It’s perhaps too easy a target, but the subject of this latest in the series of the “Songs that are Horrible” is “Photograph,” by Nickelback.
What do you mean, you might say, too easy a target? Well, it’s Nickelback. Pop rock band, from Canada, that has enjoyed huge commercial success. But good Lord, they are pretty terrible. I can’t really think of a single song of theirs that I would feel good about telling a friend I like, or was listening to, or that somehow got stuck in my head – which would mean either I was purposely listening to it or passively doing so and not resisting in some crucial way to keep away from my brain. They just come across as so very derivative of everything else you’ve already heard before. So I guess I feel as if picking on them is like picking low-hanging fruit. Not that this is going to stop me!
Let’s take a listen to the song, and see the video.
Ahh, literalism, that’s what we have here in this video. Often a risky move for setting too much of a limitation on what a director can do, and often a risky move because so many song lyrics are so amazingly bad. In this case, the band takes us back to the town they grew up in back in Canada and film the video there and try to match up the visuals of the video with the lyrics of the song. I’m not so sure in this case that this was a wise move. (Nor is deciding that in the video the band should play in the old school gym – it evokes Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the comparison isn’t going to go in Nickelback’s favor.) Let’s take a gander at the opening lyrics:
Look at this photograph. Every time I do it makes me laugh
How did our eyes get so red? And what the hell is on Joey’s head?
The opening two lines to me are fine and hold potential for something more than sentimentality of the worst kind, but the next two signal an inability to think interestingly or critically about the act of looking at a photograph from one’s past. Doing so always holds the possibility of becoming an exercise in nostalgia and this song falls deeply into that rather quickly. How do we know this is the direction it’s going? The only one who might know the answer to the two questions posed in this opening stanza is the one asking the questions. These don’t invite us in, or make us laugh, they actually distance us from the photograph and the song – first because we don’t know the answer to either one and second because in a song we can’t actually see the photograph! (And hence the literalism of the video, where the singer holds up the photo to the camera, but of course it’s too brief to allow us to get a good look at it and to answer the question of what is indeed on Joey’s head. Sigh…)
And then the song goes deeper into the establishment of details that the writer apparently believes will signal place, setting, location – presumably in such a way that will engender an emotional connection (looking for empathy, perchance?) between the listener/viewer and the singer.
And this is where I grew up. I think the present owner fixed it up
I never knew we’d ever went without. The second floor is hard for sneaking out
And this is where I went to school. Most of the time had better things to do
Criminal record says I broke in twice. I must have done it half a dozen times
Yes, indeed, the home and the school, the two staples of the childhood existence. The band has established its foundation here in these lyrics, its home, its point of origin. The lyrics bespeak of modest circumstances at home and a daredevil attitude of sneaking out at night, blowing off school, and yet curiously breaking in to school at other times. (Why break into the school that you’re always skipping? What psychological issue with authority are you dealing with there when you both need to establish that you need not bow to the wishes of “the man” to go to school and yet also feel the impulse to “invade” the man’s fortress. Oh, and by the way, nice detail about how you weren’t caught at least four times – you’re a rebel dude!) In the next stanza he wonders “if it’s too late/Should I go back and try to graduate.” Why would he want to now? What’s his impulse? And I like how he ends this musing with the line, “If I was them I wouldn’t let me in.” No, me neither.
And so we come to the refrain:
Oh, oh, oh. Oh, God, I
Every memory of looking out the back door
I had the photo album spread out on my bedroom floor
It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.
Every memory of walking out the front door
I found the photo of the friend that I was looking for
It’s hard to say it, time to say it. Goodbye, goodbye.
I don’t have much to say about these lines actually. They just don’t make much sense. There is a bunch of verb tense switches between the present, the past, and the past perfect that are confounding. And why is it hard to say “goodbye” for him? Where does that come from – it’s not like he’s been sharing the happiest of memories with him.
Please don’t make me comment on the “Oh, oh, oh/Oh, God, I” lines. They leave me speechless. Instead let’s go back to the details of the singer’s youth. In the next stanzas he mentions “the old arcade” that burned down, listening to the radio and the promises they made to one another they see “how it feels/To sing to more than just the steering wheel,” and the Kim, the first girl he kissed, who he hasn’t seen “since God knows when.” Again, these details seem designed to establish the particularity of place while at the same time allowing for identification with the details on the part of listeners/viewers who might see in them something familiar with their own experience. This is an old and valuable writing trick, and I shouldn’t denigrate it totally. Lots of writers have used it as a strategy. Truth be told, though, it’s lazy. The band would be better off not worrying about the identification and instead just sticking to the particularity, the specificity of their own experience. The bridge then takes us as deeply into the nostalgia that has been threatening to erupt from the beginning:
I miss that town. I miss the faces
You can’t erase. You can’t replace it
I miss it now. I can’t believe it
So hard to stay. Too hard to leave it
But you did leave it, I want to scream back at him! That’s why you’re RETURNING! Silly me, perhaps, trying to follow him literally through the song. It’s not like he has shown any allegiance to literalism…sigh. The bridge concludes with these lines: “If I could I relive those days/I know the one thing that would never change” and then the song goes back to the refrain. What is that one thing, that one thing would never change? Not sure. Never articulated. Instead the song goes back to the memory of looking out the back door and getting caught up in the photo album and the difficulty – if necessity – of saying goodbye.
The song ends with a return to its beginning – a structural reprisal of the very actions detailed in the song! How sophisticated! “Look at this photograph/Every time I do it makes me laugh/Every time I do it makes me…” This is in some ways the most interesting part of the song. It echoes the beginning but also maintains the open-endedness of the end of the bridge. Every time it makes you what? And what is the thing you would change? These things aren’t made clear. Maybe this is what moves this song into particularity in the end, and gets it out of the rut of shared nostalgia with every single listener who has ever moved away from home and is feeling a little homesick for his family and his friends and his running buddies from back in the day. But I don’t know. The lyrics are bad. The music is even worse – it’s a frightening amalgam of power ballad/corporate-rock/mope rock/contemporary country that is as off-putting as can be. It denotes anything BUT authenticity, anything BUT sincerity, anything BUT the pain, the reality, of particular experience. This is why I called them “derivative” at the beginning of this post. Listening to it, I just have the terrible feeling that this song went in front of a focus group at some point before it was released and then tweaked to try to appeal to the widest possible market.
So that’s why this song feels like easy pickings for the ongoing series “Songs that are Horrible.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving member.
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