Joined: 25 Oct 2003
| Posted: Fri Aug 05, 2005 9:05 am Post subject: System of a Down's music reflects the times we live in
|System of a Down's music reflects the times we live in ... and if that includes politics, so be it
By George Varga
UNION-TRIBUNE POP MUSIC CRITIC
August 4, 2005
When is a politically and socially charged rock band not a politically and socially charged rock band?
The members of System of a Down create hard-hitting music that inspires thought as well as moshing. "When you want your music to be timeless, you have to make your topics more broad," says singer Serj Tankian (second from right).
That's the conundrum facing System of a Down, the Los Angeles-based quartet of three Armenian-Americans and one Lebanese-American, who combine nu-metal ferocity and prog-rock complexity with elements of punk, goth, Armenian music and more. The uncompromising band has always followed its muse, creating charged songs that skewer a variety of timely targets with fire and finesse.
Some of the group's most memorable numbers take aim at greed, poverty, racism and decaying public morality. Other songs decry government corruption, corporate brainwashing, blind consumerism and the current American administration.
Witness the band's recent hit, "B.Y.O.B." (short for "Bring Your Own Bombs"), which rails against the war in Iraq and features the impassioned refrain: Why don't presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?
System of a Down, with the Mars Volta and Bad Acid Trip
7 p.m. Saturday; ipayOne Center at the Sports Arena, 3500 Sports Arena Boulevard, Midway area $39.50-$44 (plus service charges); (619) 220-TIXS
Witness, too, System's 2001 song "Deer Dance," inspired by the aggressive police reaction to protesters at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. In it, lead singer Serj Tankian embraces the city's disenfranchised citizens and laments an American Dream gone bad, as he intones Beyond the Staples Center you can see America / With its tired, poor, avenging disgrace / Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality / Of plastic existence.
And there's the rub, whether listeners or today's glut of apolitical pop-music performers realize it or not.
System isn't a socially and politically charged rock band. Rather, it's a band whose music seems designed to reflect on the world at large, at a time when modern life has grown increasingly politicized.
"Reflecting the times is exactly what we're doing," said Daron Malakian, the band's guitarist and main songwriter, from his Los Angeles home. "Most artists now – and not just in music – have done a piece here and there about what's going on in the world. To me, that's no different than having a couple of (timely) songs on our records. It doesn't limit what we're all about."
A lyric sampler
The members of System of a Down are quick to note that not all of their songs address current or past social and political issues. But some of the Los Angeles band's most potent songs, including its recent radio hit "B.Y.O.B." ("Bring Your Own Bombs"), leave little doubt about their subject matter. Here are samples of lyrics from each of the band's four albums:
Revolution, the only solution / The armed response of an entire nation / Revolution, the only solution / We've taken all your (abuse) / Now it's time for restitution. – "P.L.U.C.K.," from 1998's "System of a Down"
Minor drug offenders fill your prisons / You don't even flinch / All our taxes paying for your wars / Against the new non-rich. – "Prison Song," from 2001's "Toxicity"
Four thousand hungry children leave us per hour / From starvation / While billions are spent on bombs / Creating death showers / Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! / Every time you drop the bomb / You kill the god your child has borne. Boom! – "Boom!", from 2002's "Steal This Album"
We're the regulators that deregulate / We're the animators that de-animate / We're the propagators of all genocide / Burning through the world's resources / Then we turn and hide. – "Cigaro," from 2005's "Mesmerize"
– GEORGE VARGA
Those sentiments were seconded by Tankian, the band's energetic frontman, in a separate phone interview from a tour stop in Rotterdam, Holland.
"We speak of real life, that's the point I always make," said Tankian, who with Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello co-founded Axis of Power, a nonprofit, social justice organization. "We speak about many issues in System, and most of our songs are not political. There are personal stories and social things and humor. There are some political things, but that doesn't make us a political band.
"The Beatles had a lot of songs that dealt with social change and political issues. But they weren't tagged as a 'political band,' and we seem to be. And that's something that's bothered us for a while."
That said, Tankian is quick to stress that apathy must be avoided at all costs, especially in these tumultuous times.
"Politics is not something we can ignore," he said. "The way the world is today, everything is kind of tied together; economics is global and it affects our lives, whether we want to ignore it or fight it.
"And that's something most people don't realize. They say: 'I'm not political,' and I respect that. But politics does change and affect our lives."
Tankian and Malakian, who perform Saturday with System at San Diego's ipayOne Center, both discussed their band and its music at length. But they responded very differently to some of the same questions.
Asked what his strongest and weakest points are, Tankian said curtly: "I don't know, man. I don't think that way."
Malakian, conversely, was eager to respond.
"Regarding my musicianship," he said, "I can tell you a million things, although I've got to say that the songs I take to System are pretty good. Are they perfect? There's no such thing. But if the emotion comes across, I think that works. "As a musician, I don't think I'm the greatest guitar player. I'm a bigger fan of the drums than I am the guitar; I just happen to play guitar. I play drums almost every day at my house. I wrote a lot of songs behind the drum kit, just having the music and vocals in my head, and playing the rhythm. Music is an emotion and I put it out there."
