The New Cocaine 

System of a Down and the Dangers of Irony

System of a Down
Thurs Oct 6
Rose Garden
1 Center Court

If you keep your tongue firmly lodged in cheek most of the time, you're eventually going to slip up and bite it. That's one of the primary dangers in this seemingly eternal age of irony: phrases, music, clothing, and other affects adopted in fits of ironic appreciation have the damnedest way of creeping out of their holes and into your subconscious—and soon enough that joke you made a few years ago about having an ironic coke party turns into 15-minute bathroom queues at every bar in the city for the next five years. It's a slippery slope—in spite of all the defenses that we so carefully compound around our lives, the viral strain of ironic appreciation seems to have an uncanny capacity to work its way through our otherwise closed doors of perception. And that's the only viable explanation for just how it came to be that a major-label metal band immerged from the darkest corners of late-'90s radio rock to become every indierock fan's favorite guilty pleasure: System of a Down are the new cocaine.

For most of us, a tentative relationship with System of a Down began with the 1998 release of their self-titled debut—a record comfortably marketed alongside the era's reprehensible rap-rock phenomenon. Despite a campaign aggressively marketing the LA band's Armenian descent, most reasonable people saw little to distinguish System from the hordes of goateed douchebags ruling the airwaves at the time. From the very beginning, however, there was the faint call from otherwise rational folks (and a few heshers) instantly able to separate System from the radio rock's most dreadful scourge in recent memory—an assemblage of System apologists who's fruitless refrain was echoed time and time again: "Dude, I know that Nü-metal is totally unforgivable—but System seems pretty cool to me. I mean they're Armenian, for godssake!" Needless to say, it fell largely on deaf ears.

And then something very funny (and I do mean funny) happened: In 2001, System of a Down released a record called Toxicity. Toxicity's near-universal commercial embrace led to a great deal of forced exposure inflicted upon a lot of previously deaf ears. With the help of mega-singles (by metal standards, at least) like "Chop Suey!," "Toxicity," and "Aerials," it was difficult to avoid vocalist Serj Tankian's incredibly ridiculous, politically tongue-twisted, angry leprechaun rants for the better part of two years. And you know what? Shit was kind of awesome—you know, in a gut-busting, hyper-dramatic, semi-retarded kind of way—enough to make you want to stop when it popped up on the airwaves. Every single time.

It must have been about a year ago when I read somewhere that System's double album-in-progress (later split into current mega-album Mesmerize and soon-to-be-released Hypnotize) had primary influences of indie-friendly touchstones like Kraftwerk, the Zombies, and the Beach Boys. At the time, it sounded like just another piece of amusing mythology to tag onto my favorite band to get all post-modern about. And then, like everybody else, I actually heard Mesmerize—an incredibly ridiculous, politically tongue-twisted, gut-busting, hyper-dramatic, semi-retarded, and legitimately brilliant record of Zappa (or maybe Patton) level sonic complexity. At first I tried to laugh it off—I mean, it is kind of funny—but before long I had to face the fact that I sincerely (and still somewhat inexplicably) love System of a Down. And I know I'm not alone.

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