You Can See America: System of a Down’s Toxicity, 15 years on

How much can music influence someone’s political beliefs? Whenever entertainers speak out for a cause or explore it in their work, there’s often something ham-fisted in how they express their view or understand the topic. But aside from speaking out for a worthy cause, how often do entertainers transform a listener’s entire understanding of politics? A valuable shift in perspective can come from unusual places. In marking the 15th anniversary of System of a Down’s second album Toxicity, let us look at its impact musically and socially.

System of a Down differentiated themselves from the pack with their 1998 self-titled debut album. Of all metal from the turn of the century, their work seems to have held up the best. ‘Nu metal’ was the fashionable movement of the era and it only seems to be remembered favourably through appeals to nostalgia. Conversely, System of a Down are still popular today despite only sporadically touring with no new albums for the last 10 years. This could be largely attributable to the distinctive style and enduring quality of their first three albums. Toxicity was their 2001 follow-up, with 2002’s Steal This Album! comprising material left over from the making of Toxicity. These recording sessions featured contributions from the Armenian multi-instrumentalist Arto Tunçboyaciyan, who also collaborated with lead singer Serj Tankian on an intriguing 2003 experimental album SerArt (worth checking out).

All members of System of a Down grew up in Los Angeles’ Armenian-American community and each had family who survived the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). The ongoing denial of the genocide by the Turkish government highlighted to them how injustice can persist without the political will to stop it. They have used their platform to inform young international audiences about the Armenian Genocide and their most recent Wake Up The Souls tour was conceived as an awareness-raising centenary run, ending with their first concert in Armenia. While System of a Down have contributed positively on this issue alone, they continually speak out against varied injustices as individuals and through their music. They have even done this when the political climate was hostile.

An important reason to reflect on Toxicity’s legacy is that it shot to #1 in the American charts upon its release on September 4 2001. That means it was the #1 album in American charts before and during the September 11 attacks, which did more than any other single event to impact modern politics. The climate of fear was so intense in the immediate aftermath of these attacks that radio stations had temporarily outlawed songs for even mentioning words like “sky” or “plane” or “tower”. On September 13, System of a Down’s website published an essay written by Serj called Understanding Oil which sought to place the attacks in a broader historical and political context of US military intervention in the Middle East.


Serj wrote that, “What scares me more than what has occurred is what our reactions to the occurrences may cause. President Bush belongs to a long generation of Republican Presidents who love war economies.” He offered proposals (if light on detail) for an alternative response to the attacks which included an end to bombing, a UN peacekeeping presence in the Middle East and the pursuit of alternative fuels to reduce oil dependence. Looking back with 15 years hindsight, it is well worth reflecting on this prediction Serj made:

“To react to a reaction would be to further sponsor the reaction. In other words, my belief is that the terror will multiply if concrete steps are not taken to sponsor peace in the middle east, NOW. This does not mean that we should not find the guilty party(s), Bin Laden, or whoever they may be, and not try them. Put simply, as long as a major injustice remains, violence precipitates to the surface of life.”

In proposing that US foreign policy had an impact on the context in which 9/11 happened, Serj was immediately accused of anti-Americanism and the band was subjected to a vicious backlash. Yet this did not stop Toxicity from going multi-platinum nor deter SOAD from continuing to make anti-war statements, notably through several songs on 2005’s double album Mesmerize and Hypnotize. Their core message is to know injustice and resist it. This has resonated with an international audience and even though not all their songs are overtly political, it is worth considering when revisiting Toxicity.

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The album’s cover appropriates the iconic lettering of the Hollywood sign, targeting the city the band grew up in as exemplary of the injustice, inequality and deceit of life in a modern American city. The toxicity of the system they’re living in, if you will.

‘Prison Song’ starts with quick bursts of music and whispers punctuating a silence soon pummelled away by a pounding rhythm and deep throaty screams. It immediately establishes the bass of Shavo Odadjian and the drumming of John Dolmayan as crucial components of System’s sound. Often the critical tendency to analyse a binary in the band’s sensibilities make Serj Tankian and guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian out to be a modern Lennon and McCartney. This neglects full appreciation for the creative input of Shavo and John.

Serj’s verbose flourishes about American prison system statistics and the funding of dictatorships is not what one expects to hear from such a heavy song. You know you’re listening to something special when a metal song wails about how “research and successful drug policy SHOWS that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences”. The War on Drugs is just one aspect of fallacious US foreign policy the band attacks.

‘Prison Song’ fades into the frenetic ‘Needles’, whose pulsating fury peaks with the raucous refrain “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass!” ‘Deer Dance’ comes straight after with an impassioned indictment of police brutality, combining ‘Needles’ structure of heavy energy around a quiet interlude with the lyrical incisiveness of ‘Prison Song’. It makes for an impressive triple-whammy that gives Toxicity its momentum, carried on by a duo of shorter thrash tracks ‘Jet Pilot’ and ‘X’.