The differences between Tankian and Malakian were also visible when they were asked to name some of their early musical heroes and influences.
Tankian declined to answer. "I don't have any heroes," he said, "and there are too many influences to name."
But Malakian cited everyone from Kiss and Def Leppard to such decidedly non-hard-rocking inspirations as the Partridge Family, Christopher Cross and Wham!
"The greatest song of all time is Christopher Cross' (sentimental 1980 ballad) 'Sailing,' " Malakian said with infectious enthusiasm. "My whole life, I've just really loved that song."
Sentimental ballads are in short supply on System's potent new album, "Mesmerize," which showcases music that is hard-hitting and thoughtful, challenging yet accessible. It also demonstrates how well the band – which also features drummer John Dolmayan and bassist Shavo Odadjian – can use humor to make serious points. On "Cigaro," for example, mock, over-the-top operatic vocal flourishes provide comic counterpoint to the barbed lyrics, which depict the war in Iraq as a tragic game of one-upmanship by braying political leaders.
System of a Down's new album, "Mesmerize," entered the national Billboard album charts at No. 1 in May. Another album, "Hypnotize," is due before the end of the year. From left are guitarist Daron Malakian, drummer John Dolmayan, singer Serj Tankian and bassist Shavo Odadjian.
"Some people can take 'Cigaro' in a very political way, and some can take it as a joke," Tankian said. "Both points of view are valid.
"The type of people we are, if we can't laugh at what we do on a daily basis, it's not worth doing. Even in more serious times, you have to step back and look at things in perspective, and humor plays an important role in that."
The angular, ascending guitar lines on "Cigaro" are one example of how the shared Armenian heritage of the band's members influences their work.
Much Armenian music employs a modal style (music based on modes, not keys), which falls neatly between the modal styles used in Turkish and Iranian music. The Armenian modal style, present in varying degrees on previous System albums, also is evident on other "Mesmerize" songs, most notably "Soldier Side," "Lost in Hollywood" and the polka-inflected "Radio/Video."
"It's something that has to do with being Armenian, and that goes for everyone in the band," Malakian said. "Growing up, I'd hear it at a wedding or at church, certain church songs that are very old and traditional for us, and they probably inspired me more than even the wedding songs. But with my songs I can't ever put my finger on one kind of music, and say: 'This is where it comes from.' It's like a big mutation of all the stuff I grew up with."
But what if the musical subtleties and lyrical metaphors of System's provocative music don't get through to fans who prefer to just mosh?
"You put the food out," Tankian said. "And some people eat less, and some eat slowly and eat everything, and probably benefit more. You can't make people eat their food, you just put it on the table."
Three that fought the power
At its worst, the mix of music and politics can result in simplistic songs that sound smug and self-righteous. At its best, the same mix can produce timeless music that inspires and provokes, be it the stirring civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" and Bob Dylan's gripping "The Times They Are A-Changin'," or more recent ones like Eminem's "Mosh."
Here are three of the most memorable artists to fuse music and politics over the past 30 years:
MC5: Their recording career lasted only from 1968 to 1972, but this Detroit band soared with its blazing proto-punk-rock and incendiary performances. The group's high-decibel mantra of sex, drugs and revolution in the streets led to police raids and FBI wiretaps, but no matter. The MC5's legacy lives on in its ferocious music – a key link between garage-rock, punk and heavy metal.
Key albums: "Kick Out the Jams" (1968); "Back in the U.S.A." (1970)
Choice cuts: "Starship," "Ramblin' Rose," "Kick Out the Jams" (1968); "Tonight," "Looking at You," "Call Me Animal," "High School" (1970)
The Clash: With singer-guitarist Joe Strummer at the fore, this seminal English band made music that seethed with passion and intensity. The group also boldly expanded punk's stylistic palette, embracing reggae, roots-rock and even swing. Commercial success was fleeting (1980's "Train in Vain" and 1982's "Rock the Casbah" are the band's sole U.S. radio hits), but Green Day, blink-182 and many more owe a big debt to the Clash.
Key albums: "The Clash" 1977; "London Calling" (1979)
Choice cuts: "White Riot," (1977); "White Man In Hammersmith Palais," "Tommy Gun" (1978); "London Calling," "Spanish Bombs" (1979)
Public Enemy: No hip-hop group before or since has rapped with such ferocity, or produced such raging music. Eschewing empty odes to bling-bling and booty, P.E. vividly chronicled various political and social ills. Chuck D., the group's masterful MC, espoused black nationalism and took aim at corruption and inequities. Hank Shocklee, P.E.'s in-house sonic visionary, gave the music a visceral punch that puts most other hip-hop – then and now – to shame.
Key albums: "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (1988); "Fear of a Black Planet" (1990)
Choice cuts: "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," (1988); "Fight the Power" (1989); "911 Is a Joke" (1990)
– GEORGE VARGA