There comes a turning point in every adolescent’s life — or, shall we say, every 21-year-old’s life — when he or she must make the conscious decision to start liking beer.
By college, beer is nearly unavoidable — far more commonplace than the occasional sip from dad when mom wasn’t looking. Those fleeting childhood moments of disgust and scrunched-up faces were usually followed by assurances that “You’ll probably grow to like it one day, but it would be just fine if you didn’t.”
We’re told that beer is an acquired taste, much like coffee, jazz and Cormac McCarthy novels. As a kid, it seemed ridiculous to think that college students and adults routinely drank this bitter beverage, and the idea of trading in my Hi-C Fruit Punch for a Bud Light seemed even more unbelievable.
Every acquired taste has its entry point, and mine just happened to be the beer world’s punching bag — essentially the Nickelback of beer.
My first full beer was the much-maligned, watery college staple, Natural Light — “Natty,” for short.
At first sip, we weren’t quite on a first-name basis, but it didn’t seem intolerable. In a packed, sweaty basement with 200-decibel Lil’ Jon playing in the background, stomaching some bland, tasteless beer was the least of my concerns. In fact, a drink lacking in identity was probably what I needed most to combat the overstimulation. It wasn’t good, but this Natty sure didn’t taste like the cold urine to which many have compared it — at least I would assume.
Although invectives suggest otherwise, Natural Light is a gentle gateway beer. If first-timers downed a double stout or IPA, they could be far less likely to come back for round two. Natty lacks the abrasion of stronger beers, making it a vital transition for newcomers — whether or not they ever return to it.
Nickelback, the Canadian post-grunge band that many have also likened to bodily waste, has served a similarly vital role for most college music fans.
Few Pitchfork-reading, Kendrick-obsessed 20-somethings would admit to it now, but they had “Photograph” on their iPods in 2005 and sang along to “How You Remind Me” in the car during the 2000s. After all, it was the most-played song on the radio throughout the decade.
Although Chad Kroeger and his cohorts might be far from the new millennium’s Beatles (but closer, perhaps, to its AC/DC), they could have been a bland, necessary stepping stone before young ears could work their way into Arcade Fire, Kanye West or Swans.
Both Nickelback and Natty are easy punchlines — making fun of either one is as safe a conversation as discussing the weather.
Just think of how boring it would be for someone to declare, “‘The Dark Knight’ was a good movie” at a party, and you will have a general idea of how bland these barbs can be. Nickel and Natty detractors likely overlook whatever positive impact the lambasted band or drink might have had on their lives.
Much like how any college student has a fond memory or two attached to “How You Remind Me” (aside from between quarters at Heinz Field), Natty serves a necessary supporting role in college merrymaking.
It’s a cheap, inoffensive and predictable option that no one admits to enjoying, but that everyone has consumed at one time or another. Natural Light doesn’t necessarily improve the college experience, but it has most likely rested in the background of formative moments.
Maybe the Nickel-Natty defectors should take a nod from LeBron James’ relationship to his pre-stardom life: “I promise to never forget where I came from.”