“That’s the worst band/song/record I have ever heard.” We’ve all said it, maybe so often that the words have lost meaning. We music enthusiasts are particular about our favorites, organizing them into lists and laboring over their rankings. Naturally, we’re more scattered about our dislikes; when we say something is the worst, we rarely consult our previously accused worst just to be sure. Only the most masochistic or snarky among us intentionally listen to terrible music just to confirm its badness or analyze its exact shittiness. I consider myself neither a dismissive or a self-hater, but I was curious about applying the care reserved to the “best” music towards the “worst.”
A few years back, I set out to pinpoint the worst band in the world. There must be ground rules. Most importantly, a band has to be somewhat established to contend as the world’s worst. No “my nephew and his friends got instruments for Christmas and they jam in the garage and it’s awful.” No “my co-worker’s band totally bombed that open mic night.” No “there’s a baby playing harmonica with a raccoon on drums and they suck.” Musicianship may contribute, but it’s not the sole factor. Only drummers and nerds listen to music for technicality alone. Reputable artists who are conventionally bad at their instruments, like The Shaggs or Jandek, generally possess an attractive otherness to compensate; the fact that they are relevant enough to be candidates for the worst band automatically makes them good enough to disqualify.
I first hypothesized Red Hot Chili Peppers as the world’s worst band. The evidence: slap bass, white funk, deflated guitar tones, Anthony Kiedis. These are a few of my least favorite things, and I’ve always been irked when they coalesce into songs like “Give It Away.” Obviously, the accusation is inaccurate. Even those like me, for whom “Under The Bridge” is as fun to listen to as a dog whistle is to a basset hound, know that there are countless bands who are inferior. I leaned too heavily on my personal peeves and disregarded the band’s appeal. Three of those four pieces of evidence used to downgrade RHCP could also describe Talking Heads. Plus, the song “Soul To Squeeze” from the Coneheads movie soundtrack kind of rules.
The world’s worst band had to be more universal, not just my least favorite. Moving on, I picked Metallica as a contender. Admittedly, this was a button-pusher, but the disdain was genuine. I had just seen the documentary Some Kind Of Monster, which portrayed the band as fumbling buffoons. Metallica’s glory days had passed before I turned ten, and I discovered the band around the time they released the career-killing Load. I only began to appreciate the band after teaching their songs in guitar lessons, after seeing kids light up with pride while playing “Enter Sandman” and “One.” This phenomenon also keeps me from nominating AC/DC or Lynyrd Skynyrd or, hell, Smash Mouth.
It was unfair to consider Metallica even among the worst. Really, I did not understand metal and I projected this ignorance on the band. In the broader scheme, any band who aligns themselves with a specific genre or subculture cannot be the world’s worst. Why would Metallica be the worst, but Megadeth or Anthrax would not? What makes a punk band like NOFX any worse than Lagwagon? How could Less Than Jake be the worst band in the world if their potentially unappealing traits are the same as Big D and The Kids Table? Jars Of Clay vs. Audio Adrenaline? Warped Tour Band X vs. Warped Tour Band Y?
By the same logic, bands who belonged to a dated movement in popular culture cannot be singled out. Hair metal, New Wave, disco, nü-metal, etc. Trying to accuse Limp Bizkit of inferiority at the hands of Korn and Staind is an exercise in nitpicking. (It’s worth noting that my spell checker hated the previous sentence).
Similarly, it would be shallow to dismiss a pop superstar like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, who encapsulate mainstream society as a whole. Successfully crafting music with the priority of commercial accessibility is an impressive accomplishment, even if the deeper intention is to sell screen-printed bed sheets. Even DIY overlord Ian MacKaye has expressed respect for this brand of hit maker. I won’t even scratch mainstream country’s glossy surface.
As I analyzed bands, it became nearly impossible to disregard any of them. Every unilaterally awful band lives in the company of like-minded enablers whose similarity makes them less offensive. Coldplay, Kings Of Leon and The Killers fall into the same “not bad, just annoying” category.
I tried to divorce taste from the proceedings and failed. Kid Rock is terrible, but I have a friend who genuinely likes him and it’s hard to tell your friend he likes the worst artist alive. This would imply that my taste in music is superior, which is not true—nor is “truth” even possible in an issue so subjective.
Eventually, all roads lead to Nickelback. Whether the band is actually any worse than Creed or Hinder or another band who I assume I’ve heard but probably haven’t is debatable. That hardly matters. Nickelback represents bad, and seems to function in our society as a litmus test for taste. Generally speaking, the percentage of our population who consider music a form of art, who obsess and over-analyze and have an insatiable hunger for the new, hate Nickelback. Generally speaking, those who love Nickelback are likely to duck out of a Kid A vs. OK Computer conversation.
But does this make Nickelback the worst band in the world? Does this even make them bad? I can’t tell anymore. I do find myself disappointed, as if Nickelback was too easy of a target. I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for. Maybe I hoped my analysis would find some shocking discovery that The Rolling Stones are actually atrocious and nobody ever noticed. The only conclusion is that every band is somehow good, or somehow terrible, or that good and terrible are too abstract for a universal consensus. There’s no accounting for taste, because taste is all we have. I don’t know who is the worst band in the world. All I know is that I’m not the one to decide.