The Number Ones

December 22, 2001

The Number Ones: Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Look at the faces in the video. I’m not talking about the face of Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger. We know that face — the hangdog eyes, the incongruously flowy Jesus hair, the bad-idea goatee, the general Droopy Dog mien. I’m not talking about the mantis-like face of the scarily skinny model who plays the problematic love-interest antagonist, either. I’m talking about the other guys in Nickelback. Look at those faces.

The faces of the other Nickelback guys, as depicted in the “How You Remind Me” video, are almost aggressively normal. They’re not even sitcom-dad faces. They’re not even the faces of the friends of the dads in a sitcom. Those friends of sitcom dads are still television actors, and they still have to pop off the screen a little bit. They have to be memorable. The other Nickelback guys do not have memorable faces. They’re faces that radiate deep, overwhelming averageness. These guys don’t look like rockers; they look like pediatricians or IT technicians or barbacks. They look like your neighbor whose name you can’t remember even though you’ve had upwards of five conversations. And yet those guys, with those faces, are going off so hard. Guitarist Ryan Peake, in particular, scrunches and screws all his nondescript features up with intense hard-rockin’ seriousness. He means it.

There’s something vaguely perverse about watching wildly normal guys in rock-out mode. It feels wrong, the same way it would feel wrong to see Tommy Lee buying a big bag of kitty litter at Target. I have a halfassed theory that this pervading facial mundanity is the reason that Nickelback are the most widely disrespected rock band of the 21st century, the one band that virtually everyone is happy to mock relentlessly. At some point, hatred of Nickelback went from a hacky joke to a tired meme, and nobody even seems to bother with it anymore. Joking about Nickelback is like joking about airplane food. There’s no point. The target is too easy.

Every other halfway prominent rock band should fall to their knees and thank the universe that Nickelback continue to exist. Nickelback are rock’s scapegoats, its whipping boys, and they seem content to serve that function. Compared to Nickelback, even Creed are… well, they’re still Creed. But I feel like derision of Chad Kroeger and his goatee is even more widespread than derision of Scott Stapp and his chin. I watched this phenomenon take shape, and I understand it, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it. Here’s one important thing about Nickelback: They are the last hard rock band — arguably even the last rock band, full-stop — to top the Billboard Hot 100. And unlike the perilously wack post-grunge bawlers who were polluting the charts at the same time, Nickelback made their impact with a song that actually rocks. That song is called “How You Remind Me,” and it’s pretty fucking good.

The success of “How You Remind Me” is overwhelming and historic. Before “How You Remind Me,” Nickelback had released two albums, and they’d found some rock-radio success, but they’d never had a song on the Hot 100 before their first and only #1 hit. “How You Remind Me” reached #1 just as 2001 was ending, and Billboard later named it the #1 single of 2002. As the decade ended, Billboard further reported that “How You Remind Me” was the most-played radio hit of the entire ’00s. Nickelback went on to score five more top-10 hits, as well as one big movie ballad for frontman Chad Kroeger, and all of those songs sound, to one degree or another, like “How You Remind Me.” On the strength of “How You Remind Me,” Nickelback have sold untold millions of albums. Unless your favorite band is the Beatles or some shit, Nickelback have sold exponentially more records than your favorite band.

If you’re the type to lament the fact that your favorite band hasn’t gotten the commercial success that it deserves, or if you’re the type to feel protective of the Seattle grunge of the early ’90s — and most of us have been that type at one point or another — then the resentment against Nickelback makes sense. Nickelback took the raw sonic materials of the early ’90s alt-rock boom, stripped away anything remotely countercultural, and became arguably more popular than any of the bands who directly influenced them. But that’s how the machine works, baby! It’s not Nickelback’s fault that they have more #1 hits than Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains and Soundgarden put together. (Nickelback have one #1 hit.)

