only I think like this. Maybe the only kind of person who thinks like this is the kind of person who doesn't really care, which is probably the person I am. Maybe I'm looking at this in the least meaningful way possible. Several years ago, I met a history professor from the University of Oklahoma who worked on the doomed 1988 presidential campaign for Michael Dukakis. One of the things I asked him was when he (and all his coworkers) realized that Dukakis was not going to win. His answer surprised me: He said they always believed Dukakis was going to win, even as the results were rolling in on election night. "Presidential campaigns exist inside their own reality," he told me. "They have to. It's the only way they can work."
The same could be said about loving a band that everyone else prefers to ridicule. Your worldview must align with your construct. At the Beacon, I sat in front of a 31-year-old man named Anthony Cona. He told me he'd once met the drummer and bassist from Creed in a Charlotte, North Carolina, hotel bar,3 and that both were extraordinarily nice, normal people. "Those guys didn't have to talk to me," he said. "I wouldn't have felt any differently about Creed if they hadn't. But they did talk to me, and actually went out of their way to do so." This being the case, I asked Cona if he had any idea why so many people despise the very idea of Creed, particularly since they don't seem musically controversial or aesthetically polarizing. Here again, I found myself surprised by the response.
"The media deemed them as Christian rock, so some people assumed they were preachy," he said. "But the bigger problem was that they were equated with Pearl Jam. That doesn't matter so much now, but it really mattered when they were new. Pearl Jam has already achieved mainstream success, so everyone thought Creed was piggybacking on the mainstream success of Pearl Jam. That's what turned everyone against them. That's why they got punished."
It's important to remember that every reality is always happening at the same time.
I arrive at Madison Square Garden just before 10 p.m. While I jog up three flights of nonoperational escalators, I can hear the closing riffs of the Nickelback single "Photograph" reverberating throughout the arena's catacombs. When I finally surface amid the altitude of section 103, Nickelback front man Chad Kroeger is tenderly coaching the audience on how to properly respond to the next song. "Come on, ladies," he says, "let's pretend you're 13 fucking years old at a Justin fucking Bieber concert." His argument makes a soft landing.
It's hard to get inside the existential paradox of Kroeger's life on tour: Every day, he gives interviews to journalists and radio DJs who directly ask him why no one likes his band. Every night, he plays music to thousands of enraptured superfans, many of whom love him with a ferocity that's probably unhealthy. Every concert ends with a standing ovation; if he feels motivated, he spends the remainder of the night partying with forgettable strangers who will remember him for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Kroeger falls asleep. And then he wakes up in a beautiful hotel room, only to read new articles about how everyone in North America hates his band.
There is not one part of his life that's real.
The day before the New York show, Kroeger appeared on a Philadelphia radio station4 and was asked (of course) why people hate Nickelback so vehemently. "Because we're not hipsters," he replied. It's a reasonable answer, but not really accurate — the only thing hipsters unilaterally loathe is other hipsters, so Nickelback's shorthaired unhipness should theoretically play to their advantage. A better answer as to why people dislike Nickelback is tautological: They hate them because they hate them. Sometimes it's fun to hate things arbitrarily, and Nickelback has become an acceptable thing to hate. They're technically rich and technically famous, so they just have to absorb the denigration and insist they don't care. They have good songs and they have bad songs, and the bad songs are bad enough to build an anti-Nickelback argument, assuming you feel like that's important. But it's never required. It's not like anyone is going to contradict your thesis. There's no risk in hating Nickelback, and hating something always feels better than feeling nothing at all.
Kroeger is a borderline genius5 at his craft: He listens to the radio, studies every hit, deconstructs how those songs succeed, and then creates a composite simulacrum that cannot be deconstructed by anyone else. "Bottom's Up" is about drinking your face off. "Animal" is about getting a hand job in a car. "How You Remind Me" is about being reminded of something you once forgot. I have no idea what "Something in Your Mouth" is about (I'm guessing dentistry school). His lyrics are sexist, though I suppose they'd be considered empowering if performed by specific people who aren't Nickelback. The machinations of the live show are full-on hair metal: At one point, the band boards a spacecraft and is hydraulically suspended 30 feet in the air, although nobody in the crowd seems to find this especially unusual. The gender split of the audience looks to be about 50-50.6 That ratio mildly surprises me, although I don't know why (probably my own prejudice). More surprising is the degree to which the security staff at MSG clearly loves this music; you don't often see ushers singing along with the band that's onstage, but that's what was happening here. They knew every word7 to every chorus. Nickelback's core demographic is vaster than Alberta.
The group's strength is that they understand the tropes of classic rock (both musically and philosophically). The group's weakness is their obsession with transposable power ballads, most of which sound like what would happen if Bob Rock helped Coldplay write a really loud song for Garth Brooks (which would undoubtedly be the most popular song in the history of mankind, were it to literally exist). The one transcendent Nickelback song is the semi-acoustic "Rockstar," a dilemma for all those who want to erroneously pretend that Kroeger has no sense of irony. "Rockstar" has a faultless construction — it's simple, true, sarcastic, and aspirant. I suppose those four qualities also describe Nickelback, which is another reason why humorless people will always hate them.
But hey: That's their role. That's their job. They've created, they've created, they've created, they've created, they've created, they've created their own prison. And it's probably awesome, or at least close enough.