System of a Down

Lately my car radio has been almost exclusively tuned to Y-101, a local station specializing in what I derisively call “angry white boy music”. I’ve listened to the station off and on for 2 years, and I’m having to strain to think of any female vocalist I’ve ever heard on it. Ever. Right now, I’m coming up blank. But I listen to it anyway — partly because they occasionally play the Beastie Boys, and partly out of curiosity to see what the little punks are up to these days.

This music — called “alternative”, “hard rock” or “heavy rock” by people like me who don’t know what else to call it — would make any self-respecting person over 40’s ears bleed. There are some songs that even I can’t sit through, forcing me to flip back to the all-80’s station, another of my presets. But I’ve found that there are some songs that make my ears bleed in a good way. “Fade” by Staind is one (although I know it’s the 2001 version of a hair band ballad). “Chop Suey” by System of a Down is another.

I first heard this song on MTV. I was flipping channels, and my finger froze when I saw the band. They’re transfixing in a grotesque way, like watching a car crash, or like the kid in “American Beauty” taking pictures of a dead bird. The lead singer, Serj Tankian, is the most normal-looking of the lot, with dark hair, an impossibly pointy nose and a long goatee. The guitarist, Daron Malakian, sincerely freaks me out. He looks like a demon baby in the video, with black veins painted all over his body, a tuft of hair atop his head and wide-stretched eyes ringed in black. The bass player and drummer are equally arresting but less featured in the video.

The song “Chop Suey” has to do with the expression of adolescent angst, as near as I can figure. (“Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?” “You wanted to!” “Father, why have you forsaken me?” etc.) These guys take themselves and their message very, very seriously. But it’s the music that keeps me listening.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of screaming, and a lot of drums doubling the pace of the words, which irritates me. Honestly, I’m trying to figure out why I love this song. I think it mainly has to do with Serj Tankian’s delivery. He barks the words throughout most of the song, with short, panting breaks between phrases, almost rapping, at times whispering. But then the chorus takes over, looping into a harmony with astonishing lyricism and beauty. That’s it! That’s why I love this song: the contrast between the screaming and the singing — plus, it’s a cathartic release to hear something so raw. The guy’s voice is going to be shot in a few years, but in the meantime, the band is churning out some crazy mad addictive stuff.

Guess I better take back that crack above about little punks…