At the same time, Nickelback emerged during an era when wack shit was sweeping over the radio-rock landscape. The post-grunge sound of the late ’90s and early ’00s was a whole phenomenon. This column has already gotten into Creed and Matchbox 20 and Vertical Horizon, and those were just the bands that made it all the way to the top of the Hot 100. They weren’t the only offenders out there. Around the same time that “How You Remind Me” hit #1, corndogs like Staind and Puddle Of Mudd were also clogging up the top 10, and plenty of us were feeling some type of way about it. I never caught myself rocking out to those bands on a car radio when I was by myself. “How You Remind Me,” on the other hand, is built for solo car-radio rock-outs. If you haven’t bellowed that you’ve been wrong, you’ve been down to the bottom of every bottle, I would suggest that you’re missing out. That shit is fun.

Chad Kroeger, our guy with the goatee and the hair, comes from the deep-nowheresville prairie town of Hanna, Alberta. Calgary is the closest city, and it’s more than two hours away. (When Kroeger was born, his fellow Canadian rockers Bachman-Turner Overdrive had the #1 song in America with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”) Kroeger is Chad’s mother’s maiden name; his father left when he was two. As a teenager, Kroeger got into occasional legal trouble, and he started playing guitar in a local cover band called the Village Idiots, which also included Chad’s brother Mike, his cousin Brandon, and their friend Ryan Peake. At the same time, Chad was writing songs. When the Village Idiots got tired of playing other people’s songs, they started playing Chad’s instead, and Chad became the frontman.

In 1995, the Kroegers and Ryan Peake all moved to Vancouver, a 14-hour drive away from Hanna. They chose Nickelback as their band name because Mike Kroeger worked at Starbucks and got used to giving people a nickel back in change. The band had big dreams, and they had a realistic idea of how to accomplish those dreams. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Chad Kroeger says, “There are two types of bands that get signed. There’s the kind that has a buzz and you’ve got 15 different labels with deals on the table, or else you have to sell so many records on your own that it doesn’t matter if you’re four monkeys farting into a box… So we tried to be the four monkeys.” They succeeded.

In 1996, Chad Kroeger borrowed $4000 from his stepfather to record Nickelback’s demo Hesher. He later claimed that he only spent half of the money on the recording and that he used the other half to buy shrooms, and then he made the money back by selling those shrooms. Later that year, Nickelback released their debut album Curb on a small indie, and one of their songs, “Fly,” got a little bit of airplay on local Vancouver radio. Nickelback worked the album by touring relentlessly — a difficult thing to do in western Canada, where you practically have to drive across a galaxy to get from one city to the next.

Brandon Kroeger left Nickelback in 1997, and the band went through a few drummers before landing on Ryan Vikedal. In 1998, the band recorded another album, The State, which eventually got picked up by EMI Canada for wider distribution. An A&R guy from Roadrunner Records, a metal label best known for putting out Slipknot and Sepultura records, heard The State, and he flew up to Vancouver, where he was surprised to see Nickelback playing a sold-out show for a fired-up crowd. Roadrunner didn’t really have any background in commercial rock, but the label still signed Nickelback and gave The State an American release. A few of the songs did well on mainstream rock radio, and the album eventually went gold and then, after the success of “How You Remind Me,” platinum.

2001’s Silver Side Up was Nickelback’s third album, but it was the first where they didn’t have to pay for the recording sessions out of pocket. The band hired producer Rick Parashar, who presumably got the job because he’d made Ten with Pearl Jam. When Chad Kroeger wrote “How You Remind Me,” he was living with a girlfriend in Vancouver, and they’d just gotten into a nasty fight. Kroeger had a whole PA setup in his basement, so he blew off steam by angrily howling improvised lyrics into his mic. He was hoping that his girlfriend would hear everything that he was saying. Last year, Kroeger told Billboard, “Instead of her getting the point, she turns to me and goes, ‘Whatever song you’re working on downstairs, it’s great.'”

