I will never pretend to be as educated as I could be about race; it is a complex, nuanced issue that I may never be able to fully grapple with on a scale that lets me truly comprehend all of its various intricacies. As not-so-knowledgeable as I may be, I still find myself in a near constant state of disbelief when it comes to how many of my friends(predominantly white) don’t understand how racism is still an issue in the United States. Now keep in mind, I am a young, upper-middle class, white dude, so this is coming from an undeniably privileged point of view. I still hope that I will in some way be able to convey the magnitude of this issue to those of us who are unaware. That being said…
Racism is Nickelback. Think about. It has(whether we like it or not) become associated with white culture in an intimate way, was much more popular in the past than it is now, still shows up in the media sometimes, and these days fans tend to try and hide just how much they actually like it. But this is more than a thin analogy. This is so much more.
Nickelback, and the way white people have dealt with it, is a microcosmic analogy for how we have handled racism in the Unites States. The band’s trajectory in terms of how we as a society have viewed and treated them is eerily similar to how we have understood our own complicated relationship with race. If you, like me, are in your mid-twenties, then our connection to this particular Canadian-post-grunge-pop-rock cacophony mirrors the U.S.’s with racial hate.
Middle School and Reconstruction.
Look, middle school was a couple of hard years for all of us. Nobody was having a good time; chemical signals in your body were caking your face in hitherto unheard of amounts of acne, your classmates were suddenly starting to make your no-no zones go wild, and your musical taste was… let’s just say a work in progress. Nickelback showed up on MTV and offered something that your new-found preteen angst could connect with. It was riddled with nostalgia for a bygone era(ahh the wonders of being a pre-pre-teen), had a concept of romance so simple even your developing amygdala could handle it, and was just catchy enough to take root in the back of your mind. Most importantly of all, it was accepted, it felt good to enjoy the music because it was popular and you knew your peers were getting down to the same poorly-composed-dirty-guitar-riffs you were.
Is that so far off from how the U.S. began it’s ongoing tango with race-based hate? If we examine things from the beginning of the Reconstruction Period, all of these same symptoms are present; separatism created a barrier that allowed white folks to dream of a time(which never existed by the way) in which the enslavement of others bettered their lives. While its true a section of the populace did glean enormous economic benefits from that time, the majority of the white population never saw a penny of it; if you didn’t actually own a plantation yourself, then come 1865 you, fiscally, were only a few beats ahead of the freshly emancipated. The notion that “every thing was great before now” inspired nostalgia for a romantic era that never was, and the racism it fostered split a disenfranchised community by giving half of them a banner to rally behind. Affirming misplaced angst? Check. Dreams of a bygone time? Check. Ugly romanticism? Check. Peer approval? Check and check.
High School and “Post Racial” America.
As awful as middle school was, by the time we hit 9th grade and up, we were starting to get into a groove. Our zits were starting to clear up(a bit), and we all had a better understanding of, like,“who I am and stuff”; we had found our own circle of friends and maybe weren’t vying for justification from our peers so much, we were focused in a little more on where we were headed as opposed to where we’d been, and musically, man oh man, were we branching out. Knowing how much other music was out there, so much of it good, made Nickelback just seem a little bit… …well, terrible. It became a joke, something that was a safe target to poke fun at, because who was going to defend it? Nobody actually liked that stuff any more, right? It was even on TV, the shows we watched on the daily jabbed at it in way that had us in knee-slapping fits of laughter. Sure the band still had its fans, but they were waaaaaaay less plentiful than they were before, or at least we thought so, because we weren’t feeling as associated with them. Regardless, if someone mentioned Nickelback in the context of actually enjoying them, we got to scoff and brush them aside with a burst of well-deserved condescension.
Switching back to the USA’s timeline, if we fast-forward past the civil rights movement(I know, we’re skipping quite a bit there), and into a slightly more modern era, a similar mutation occurs in American racism. While there are still those die-hard fans preaching a full-on style of hate, for the most part, it doesn’t look like hostility based on skin-color. Suddenly its any number of things; economic status, the way someone is dressing, “cultural” differences, that separate us, but heavens forbid, its never about race. Being a racist was now something to be abhorred, it made less of you. Racial slurs were ousted and replaced with cleverly coded language like; “thugs”, “states rights”, “super-predators”, and other sneaky terms that made it seem that whatever matter was being discussed was no longer about race, but about some other issue altogether. This waning understanding of hate let people feel that racism as a concept was in the past, opening up humor which then normalized things that should not have been normalized. As someone who’s identity consisted of “not being racist”, it became easy to look down on those who were, in the same way a Velvet Underground listener can feel superior to a Nickelback fan. Throw in a media that broadcast jokes about the later(in both scenarios), and then you feel comfortable making those same jokes. It began to feel like simply not being a “Nickelback fan” was enough, right? You didn’t support/spread hate, so you got to laugh at it when it reared its head.
The Present and …The Present.
So now we’re hear. Present day. We’re having a great time in our early to mid-twenties, either enjoying college, or living in fear-induced-paralysis of the “real world”. We have a solid understanding of self, a well-established individual identity, friends who we truly know and rely on, and a musical taste to match. While our taste may not be perfect or all-encompassing, its our own. Nickelback and all of its assorted accouterments, aren’t something we really think about often… or ever. Or that was at least until they became such a big part of the daily news cycle, and people cited Nickelback as a reason to commit commit murder or spread hate, and a “Nickelback Fan” got elected president, and okay I guess this is where the metaphor starts to unravel.
The point is, Nickelback is still on tour, in more ways than one. Those people who we belittled for their beliefs, be it in racism or Nickelback, didn’t just relinquish those ideals because they fell out of fashion, they got quiet about them. I have often wondered how I know so few people who seemed to hold the kind of hate required to vote for Trump, but he still managed to win not just the election, but the republican primary in my home state of Massachusetts. Clearly people I knew had to be siding with him. Now part of this is personalized echo-chamber-ing, but another component has to be that people who harbored hate, who adhered to a racist ideology, didn’t feel comfortable expressing it. They made up for all of their silence in daily life, with volume at the polls.
But we’re not discussing how Trump was able to secure office. What I’m digging at is that just because you aren’t a Nickelback fan, and just because you don’t have to listen to their music everyday, doesn’t mean that others aren’t falling victim to it. While I get that my analogy is crumbling away by the second; racism(like Nickelback) is still alive, still has widespread support, is still a punishing force in many peoples lives, and is systemic. Imagine that for a second; government mandated Nickelback. Let’s be honest, if that was the case, you would be literally loosing your shit every minute of every day, because that would be brutal, unjust, and inhumane. That is actually happening. Currently. To People. In America. Except Worse. Because it isn’t just bad music.
And look, I don’t want to imply anything bad about Nickelback(just the band this time). I haven’t listened to them since I was thirteen, and know nothing about their socio-political views, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably aren’t as bad as the concept of racism. They’re an easy scapegoat and I took more than one or two cheap swings at them in this post. But a quick perusal of Nickelback-based google searches and you will find people who passionately despise them for doing something as trivial as making played-out music. All I want to get at, is that if we can almost unilaterally decide Nickelback records so abysmal that people invented a fake a news story about them playing at Trump’s inauguration, because they were so hate-able that they could bring his reputation down, the least we can do is point a fraction of that disgust at a more worthy target.