Serj Tankian System of a Down Ozzfest 1999
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Music

How System of a Down Radicalised a Generation of Metal Fans

It seems not all members are as politically literate as once assumed, but for many who grew up in the 2000s, the band offered accessible primers on mass incarceration, police brutality and the war on drugs.
15 June 2020, 7:39am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

System of a Down's career-defining album, Toxicity, opens with an unflinching criticism of America's prison-industrial complex and the war on drugs. Written by vocalist Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian, "Prison Song" is partly inspired by Malakian's own experience and more broadly outlines the cycle of petty drug crimes leading to the mass incarceration of black and hispanic people in for-profit facilities.

At one point, Tankian simply quotes expert analysis – "All research and successful drug policies show that treatment should be increased / And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences – punctuated by his rarely deployed but extremely effective "death growl". The same facts would be thoroughly unpacked in Ava DuVernay's powerful 2016 documentary 13th, which reframes the prison industrial complex as a perpetuation of slavery enabled by a loophole written into the Thirteenth Amendment.

Education around the prison system in America – as with colonialism in Britain – is, famously, shit. So for many young people growing up in the 2000s, especially white teens with less direct experience of it, "Prison Song" was an eye-opener. It’s hardly the first song to grapple with the issue. Public Enemy, NWA, Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley and literally hundreds of Black artists had been writing about this across all genres for decades. Ice-T's band Body Count even ended up removing "Cop Killer" from their self-titled debut album in 1992 after it caught so much heat (from George W. Bush himself, no less) that police organisations across the US called for a boycott of the band's label and the removal of the album from shops.

Clearly, "Prison Song" isn't the first song from a big metal band to call it like it is, but the unique conditions of its release catapulted it straight to the forefront of popular consciousness at a time when the charts skewed apolitical. As well as laying bare truths in some of the most vivid and accessible terms ever committed to metal, "Prison Song" also opened an album that came out exactly one week before 9/11.

With a punishing sound and breathless commentary on mass incarceration, police brutality, drug addiction and (regrettably) group sex, Toxicity is 44 minutes of shapeshifting thrash and anti-fascist politics, delivered in a tone that pendulates between raw anger and the absurd. Meaty Rick Rubin production, needling guitar riffs, Middle Eastern melodies and time signature fuckery abound. System of a Down harnessed the attention of a massive global audience by being as pissed off and entertaining as possible at a time when everyone was pissed off and desperate for escapism, relief or both. Several sources – including Andy Greenwald’s 2003 book Nothing Feels Good – have also attributed the commercial viability of emo to 9/11, given its noted impact on the formation of My Chemical Romance. Point being: the political climate of the early 2000s gave rise to a lot of intense music that may not have otherwise entered the mainstream.

Toxicity shot to number one on the Billboard 200 in the days following 9/11, despite the fact its comparatively abstract lead single, "Chop Suey!", was one of 165 songs temporarily blackballed from US radio stations after the attack for being "lyrically questionable" (others include "Learn To Fly" by Foo Fighters, "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins and "Bodies" by Drowning Pool).

In fairness, it's not hard to see why there was hesitation in broadcasting a song that liberally uses the phrase "self-righteous suicide" in the wake of the deadliest suicide terrorist attack in American history. Still, "Chop Suey!" had already been out for a month. It was the only single to be released ahead of the album's release (remember that model?) and led to unprecedented first week sales. Though it was rarely played on radio, the video remained on constant rotation on music TV channels like MTV2 and Kerrang! alongside singles from other overtly political metal bands like Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein. In November of 2002, Toxicity was certified triple-platinum.