It’s not really a surprise that “How You Remind Me” came out of a couple’s argument, but I do think it’s notable that the lyrics put at least as much blame on Kroeger as they do on the girlfriend. The song gets at one of those ugly relationship truths: Nothing sucks more than having someone you love angrily pointing out your own flaws to you. Kroeger’s “How You Remind Me” lyrics aren’t exactly clever, but they get the job done.

Kroeger knows that he never made it as a wise man, that he couldn’t cut it as a poor man stealing. This time, he’s mistaken for handing you a heart worth breakin’. He’s been wrong, he’s been down to the bottom of every bottle. He said he loves you, and he swears he still does, but living with him must’ve damn near killed you. These five words in his head scream, “Are we having fun yet?” — the point of the argument where you wonder why you’re even bothering in the first place.

Chad Kroeger came up with his “How You Remind Me” lyrics in less than an hour, and then he took them to the rest of the band, who quickly bashed those lyrics into song shape. It’s a familiar shape. Nickelback were a Pacific Northwest band in the ’90s, and they knew the power of the quiet-to-loud formula. So “How You Remind Me” starts with Kroeger gurgling throatily over a soft guitar figure that revs up into something much louder the moment that the first chorus hits. There are a bunch of smart choices in the song’s arrangement — the meditative guitar melody that snakes through even the loudest bits, the shakers deep in the mix, the perfectly timed drumroll. Chad Kroeger’s burly baritone growl is basically the same kind of voice that every singer of a radio-rock band had in that moment, but it’s not overblown and self-parodic like what Scott Stapp was doing. Kroeger could actually sing, and there’s a hint of soulfulness and vulnerability in his voice. And Nickelback were the rare post-grunge band that had some rudimentary understanding of groove. Staind could never.

The thing I really like about “How You Remind Me” is that it builds. Deep into the song things get quiet again, and Kroeger basically repeats the intro. Then, things get extra cathartic. When the rest of the band drops out and Kroeger howls out unaccompanied, with big guitar crunches in between, it’s a no-shit satisfying moment. In that Billboard interview, Kroeger says that the band’s drum tech had the idea to put those stops in. Maybe bands should listen to their drum techs more often.

The “How You Remind Me” single came out in July 2001, and it must’ve really gotten people fired up to hear the Silver Side Up album. That LP happened to come out on 9/11, and it debuted at #2 the following week. (Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, which came out on the same day, was #1.) By the time “How You Remind Me” finally hit #1, the album was already double platinum. None of the other Silver Side Up singles were big crossover hits. The way-less-dynamic absent-father song “Too Bad” peaked at #44, while “Never Again,” a heavier song about domestic violence, missed the Hot 100 entirely. But Silver Side Up still went platinum six times over, and Chad Kroeger landed another hit soon after. For the soundtrack of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie, Kroeger got together with Saliva leader Josey Scott and a band of radio-rock all-stars to record the power ballad “Hero,” and that song peaked at #3 in the summer of 2002. (It’s a 6.)

Maybe that Spider-Man song kept Nickelback from fading away like their peers. They followed Silver Side Up with the 2003 album The Long Road, which went triple platinum and spun off one top-10 hit. (“Someday” peaked at #7, and it sounded enough like “How You Remind Me” that the two songs’ similarities became a kind of early meme. It’s a 5.) Nickelback’s biggest album was yet to come. 2005’s All The Right Reasons went diamond, and three of its singles went top-10. Lead single “Photograph,” an unapologetic goofball reminisce, did almost as well as “How You Remind Me,” climbing to #2. (It’s a 6.)

In selling all those records, Nickelback were definitely getting away with something, and they knew it. I can’t tell how much self-awareness or irony there is in something like “Rockstar,” a #6 hit from All The Right Reasons. “Rockstar” is a song about wanting to be a rock star, as sung by someone who’d already become one. Was Chad Kroeger commenting on the excesses of his new big-money lifestyle, or was he just reveling in his own indulgences? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. If he was just flexing, why could be mad at him? This guy came from a farming town so remote that it might as well be the surface of the moon, and he still somehow sold untold millions of records, even in a post-Napster era. If I was him, I’d be feeling myself, too. (“Rockstar” is a 7.)