Then comes the first moment in the album where soft music builds gradually, the strumming of an acoustic guitar being joined by other instruments. The pounding music bursts in and out of silence. The lyrics become so fast as to be unintelligible. A soft chorus gives way to mosh-pit madness. ‘Chop Suey!’ is the System of a Down hit song that most typifies their style as an aural rollercoaster carrying you on without any indication of what could happen next.

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The passion in the vocals matches the desperation felt in lyrics that allude to Jesus on the cross like, “Father into your hands, I commend my spirit // Why have you forsaken me?” Serj’s piano melody and brooding synth underscore the song’s mournful ending, a winding journey away from the punk influences peppered elsewhere. Having provided a thrillingly disorienting mish-mash of their musical sensibilities in one song, ‘Chop Suey!’ became one they were better known for. The committed vocal performance drew listeners in to the portentous lyrics. Tenacious D’s Jack Black noted during his live cover, “It sounds so fucking important! When fucking angels deserve to die!

Yet System of a Down is not a band that takes themselves seriously. ‘Bounce’ immediately changes tone, thematically addressing an orgy on pogo-sticks. It is Toxicity‘s flourish of playful eccentricity before the dark fairytale lyrics of ‘Forest’ hint at anxieties around parenting, existential angst and the historical legacies of nationalism.

‘ATWA’ is a standout track for its blistering expression of isolation in a collapsing world, alternating between the band’s quiet elegance and pained anger. Daron has said this song was inspired by his interest in Charles Manson, the murderous cult leader who also promotes environmental protection of air, trees, water and animals. The song feels like the thoughts of someone ostracised but keeping their mind on a broader context of ecological decline that has “all the world I’ve seen before me passing by”. The moral greyness of considering values of merit from a hate figure is precisely the sort of commentary on American culture this band would make. This song is also an indication of what happens in the band members’ respective solo careers; Serj has dealt with ecological themes more and more in his solo work while Daron’s band Scars on Broadway veers towards the prog-rock sensibilities explored here.

‘Science’ is another philosophical exploration. Vivacious guitar riffs carry the song to a psychedelic interlude that features Armenian vocals from Arto Tunçboyaciyan. In exploring the conflict between science and religion, the lyrics declare that “science fails to recognise the single most potent element of human existence”, which is “faith”. System of a Down have been publicly critical of organised religion so this seems to be more of a warning that too much zeal for scientific progress can neglect the psychological circumstances in which people live. Once again, they don’t so much present answers as point to difficult questions that deserve engagement.

‘Shimmy’ is rowdy, rousing and concerned with the American policy of mandatory school attendance. Like a ‘Prison Song’ directed at the US education system, it brings analysis of social policy into a head-banging anthem. ‘Toxicity’, meanwhile, is the titular track with good reason. Mellow, psychedelic riffs accompany chilling descriptions of a world that could either be tribal or the modern homelessness crisis with “more wood for their fires, loud neighbours”. The music gets heavy when Serj challenges those claiming authority over the world whilst also claiming it’s chaotic, asking, “How do you own the world? How do you own disorder?” The precision of performance on this album cannot be overstated as the passion in this song builds towards a final jig section, another swerve in this band’s rollercoaster journey through different musical vibes.

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‘Psycho’ approaches the well-trod topic of groupies in rock music from a fresh, feminist perspective. Bassist Shavo has spoken of the band’s experience with female admirers offering them sex after shows. He claims the band would typically talk them out of it and warn them about having such emotional investment in touring entertainers. The lyrics plead for a healthier lifestyle where you don’t uncritically trust those you admire because “You really don’t have to be a ho”. This choice of words could be seen as a less-than-feminist slut-shaming but the song is intended as a reminder to never feel obligated to do anything sexual. It is a refreshingly nuanced take for a genre replete with hollow boasts about the conquest of groupies.

‘Aerials’ closes the album – if one excludes the instrumental hidden track ‘Arto’ where Arto Tunçboyaciyan and the band adapt an Armenian funereal hymn. Another one of SOAD’s prog-rock influenced philosophical ballads ‘Aerials’ encapsulates much of their message, even offering its core takeaway with the line “When you lose small mind, you free your life”. Lamenting strings and psychedelic sitars form the texture of this meditation on greed. The nature of life itself is explored unflinchingly. The harmonies that close the song resonate with a fear of the world’s chaos.

Toxicity is not only a classic interweaving of different musical textures into an outstanding aural experience. It is arguably the last major cultural statement on the malaise of American culture before 9/11 changed everything. Not just for the timing of its release in the last week before 9/11, but for its impassioned warnings about the United States’ darker tendencies, even if things had continued to go on as they had before. Rampant militarism, government surveillance, corporate privilege, thought-policing and all sorts of evils highlighted by System of a Down have only worsened in the years since the September 11 attacks, leaving their reflections more prescient than they could have realised at the time.

When music serves as an important cultural artefact, it deserves to be revisited, especially when it is as impeccably-produced as this. You will feel the raw pure energy of Toxicity and maybe, as it has with many others, it will stir something deeper in your mind and your heart.