Combining avant-garde theatrics with the kind of on-the-nose statements typical to post-soviet protest (all members of the band are of Armenian heritage), System of a Down's music is over the top, all over the place and about as fun as you can get while singing about suicide. If you’re going to reel off statistics, you might as well roll your Rs. Later releases – Steal This Album!, Mezmerize and Hypnotize, all knocked out in the space of 2002 to 2005 – would go on to address the Iraq War directly, through songs like "Boom!" and "B.Y.O.B". But Toxicity’s broader meditations on structural inequality and western violence made it a timely listen. In the context of current events, it became, in the hands of the willing, a manifesto; a framework for young people in particular to comprehend the so-called war on terror as it unfolded brutally – and illegally – over the years to follow.

"It might be a symptom of growing up in such a time, but System of a Down made me think of war in very serious terms," says Alex, 26, who was introduced to the band around the age of six by his two older brothers. "I was really young, so the politics of the first album weren’t particularly obvious to me – I just thought it was cool because my older brothers thought it was cool. But Toxicity and Steal This Album! are so clear cut. They’re very simply saying: these wars are bad, people are dying, and that's bad. This wasn’t long after 9/11, so I could definitely connect it to current events."

Six might seem young to vibe with songs about the Armenian genocide ("P.L.U.C.K", "Holy Mountains") and Charles Manson ("ATWA"), but pretty much everyone I interviewed connected to System of a Down, on some level, in their single digits. At age seven, Ryan's uncle gifted him burned copies of Toxicity and Sum-41’s "Fat Lip". Now 27, he vividly remembers "blasting 'Jet Pilot' on a Discman in the back of the car on a trip to Tenby", which is one of the most 2000s sentences I have ever heard.

"I only started cottoning onto the lyrical content properly when I was in my early teens," Ryan explains. "System of a Down and Toxicity subliminally taught me about a whole raft of shit that I then went on to look up, like mandatory minimum sentences, Iran-Contra, the prison industrial complex and of course the Armenian genocide. They were one of the first bands I delved into EVERYTHING on forums and Wikipedia, trying to learn what it was all about."

Likewise, Freddy, 26, first saw the video for "Chop Suey!" aged eight. "The initial appeal was that it seemed so much wackier than the other music I was getting into at the time, and I was definitely a child who valued wackiness,” he tells me. “I actually bought a Disturbed CD first, but my dad confiscated it because of the swearing. Thankfully, he immediately felt bad and got one of his work mates to burn me a CD-R of Toxicity – unbelievable that my dad’s inconsistent parenting led me to become a communist."

For school teacher John*, the introduction came a little later, but no less impactfully. “I distinctly remember downloading ‘B.Y.O.B’ off LimeWire when I was 11,” he says. “Having to wait overnight for it to download, playing it the next day, then hearing the line 'WHY DON’T PRESIDENTS FIGHT THE WAR, WHY DO THEY ALWAYS SEND THE POOR?' and just thinking, like, 'Oh shit, why do they do that?'"

Alongside other influences, John became properly interested in radical politics in his teens, playing in DIY bands and becoming more active in politics generally. “However, that moment of hearing ‘B.Y.O.B’ for the first time is so sharp in my memory that I do kind of wonder how much it did influence my beliefs today,” he reflects. “Probably a lot.”

It’s said that children are flawless bullshit detectors, which might explain why System of a Down – a group of four Armenian-American men with unvarnished songs about corruption at a pivotal time in political history, surrounded by a sea of 30-something men in board shorts trying to break the record for amount of times "fuck" sung in a song – resonated. Equally, this is also a generation of kids who were sent home early from school while the twin towers collapsed on the news, who perhaps didn’t even have a TV screen separating them from the attack – so maybe that has something to do with it.

“Even their more broadly anti-authority stuff seemed more serious and genuine than other bands,” says Freddy. “When I heard Fred Durst yelling about hating authority in Limp Bizkit, my reaction was something like ‘Blimey, this guy is crazy!’ and it kind of stopped there. But with Serj Tankian it felt like he had all the facts, it wasn’t just blind aggression – he literally quotes statistics at several points! It seemed clear to me as a kid that there was more of a guiding ideology behind System of a Down’s lyrics than other bands.”

