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Music / System of a Down

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L-R: Serj, Daron, Shavo, John

"Wake up! (Wake up)
Grab a brush and put a little make-up!
Hide the scars to fade away the shake-up! (Hide the scars to fade away the...)
Why'd you leave the keys upon the table?
Here you go, create another fable!"
"Chop Suey!"'

System of a Down is an Armenian-American rock band formed in 1994 consisting of lead singer/keyboardist Serj Tankian, backup vocalist/guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, & drummer John Dolmayan, formerly drummer/one-time vocalist Ontronik Khachaturian. The band's name was derived from a poem written by Malakian titled "Victims of a Down"; they modified the name as Odadjian believed the word "system" would have wider appeal and so the band's records could be shelved closer to their musical idols, Slayer.

In their early years, they were (more or less incorrectly) labeled Nu Metal. This gradually subsided once the band gained further respect among both metal fans and the more critical segment of the mainstream. With that said, their sound isn't genre-definable, but they sound similar to metal as well as alternative, & progressive. In general, most of their work fits well enough under the general label of "rock".

After the success of their fourth and fifth albums, Mezmerize/Hypnotize, they parted ways in 2006 to work on various non-SOAD projects (Tankian's solo effort, the band Scars on Broadway formed by Malakian and Dolmayan, and Odajian's work with RZA). All of them except Malakian claimed this was an indefinite hiatus, but a lot of fans assumed it was more of a break-up until they reunited for a tour in 2011. The band have continued to tour since, and they once announced that they would release a new album in 2017, though this did not come pass due to Creative Differences and Tankian refusing to release anything that he felt was less than the band's absolute best.

In 2020, the band released their first new songs in over 15 years, "Protect the Land" and "Genocidal Humanoidz." The songs were released to raise awareness of the war being perpetrated by Turkey and Azerbaijan and the war crimes committed within Artsakh against the ethnic Armenian population.

Their lyrics often revolve around themes of isolation, insanity, and criticisms of modern society. Some of their songs have absurdist lyrics, others are sung as if speaking directly to the listener and feature terse statements and lots of questions/demands, and others yet are more sarcastic and satirical. Probably their most well-known attributes are their rapid tone/tempo/time signature changes and passionate vocal delivery, giving the music a manic, unpredictable feel (most noticeable in songs like "Question!," "I-E-A-I-A-I-O," "B.Y.O.B.," and, of course, "Chop Suey!").

They have been vocal in spreading word about the early-20th-century Armenian genocide, up to and including a tour to commemorate its 100th anniversary (though "P.L.U.C.K." and "Holy Mountains" are their only songs specifically about the tragedy itself). They are also in favor of drug decriminalization & are strongly anti-interventionist.


Music videos

Tropes found in their music:

