November 17, 2001
It's inevitable that as time passes some of the artists we liked in a particular moment can become punchlines to jokes about that time period. A band like A Flock of Seagulls, for example, who had some really excellent songs in the early 80s, at some point became shorthand for new wave weirdness, due in no small part to the haircut the lead singer sported in their video. But then their run lasted just a couple of years.
Then there's Nickelback, indisputably one of the most successful bands of the 2000s. When they rose to prominence, they became poster children for a genre that could make even the most passive of music fans roll their eyes: post-grunge. There had been post-grunge bands before Nickelback, and some of them had decent commercial success, but they all seemed to exist in an uncanny valley that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
But even though many music fans can write off Nickelback as a one-note joke that got shoved down everyone's throats in the 2000s, I still can't deny the song that sent them into the stratosphere. "How You Remind Me" is an intense, moody jam that has a soft spot in my heart to this day.
Chad Turton was born in Hanna, Alberta in 1974. His father abandoned the family when he was two, and he eventually took his mother's surname, Kroeger. In the 90s, he formed a cover band called Village Idiot with his brother, Mike, and Ryan Peake. Village Idiot would soon become Nickelback, and the band soon recorded a demo EP with money loaned from Kroeger's stepdad.
(The band's Wikipedia page states that some of that money was used by Kroeger to buy magic mushrooms that he could resell, a fact which Kroeger confirmed in an interview where the band debunks claims on said Wikipedia page. Apparently there are some things you can't make up on Wikipedia.)
Nickelback recorded and released their debut album Curb in 1996, followed by The State in 1998. The albums slowly got the band some traction in their native Canada, and EMI Canada re-released The State in 1999. The band toured hard behind the record and, eventually, Roadrunner Records, a label known mostly for heavy metal bands to that point, signed the group and released the album in the United States. A few singles from The State would gain airplay on rock radio in the U.S., with the singles "Leader of Men" and "Breathe" each peaking at #21 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart and reaching the top 10 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
The band had already written several of the songs that would appear on their third album, Silver Side Up, when the time came to record the album in early 2001. "How You Remind Me" was inspired by an argument Kroeger had with his girlfriend. Kroeger starting singing a version of the song as a way to communicate his frustrations with her. But instead of getting his side of the argument, she encouraged him to keep working on the song.
Kroeger claims the song was never supposed to be vengeful. The lyrics read like the feelings one has after an argument that in the moment feels like the end of the world, but in reality probably gets forgotten after a few hours. "It's not like you to say sorry/I was waitin' on a different story". It feels like Kroeger is internalizing whatever caused the argument rather than placing the blame on his partner. He seems to realize that all his faults must have put a strain on her: "And it must have been so bad/'Cause livin' with me must have damn near killed you".
Kroeger says the entire song was written in under an hour. But it's the recording that really gives the song its impact. The song builds up like a pressure cooker. While the guitar hooks made a lot of people want to keep hearing the song, the most memorable moment for me comes near the end when the instruments break just before Kroeger sings "for handing you a heart worth breaking". While this time was a high point for macho aggression in rock music, the aggression in "How You Remind Me" feels more organic and focused, which is probably what enabled it to cross over to pop radio.
In the video, Kroeger seems haunted by visions of his partner in his apartment and on the street. When she appears, the tones in the video are warm and bright, but when she leaves, they get cold and blue. Eventually we see her in a club where the band is playing, only for her to be left alone at the end, as if to imply that he's gotten over their relationship. The video is slickly filmed and easily captured my attention when I saw it on MuchMusic or MTV2.
Altogether, the song was insanely successful for the group. Though Silver Side Up had the unfortunate timing of being released on September 11, 2001, it still managed to reach #2 on the album charts on the back of "How You Remind Me". The song quickly reached the top of the Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts, and soon made its way to pop radio, where it also saw massive airplay. The song wound up spending four weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 and was eventually named the top song of 2002 by Billboard. Although it seemed like rock music was still in a dominant position on top 40 radio, it turned out that "How You Remind Me" would be the last hard rock song to ever top the Hot 100, at least as of 2023. A few songs have topped both the alternative chart and the Hot 100 since "How You Remind Me", but they were pop-leaning songs by artists such as Gotye and Lorde, two acts that will also appear in this column eventually.