There’s been something of a System of a Down revival on Twitter over the last few years, with people in their twenties and thirties half-jokingly posting en masse about how bands like System and Rage Against The Machine "radicalised" them at school (search "system of a down radicalised" on Twitter and behold the wave of nostalgia and current events-related commentary). It perhaps says more about the innocence of the time than anything else, when one band or artist – political or not – could make a more unifying impact because there were less directions for our attention to be pulled in. But people tend to recall their first encounters with the band in vivid and lucid terms, which does suggest a link between the way the band articulated politics and fans' individual politics now.

“There was a moment in the early 2010s when my friends and I rediscovered Toxicity and wouldn't stop playing it,” says VICE astrologer Randon Rosenbohm, who has also loved System of a Down since she was a child, and carried that love into adulthood. “It was all we sang at karaoke, too. My best friend was a historian (RIP) and kept the CD in her car. We would drive around town, playing that album as loud as possible, in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has the highest incarcerated person-to-civilian ratio in the United States. Not coincidentally, the port of New Orleans is originally where all enslaved people had to pass through. The lyrics of 'Prison Song' aways pries open my third eye, every time I listen to it, without fail."

System of a Down haven’t released new music since 2005, splintering instead into various ideologically inconsistent solo endeavours. The band no longer occupies a mainstream space, and it’s amazing they’re still able to be in the same room as each other long enough to perform live. Last week, drummer John Dolomayan joined Nirvana's Krist Novoselic in an unwanted chorus of praise for the United States' response to the Black Lives Matter protests, calling Donald Trump the "greatest friend to minorities". Meanwhile, Serj Tankian was busy calling for the President to resign. “Run Donny run into your bunker,” he wrote on Instagram.

Screenshot Serj Tankian Facebook

Screenshot via Serj Tankian's Facebook page

This was met with mixed reception. Over the last week or so, Tankian’s social media pages have been flooded with comments from fans asking him to collect John, but they’ve been equally full of fans asking him to shut up and play the hits. The same happened this week with Rage Against the Machine, when right-wing fans "realised" the band’s political stance after they began posting in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. "The last thing I want to hear is political b******t when I’m listening to music," said one person, in a now-deleted tweet.

You’d think bands with "system" and "machine" in their names would attract fans on vaguely the same end of the political spectrum. As Alex points out, "Serj is not a man of subtlety. The video for 'Empty Walls' is children playing, but they’re doing, like, a re-enactment of 9/11."

In retrospect, though, political cohesion didn’t even exist within the band itself. As music critic Sasha Geffen writes in their 2018 revisitation of Toxicity on Pitchfork: “[System of a Down] accumulated fans who could either tap into the radical messages of their music or easily ignore them. Come to it with political anguish and you’ll find an outlet for that pain. Come to it with more specific personal angst and you’ll leave just as satisfied.”

Alex describes System of a Down as “lightning in a bottle” – unable to work together, nowhere near as good apart. Still, huge numbers of listeners came to the band at a unique time of upheaval and violence. A lot happened in that window between 2000 and 20005. "In year 4 or 5 I wrote a poem for school that was essentially just a rip off of 'Boom!', about how it’s wrong that we spend loads of money on bombs and loads of children are starving," says Alex. “I remember their music making me feel like pacifism was important.”

“When Mezmerize and Hypnotize came out I bought every album and got obsessed with reading the lyrics, but it’s kind of all over the place in retrospect,” says Freddy. “I think Daron’s recent output and John’s Trump support is proof that not all four members were politically literate – but the main thing I gleaned was anti-war sentiment, which seemed more genuine than when bands like Green Day did it. Perhaps the context of the Armenian genocide made it seem like System of a Down had more of a stake, but [their music] was the first thing to make me consider whether there was more to these conflicts than simply 'good vs bad'."

"System of a Down definitely shaped my politics and exposed me to a great deal of stuff that I’d not have otherwise learned about at a very impressionable time," Ryan agrees. "Fuck John, though."

@emmaggarland

*__Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.