On August 13, 2001, System of a Down released “Chop Suey.” Over the past twenty years, the song has been catapulted into the mainstream lexicon unlike few metal songs have. The frenetic morning routine of the opening and chorus of “When angels deserve to die” have been pummeled into the lexicon through both rendition and meme. Ask someone ten years ago to describe “Chop Suey!” and they would likely refer to it as SOAD’s signature song; with over a billion views on YouTube and nearly 700 million streams on Spotify (greater than any single Metallica song and bigger than the two most popular Slipknot songs combined) the song is now frequently described as the most well known heavy metal song of all time.
What the hell happened? How did an Armenian metal band from L.A., who were shelved close to aggressive acts like P.O.D., Papa Roach, and Korn, with a singer who sounded like Pavarotti did three lines of meth and had to sing a dissertation on mass injustice, took over radio rock in the last great era of bands.
With their smash sophomore Toxicity landing one week from 9/11 and “Chop Suey” hitting airwaves three weeks before, System of a Down could not have come at a better time. Their advertent political messaging, bare it all emotion, and style clash of thrash, doom, jazz, prog, folk, and traditional style of Greek and Armenian music differentiated their music from the shlock nu metal that gravitated towards culturally appropriated house party rap; SOAD were far more invested in the fundamentals. Their gift for melody and the charisma & range of principal songwriters Daron Malakian and Serj Tankian as well as the ferocious rhythm section of Shavo Odadjian and John Dolmayan transcended SOAD to the early 2000’s mainstream. Toxicity went number one on the Billboard 200, stayed there the week of 9/11, and continued to receive airplay in the years following despite its heavy political themes & abrasive presentation.
Along with Rage Against the Machine, System’s affinity for social issues and dying mission to critique the powerful created a soundtrack to get behind in the era of Cheney/Bush. They have songs about the US prison system, mass incarceration, the CIA, climate change, police brutality, the War on Drugs, reductionism, globalization…sometimes without the use of metaphors (see album opener “Prison Song”). It was like Led Zeppelin in an era of extreme paranoia and tragedy, some mighty music that could have been coming from the Middle Earth instead of the Middle East for all we knew.
At this point System were already huge. The free parking lot show they held in Hollywood had roughly three times the amount than planned for and ended in a riot that was on the local news before the show could even begin. Toxicity’s unused demos were mass leaked on Napster forcing SOAD to release Steal This Album. The group’s shooting star and ascent to fame could be greatly attributed to Rick Rubin, whose cosign in 1998 could make a band back then.
Rubin had at that point left Def Jam and the epicentre of New York hip hop to start Def American signing anyone he wanted from The Black Crowes to Sir-Mix-A-lot to Andrew Dice Clay. He had developed The Red Hot Chili Peppers from Hot Mess to one of the most popular bands of the era and revived Johnny Cash’s career from dinner theatres and back to the arena. After seeing System at The Viper Room in 1997, Rubin asked the band to “keep in touch.”
As soon as System dropped their fourth demo tape in a bid to get US record companies to jump on board, Rick Rubin signed them to his Def American imprint and immediately began laying down tracks for their first record.
"I loved them…they were my favourite band, but I didn't think anyone was going to like them apart from a small, likeminded group of people like me who were crazy. No one was waiting for an Armenian heavy metal band. It had to be so good that it transcended all of that.
Uncoincidentally, Rick Rubin had developed the band SOAD have countlessly called their heroes, Slayer who were also known for their raw theatricality and evil realism. Rubin’s failure to limit himself to one genre aligned perfectly with System’s outrageous spontaneity with a sonic palette that pulled as much from Zappa, Black Flag and Rush as it did from Morbid Angel or Ozzy Osbourne.
Rubin was crucial in getting “Chop Suey!” made, providing his characteristic guidance through the process.
The lyrics for the song’s midsection ("Father into your hands I commend my spirit…"), the last piece to be written, were randomly picked out by Tankian from Rubin's massive book collection.
"With Rick Rubin, our producer, during 'Chop Suey!' in the lyrical process, I had the chorus and we had the verse, and I was looking for the breakdown, the middle eighth section, lyrically. 'You know what? Let's take a break, let's go to my house…he had this huge library, and he goes, 'Just pick a book, any book…and he goes, 'Open to any page.' I opened to a page, put my finger on it, and that was the middle eight lyrically. Using the universe to guide you was incredible, and the way that it worked with the rest of the lyrics was what stunned me."