After All The Right Reasons, Nickelback were true throwbacks — a galactically huge rock band in an era when those didn’t really exist anymore. You still had acts like U2 or the Rolling Stones, who could (and can) sell out stadiums on past glories. But Nickelback were still making hits in a time when rock bands just weren’t doing that. In 2008, Nickelback did the thing that every galactically huge rock band should do: They made an album with Mutt Lange. Dark Horse stalled out at triple platinum, and it’s not exactly Back In Black or Hysteria, but I respect the attempt. The LP’s lead single “Gotta Be Somebody” peaked at #10, and it was Nickelback’s last top-10 hit. (It’s a 5.)

By the time Nickelback made Dark Horse, Nickelback fandom was probably a social liability in most situations. The backlash against the band had become louder than the momentum, and the jokes were inescapable. Nickelback’s 2011 album Here And Now stalled out at platinum, and the single “Lullaby” became the last Nickelback song to chart on the Hot 100, where it peaked at #89. Since then, Nickelback have released two more albums, which haven’t even gone gold. But give Nickelback credit: They have continued to make their defiantly uncool music, and they have continued to play to huge crowds around the world. The many thousands of people who sang along with “How You Remind Me” at Rock In Rio 2019 presumably don’t care whether people on the internet were judging them.

Nickelback have a new album coming out next month. It’s called Get Rollin’, and Nickelback might be the only band on that planet who can use a title like that without even a shred of irony. “San Quentin,” its first single, is no “How You Remind Me,” and it won’t ever appear in this column. But then again, neither will any other song from any other riff-centric rock band. Or who knows? Maybe we’ll see another sea change in popular taste, and kids on TikTok will get really into rumble-riffs and chesty gargle-bleats. I never made it as a wise man, and I’m terrible at predictions. From where I’m sitting, though, “How You Remind Me” still goes hard.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sum 41 playing a pop-punk version of “How You Remind Me” on MTV’s New Year’s Eve special as 2001 turned into 2002:

Gossip corner: Sum 41 leader Deryck Whibley was married to Avril Lavigne from 2006 to 2009. In 2016, Lavigne married Chad Kroeger, and they broke up two years later. I don’t think those two relationships had anything to do with each other, so I can’t really say that Chad Kroeger was part of some kind of mythical Canadian alt-rock love triangle. But I can tell you that Avril recorded her own version of “How You Remind Me” for the soundtrack of the 2012 anime movie One Piece Film: Z, which means all three of them have sung that song. Here’s Avril’s moody quasi-goth take on the song:

(Sum 41’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “Fat Lip,” peaked at #66. Avril Lavigne will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a pretty funny skit from his 2002 mixtape No Mercy, No Fear, 50 Cent clowns past and future Number Ones artist Ja Rule by imagining how it would sound if Ja jumped on a bunch of remixes of then-current hits. One of those then-current hits is “How You Remind Me.” Here’s the skit:

(50 Cent will eventually appear in this column. You don’t need me to go over all the other songs in this skit, do you? I don’t want to step on the joke like that.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2018 Saturday Night Live sketch where Melissa Villaseñor plays a dying woman who uses her last breath to sing “How You Remind Me”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ryan Reynolds and Fred Savage arguing over the merits of Nickelback and then singing “How You Remind Me” in the trailer for Once Upon A Deadpool, the PG-13 version of 2018’s Deadpool 2:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great Detroit underground rapper Sada Baby singing along to “How You Remind Me” in a video that I must’ve watched like 40 times:

(Sada Baby’s highest-charting single, 2020’s “Whole Lotta Choppas,” peaked at #35.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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