By January of 2004, Nickelback was already the biggest Canadian rock band in the world.
Vacillating between earnest chugs and emotive croons, the band’s 2001 breakthrough smash “How You Remind Me” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and made it OK, albeit briefly, to look like Kurt Cobain cloned from an unflattering mole. Demonstrably and performatively heavier than Silver Side Up, 2003’s The Long Road affirmed Nickelback’s in the millennial pantheon, or at least kept the momentum going. Aside from negative sentiment among the smelliest of headbangers—oddly embittered by the fact that Roadrunner Records’ Deicide reissues were essentially financed by a glorified grunge band’s commercial success—the hate machine hadn’t yet fully turned Chad Kroeger and his pals into heavy metal’s wealthiest joke since Kiss. (2005’s “Photograph” would take care of that.)
A less memorable, but no less meaningful, retread of the soft-loud power ballad dynamic found on “How You Remind Me,” The Long Road’s lead single “Someday” added a slight faux-country twang to the mix. Still, it perfectly matched the post-9/11 sonic tenor sweeping the flyover states, part of an essential CD-R between 3 Doors Down’s “Here Without You” and Staind’s “So Far Away.” Americana—not the country subgenre, but rather the manifestation of things undeniably American—was very much en vogue with modern rock listeners, and it was bringing out some of our worst tendencies both as citizens and as consumers.
With all its mopey geniuses and angsty relatability, the alternative movement of the 90s had inadvertently inured a generation of rock fans to heart-on-sleeve emotionality, seemingly repudiating decades of boneheaded lyrics and antics. Post grunge and its shoutier cousin nu metal reunified the two schools of rock, allowing an unholy civil union that ranged between sappy bro spluttering and cornball WWE exhibitionism. As such, Nickelback’s provenance as the pride of Hanna, Alberta didn’t matter so long as they sounded like us, or, in other words, like US.
Enter the 2004 motion picture Torque, released 15 years ago this week and a bluntly poetic example of the nativist pop cultural exceptionalism of the post-9/11 years, which had seeped out of the political punditry and into our popcorn buckets. The elevator pitch had to be something like, "2 Fast 2 Furious but motorcycles," and that’s pretty much what we ended up with. Astute cinephiles might draw parallels between the story of a drag racing biker bro falsely accused of murdering another drag racing biker bro, and the 1979 street gang classic The Warriors. The plot goes something like this: Ice Cube, who you may known from the rap group N.W.A. or John Carpenter’s 2001 space horror classic Ghosts Of Mars, plays a biker gang leader. Adam Scott, who you may know from binge-watching Parks And Recreation on Netflix, plays a cop. Both men are after the flawed yet marginally hunky protagonist played by Martin Henderson, who about a decade later ended up on Grey’s Anatomy. Dane Cook also appears.
Nowhere was America’s blindly patriotic state of affairs better exploited than at the cinema. Big dumb action flicks cropped up left and right, boasting soundtracks dependent, at least to some degree, on nu metal heavies and alt rock safeties. It was a golden age of blockbuster goonery on screen, with exemplars like the Matrix sequels tempered by outright flops like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider–The Cradle of Life. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became bigger than Jesus, studios foolishly made a daredevil of Ben Affleck and a punisher outta Thomas Jane. The corresponding films, 2003’s Daredevil and 2004’s The Punisher, both appended the exact same defining phrase—The Album—to their compact disc counterparts, not coincidentally featuring some of the same bands including, Chevelle, Drowning Pool, and, yes, Nickelback.
XXX, an absurd 2002 Vin Diesel vehicle about a sentient energy drink turned secret agent, front-loaded its soundtrack with tunes by the likes of Mushroomhead and Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, with the back half populated mostly by hip-hop acts. The film grossed over $140 million theatrically in the US, pushing the CD into the Billboard 200’s top ten and spawning two direct sequels. Above all, its success reinforced the idea in executives’ cocaine brains that what America desperately needed was even more movies that blatantly ripped off some combination of the vibe, the plot, and the sound of The Fast And The Furious.
Directed by Joseph Kahn, known primarily as music video director, Torque was not much of a movie. Sure, there’s some cool stunt work, a high-speed makeout sesh, a couple of murders involving bike chains, a bit of motorcycle racing, and pervasive Pepsi product placements. But the stilted dialogue and cringey one-liners courtesy of a screenplay by scribe Matt Johnson(also known for his 2005 Paul Walker / Jessica Alba deep diving thrill ride Into The Blue) doesn’t help matters. At one point, for example, Cube’s character yells “Fuck The Police” at Adam Scott’s character, breaking the fourth wall. I mean, hell, it wasn’t even the first film to try to transmute that Fast/Furious magic for motorcycle types. Almost a full year prior, Biker Boyz hit it first, with Laurence Fishburne cashing in on his Matrix cachet and Kid Rock doing something or other.
But you didn’t come here for film criticism; you came for Nickelback.
Carrying on in the proud tradition of More Fast and Furious: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture The Fast and the Furious, Torque’s soundtrack captures the essence of its era as much as anything that made it onto the screen. Uptempo cuts like Hoobastank’s “Out Of Control” and MXPX’s “Play It Loud” find a semblance of balance in N.E.R.D.’s “Lapdance” and the rap metal of “Forever” by Kid Rock, who must be one hell of a motorcycle devotee to be part of both this and Biker Boyz. This is a world where Pennywise and Monster Magnet can reside peacefully in the same record collection without simultaneously combusting, the American shopping mall Sam Goody location dream.
If anything, it’s the way in which Torque utilizes music that heightens the absurdity and implausibility of this compulsory marriage of overproduced B-movies with galumphing hard rock. In one captivating scene, Monet Mazur engages in a head-to-head motorcycle battle with her apparent rival, their very normal bike fight occurring conspicuously close to an oversized Mountain Dew logo and set to the overdriven industrial metal grind of Static-X’s “Push It.” Later, as the movie mercifully wraps, marginal good having triumphed over outright bad, the familiar strums and drums of Nickelback’s “Someday” fade in on a celebratory smooch between Henderson and Mazur, cutting ahead to the totally epic chorus in time for a good old fashioned group bike ride off into the desert or heartland or whatever. It’s utterly insincere, like pretty much everything else about Torque, and inadvertently that’s what makes it work.
Hollywood never quite gave up on the cynical hard rock- and heavy metal-laden soundtracks of the 2000s, as indicated by more recent entries like 2012’s Avengers Assemble with appearances by Papa Roach and Shinedown. Still, the trope reached its logical end at the dusk of the George W. Bush presidency in 2008. Neoconservative boondoggles had fallen out of favor, and Barack Obama’s historic win signaled a new direction for a country that had grown increasingly resistant to politicians and policymakers fear-mongering for their dubious aims.
Barely a month after the election, in the first week of December 2008, Punisher: War Zone hit theaters. An ultraviolent and gritty cinematic reboot that eschewed exposition and increased the firepower, the movie featured songs by Rob Zombie and Ramallah, among others, all part of a nihilistically heavy mix. Gone were the alt rock slow jams with heart-on-sleeve sentiments; in its place, Slipknot’s maggot metal and Senses Fail’s emotive noise. While metallic hardcore band Hatebreed made it onto both the 2004 and 2008 soundtracks, Nickelback notably did not.
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