Nickelback followed up "How You Remind Me" with "Too Bad", a song that dealt with Kroeger's abandonment by his father as a child. It would get to #4 on my top 40 in 2002, and while it didn't approach the success of its predecessor, it still reached the top 10 on alternative radio and #42 on the Hot 100. Nickelback wound up being such a hot commodity that Kroeger was tapped to write the song "Hero" for the 2002 film Spider-Man. He recorded the song as a duet with Saliva frontman Josey Scott. The song is basically a by-the-numbers anthemic superhero song, but it worked well for me at the time, as it got to #9 on my top 40. With the film being a massive success at the box office, the song topped the alternative chart and got to #3 on the Hot 100. (Saliva's most successful song on my chart, 2002's "Always", peaked at #22.)
Nickelback continued to be a constant presence on rock and pop radio for a while, but never did reach the top 10 on my top 40 after that. They released their follow-up The Long Road in 2003, which produced a sizable hit for the group with "Someday" getting to #7 on the Hot 100, but the song only reached #18 on my chart. I remember thinking at the time how stale the band's sound was starting to seem to me. For better or worse, the band leaned into that sound with their fifth album All the Right Reasons. The first single from that album was "Photograph", which almost matched the success of "How You Remind Me", getting as high as #2 on the Hot 100. I'm stunned to learn that I actually charted the song when it was released in 2005, reaching #21 on my top 40. Maybe the band still had some goodwill left with me, but I must have gotten sick of the song quickly, since I remember trying to avoid it like the plague.
Still, it wasn't the most annoying single from the album. That would fall to "Rockstar", a hedonistic word salad of a song where it almost feels like Kroeger is doubling down on the reputation that Nickelback and hard rock music in general had developed by this time. For any other band, the song probably would've come off as a parody, but Kroeger sings the song just seriously enough that I wanted to smash my radio whenever I heard the song. Nevertheless, it peaked at #6 on the Hot 100 almost two years after All the Right Reasons was released, testifying to just how durable the band's sound was to some listeners at the time.
Nickelback still had some pop hits in the tank with 2008's Dark Horse, but by then I was no longer interested in anything the band was putting out. The band's name became shorthand for paint-by-numbers rock music at a time when indie rock was starting to become ascendant. A lot of other music fans felt the same way, even when their were still enjoying pop success.
For their part, the band seems to have embraced this status as a punchline and source for memes. Their most recent album was 2022 Get Rollin', complete with an album cover that looks like a poor man's Sublime album. But there's still an audience for whatever they're recording. Their single "San Quentin" got to #2 on the Mainstream Rock chart last year.
Despite their status as champions of post-grunge butt rock, I can't help but look fondly on a song like "How You Remind Me". At a time when my tastes were starting to gravitate toward alternative and hard rock, to see a song from that world enjoy the success it did felt very validating. I generally don't think one should apologize for the music that they like, and Chad Kroeger seems like a nice enough guy. If you like Nickelback's music beyond "How You Remind Me", who am I to complain about that? Just know that they won't be appearing in this column again.
Around the time that she got engaged to Chad Kroeger in 2012, fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne recorded a cover of "How You Remind Me" for the anime film One Piece Film: Z. Here it is:
(Avril Lavigne will appear in this column soon.)
Of course, it's not surprising that Saturday Night Live would take their shots at Nickelback as time went on. Here's the 2018 skit featuring Sterling K. Brown where "How You Remind Me" plays a critical role:
System of a Down's frenetic breakthrough single, "Chop Suey!", peaked at #7 behind "How You Remind Me".