I Can't Believe It's Not Better #One: System of a Down's Toxicity


Since last week’s preamble to this series has set me adrift in the turbulent headwaters of amatuer philosophy, I see no reason not to set sail for bad psychology. A brief case study and examination. While it’s unthinkable that a single like System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” would climb as high as 76 on the Billboard charts in wub wub 2014, it’s real historical success is probably even weirder. It debuted in September 2001 - and for the next five months captured regular play on both pop radio and MTV’s nighttime video lineup. Again: September 2001. It strikes me as incoherent that a nation of listeners led by a psychotic xenophobe armed with a scud missile mandate and 90% approval rating would tolerate a squad of vaguely exotic Armenians (them’s Middle Eastern, ain’tem?) profaning the book of Matthew in a nü metal sendoff to teenage angst originally titled “Suicide.” Have the seen the video?

Call it a flare up of an encompassing national death drive, or call it a crock of shit. Either way, the song’s a jackhammer in G-minor, and it smashed open the cracked psyche of this former 12 year old. You have to understand my own pathology at the time: I was just about the lone Democrat in Western Pennsylvania (certainly the only one in West Hempfield Middle School) so of course I was a terrorist. And at 200 pounds, I was also a fat terrorist.

So, whatever the hell Serj Tankian was shouting at 300 wpm between the choruses was angry enough to sound well-reasoned to me. I mowed the lawn for my folks a few times, and exchanged a meager restitution for one of my first ever CDs. Mom drove me to Sam Goody to get it.

I still love most of Toxicity, thirteen years after its release and nine since I granted it any attention. But in the spirit of this series, I won’t commit to loving it because it’s great or because, after more than two-hundred listens, every overwrought art rock second acclimatized to the deeper recesses of a formative unconscious.

System of a Down - unsurprisingly alike other obsessions Thomas Pynchon, professional hockey, and Chipotle - pulls weirdos from the margins to amass shrieking cultures of fandom not strictly homogenous in any way save for frequent bouts of high blood pressure. I got as involved in their community as any sweaty preteen could’ve: I joined American Recordings’ official SOAD message board, where I conjoined the names of the frontman and the bassist to craft the handle SerjicalShavoingkit, and honed my now roundly appreciated skills as a friendly troll. There I interacted with dozens of post-grunge wastoids, some of whom gathered at meet’n’greets to fuck, shoot smack, and (guessing here) eat lice from each others’ hair.

Yet, to paraphrase Cam Bell: sure, they were orgy dope fiends, but they were my orgy dope fiends - and probably the only real friends I had for a three month stretch when a series of ankle operations kept me disabled, out of school, and drooling on Percocets. All the way, of course, I listened to this one album - and later its three followups and the preceding debut with considerably less zeal.

I’m on record stating Super Taranta! is my favorite rock album, and, yes, that’s true by a gypsy mile. But this nü metal contraption means far more to me. And I expect matters to remain that way unless I come up with the cash to hire Gogol Bordello for my wedding (a move not outright rejected by the would-be bride, who loved them live last summer).

At whatever objective distance I can maintain here, I sense Tankian’s, er, dire verse on the impending pomo dystopic technocracy could… grate on the uninitiated sheeple in my audience. So if you’re going to listen, listen to the Toxicity Now! playlist I’ve assembled for you - a fake little EP I do, contrary to last week’s mission statement, recommend as a critic.

Nicky Heisenberg's Toxicity Now! EP

Prison Song

What titillated a stupid 12 year old as spoken word novelty is to this man now twice his age a great protest song, which interjects an otherwise informed monologue on American for-profit prisons with a bizarre parody of celebrity culture no doubt deemed complicit for its indifference. Take a look at these lyrics!

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons

you don't even flinch

all our taxes paying for your wars

against the new non-rich

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons

you don't even flinch

all our taxes paying for your wars

against the new non-rich

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch

right here in Hollywood

The percentage of Americans in the prison system

prison system, has doubled since 1985

They're trying to build a prison

They're trying to build a prison

They're trying to build a prison

(for you and me to live in)

Another prison system

Another prison system

Another prison system

For you and I, For you and I, For you and I.

Shavo Odadjian’s dead drone low end can overwhelm your sense of space in the song, an effect appropriately suffocating and unnerving - while Darron Malakian’s tweaked out riffage between choruses operates like an electric palpitation. Then the chorus, which was ripped from the Cobain songbook of whisper-scream-whisper-scream, hits like, well, a prison riot. The song kinda creeps me out, as it should.

Needles

This is foolishly titled. The whole 'heroin as a parasite' metaphor, which could've been subtle, slips the vein before you ever hear Serj say 'tapeworm.' But try to ignore that. For the seriousness of the subject, there's fun to be had all over this thing. Just why isn't at all clear. It either takes itself far too seriously in its gargantuan C-minor, or it's meant to be absurd. I'm hoping for the latter. With a chorus consisting of "Pull the tapeworm out of your ass, hey!" it better be. 

Chop Suey!

I’m not sure what to say about this. I know you’ve heard it before. 200 million views on YouTube. It’s one of the best metal songs ever. Add it to the list.

Bounce

Okay, this song is arty as fuck, but it’s also art about fucking - so maybe it slides by on tautology. It’s also pretty fun. In it Serj lassos one of those orgies I was telling you about (here one guy and ‘so many’ gals) and, uh, pogo sticks his way on and between each of them. Of course, I once believed he brought an actual pogo stick to a restaurant where he palled around hilariously with a gaggle of rule-breaking women. I know now better, and the song’s better for it. On a last note, more incredibly unsettling Darron weirdness: he leads a quivering chant that’s… not playfully sexual so much as, uh, grossly reverent? These guys were already vaguely famous at this point, so the women could be fawning through the back vocals. Some skitzo misogyny for your ass. Why not?

Toxicity

A previously unmined critical faculty of mine - kept secret out of both embarrassment and general inapplicability - is synesthesia. Yeah, I’m one of those people who involuntarily grants associations between senses. Each letter and number has a distinct and (relatively) immutable color, and names often claim whole pictures. So it’s out of desperation that I describe this song’s melody in the only way I feel I can: kind of blue. It’s not jazzy, of course - but… blue. Haunting, otherworldly, sad. Area 51 comes to mind until it’s beat out of me by John Dolmayan - always and forever my favorite drummer, and this, his best work. Sure most of the lyrics are stupid, and're rendered period pieces of a former tech era by the rise of the iPhone and, idk, Obama - but this is musically the finest thing on the album.

Aerials

Another song impossible without Cobain, who taught the world how alt rock could use strings - a feat no doubt unlikely alongside arrangements other than whisper-scream-whisper-scream. The lyrics are again a mess: strands of abduction, natal mysticism, environmentalism, socialism. Whatever. He sounds great sounding like an idiot.

Actually, that last bit’s true of the whole album. But don’t take my word for it.