System of a Down and Rubin unanimously agreed to move forward with “Chop Suey” as the leading single for Toxicity.
The song was originally titled "Suicide" as evidenced by most recordings which open with the not updated count off “Rolling suicide,” but Columbia Records forced the band to change it to avoid controversy. The band found it lazy anyhow, narrow to the more macro themes of pain and death the song explores. They altered the title for dramatic irony: "Suey" meaning "suicide" and "chopped" as in halved. The band enjoyed the title as a nod to black and white gangster movies and its absurd metaphorical quality:
“We’ll make chop suey out of him!” It meant, ‘We’re gonna kill him.’ It tied in with the whole death thing.”
The iconic music video directed by Marcos Siega (“Hash Pipe”, “All The Small Things” and “Last Resort”) and set in the public parking lot of the Oak Tree Inn motel in L.A. was an MTV favourite and made the SnorriCam technique, in which the artist has a camera harnessed to them making it appear as though the background is moving and the actor is stationary, a requirement.
With “Chop Suey!” taking off in the middle of Bush and 9/11 and “terror-noia,” its references to beautiful suicides by fallen angels made it textbook qualified for Clear Channel’s sensitive titles and pulled from radio. Even SOAD’s fans were scratching their heads at the timeliness of the album with Daron Malakian explaining, “Our fans were starting to say, ‘Hey, these guys are prophets, they’re saying things that hadn’t happened yet…’Self righteous suicide’, ‘Aerials in the sky,’ ‘Jet Pilot.’ I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s cool they think that. Let’s make them believe we actually did it.’”
It didn’t take long for “Chop Suey!” to be rendered classic. "It's an unusual song because the verse is so frantic,” Rick Rubin has ruminated in recent years, “The style is so broken up and unusual. It's both difficult to sing and arguably difficult to listen to, but then the chorus is this big, soaring, emotional, surging, beautiful thing. And then it's got this incredible bridge: It's just real heavy, biblical, and grand. It's so unusual that it goes between these crazy rhythmic explosive verses into this emotional, anthemic ending."
With a resolution that’s similar to “Paranoid Android” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Stairway to Heaven,” the effectiveness of “Chop Suey!” depends on its resolution but accomplishes its scale in a three minute pop song instead of a seven minute epic. It’s easy to see why its Jesus story was kept alive during the era of the Middle East instead of shelved for insensitivity like most nu metal of the day.
"The song is about how we are regarded differently depending on how we pass. Everyone deserves to die. Like, if I were now to die from drug abuse, they might say I deserved it because I abused dangerous drugs. Hence the line, 'I cry when angels deserve to die.'
“It occurred to me how we are judgmental towards people, even in death,” explains Daron. “If someone died in a car accident, you’d say, ‘Oh, poor thing.’ But if they died in a car accident while they were drunk, that would change your whole perception of how they died, and judging his or her death a in a different way. For some reason, that thought was weird to me. I was probably smoking weed or something…”
Serj Tankian: "This does not tell the complete story of what the song is about. The chorus was written by me, and it’s about how people are judgmental about other people’s deaths. How they die. Has nothing to do with the Bible. Just want to clarify."
Tell me/Tell me what you think about tomorrow/Is there gonna be a pain and sorrow/Tell me what you think about the people/Is there gonna be another sequel?’”
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System’s Armenian heritage is crucial to their lyrical identity. Waving the flag for the Armenian Soviet Social Republic which ceased to exist after the USSR dissolved in 1991, System make numerous references to Armenian genocide throughout Toxicity. Three major massacres occurred in Armenia by Azerbaijani mobs in the early 90’s and over 90% of ethnic Armenians were cleansed from the country by the Young Turk government in numbers as high as 1.2 million by 1923. There was almost a cruel irony to “Chop Suey!” and everything System would do after including winning a Grammy for “BYOB” retaining throughout the Bush era; SOAD’s music was fueling a generation that was becoming more inclusive and progressive in their awareness of overseas issues, but that was building newfound hate and fear towards people of the Middle East on the other side.
In its outsized portrayal of death, failure, and sacrifice, “Chop Suey!” became a symbol for an era that was barely over Columbine, yet headfirst into the War on Terror. Its powerful absurdity soundtracked an America that was ready to tear itself apart at the seams and was past the point of no return. It is precise, weird, nonsensical, disjointed, resolving, and commanding. The omnipresence of “Chop Suey!” and its positioning next to others in the billion club like “Despacito” and “Shape of You” continues its presence as a breath of fresh air in a time of suffocation.