  • Album Title Drop:
    • Toxicity has one in the track it's named after.
    • Hypnotize and Mesmerize each have a song that does this; see Book Ends below.
  • Alternative Metal: It's both an accurate and an inadequate descriptor for them.
  • Arc Number: 36 had always had its title since it was written and demoed back in the 90s, but the band specifically held over releasing it until it could actually be the 36th album track they released (It became this as the 9th track on Steal This Album). The band slightly changed the title from its original 36 to .36 to symbolise it was the 36th track. This numbering doesn't count demo tracks, bonus tracks or B-Sides, which would obviously push the numbers up.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: The ending of "Soil".
    "Why the fuck did you take him away from us, YOU MOTHERFUCKEEEEEERRRRRR?!"
  • Audience Participation Song:
    • The video for "Boom" was shot by Michael Moore during the massive worldwide anti-war protests in 2003. Most of the lines are sung by random protesters.
    • "Prison Song" becomes this live, as does the bridge for "War?"
    • "Psycho." The audience sings the "PSYCHO! GROUPIE! COCAINE! CRAZY!" refrain.
    • "Lost in Hollywood". It's very common for the chant that makes up a good portion of the song to be sung along to by the audience.
  • Avant-Garde Metal: Trope Codifier for modern experimental metal.
  • Badass Boast: Daron gave a pretty great one at their 2015 show in Yerevan, their first ever show in their homeland, which was held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
    "This is not a rock and roll concert! To our murderers, THIS! IS! REVENGE!"
  • Bawdy Song: "Bounce", "Cigaro", "Violent Pornography", "I-E-A-I-A-I-O"
  • Bookends: Mezmerize/Hypnotize double album, the one's outro echoing the other's intro ("Soldier Side").
  • The Bus Came Back: "Blue" was abandoned by the band after its demo and live performances in 1997, but Serj adopted it as a solo track and produced several recordings of it.
    • After a decade and a half of not releasing new content, they produced the songs "Genocidal Humanoidz" and "Protect The Land".
  • Careful with That Axe: Frequently, though mixed with other vocal styles as well. See Soprano and Gravel below. This is a common source of Mood Whiplash, as acoustic parts may suddenly veer into metal segments that feature this trope extensively. They're probably one of Dir en grey's biggest rivals in this.
    • As an example, let's take a look at the bridge in "Radio/Video":
      Serj: "Hey there, look at me rocking now, I'm on the/VIDEOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuck the System", among others.
  • Crossdresser: "She's Like Heroin'':
    "He wants nothing less but to wear a little dress."
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Both Serj and Daron, though Shavo can get crazy sometimes too.
    Serj: *kicking Daron's guitar in response to it not working* "Bad, bad guitar..."
  • Digital Piracy Is Evil: After outtakes from the Toxicity sessions were leaked to the internet as Toxicity II, the band rerecorded most of the tracks, added some new ones, named it to Steal This Album! and changed the cover to look like it was a burned CD with the title written with a Sharpie. More a parody or commentary than outrage, as they later said they don't care if fans download their music as long as it's after the work is released.
    • They did some other things. They gave it no promotion and did not advertise it (ie, like a bootleg), and the album didn't even include a booklet in America. It does in the UK and Europe but it is a simple one sided sheet saying "Steal This Album!" on one side. Some copies of the US album had illustrations CDs drawn by the band, something which is an occasional selling point of bootlegs.
    • Interestingly, the band regard Steal This Album! as their third album, indicating that they were satisfied with how it was released.
  • Dissonant Serenity:
    • The stylistic disconnect between a frantic verse & a calm chorus ("Chop Suey", "B.Y.O.B.", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Violent Pornography", among others).
    • The song "Temper" from their second demo is the opposite of this, a relaxed, mid-tempo verse and a brutal grindcore chorus.
  • Distinct Double Album: Mezmerize/Hypnotize, released as two discs but intended as discrete parts of a coherent whole. The packaging even allowed for both albums to be physically linked together.
  • Downer Ending: All of their albums. In release order:
    • "P.L.U.C.K.", about young men forced to join the army in the wake of the Armenian genocide.
    • "Aerials" is all about how selfish humans are.
      • It's followed by a hidden track that's a tribal rendition of the Armenian church hymn "Der Voghormia".note 
    • "Streamline" is a Grief Song; specifically, the narrator couldn't be there for someone on their death bed.
    • "Lost in Hollywood" refers to a celebrity that's fallen from grace.
    • "Soldier Side", much like "P.L.U.C.K.", describes the impending doom of soldiers at war, but without explicit connections to the Armenian genocide.
  • Epic Rocking: "Mind" is the band's longest song, clocking in at 6:16.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Serj and Daron went to the same (Armenian-American, no less) grade school.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The end-section of "Aerials".
  • Fading into the Next Song:
    • "Mind" into "Peephole".
    • "Pictures" into "Highway Song".
    • "Thetawaves" into "Roulette".
    • Bonus points for the triple: "Holy Mountains" into "Vicinity of Obscenity" into "She's Like Heroin".
    • "Forest" into "ATWA" and "Psycho" into "Aerials" on Toxicity.
    • Earlier on, the album-length Demo Tape 4 has a few examples of this, but notably the otherwise unreleased "Friik" goes into "Mind" via subtle ambient noise, which enhances the effect of both songs.
  • Freud Was Right: "Cigaro", about dictators and their phallic love of cigars.
  • Fun with Acronyms: "B.Y.O.B.", usually used to mean "Bring Your Own Beer", is used by System to mean "Bring Your Own Bombs". "A.D.D.", usually used to mean "Attention Deficit Disorder", is used to mean "American Dream Denial". Then there are things like "P.L.U.C.K.", which stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers", and "ATWA", which stands for "Air, Trees, Water, Animals" (in reference to Charles Manson's environmental group).
  • Gag Penis: "Cigaro."
  • Genre-Busting: Not just as their musical style (Rock/hard rock/alt rock/alt metal/progressive metal/progressive rock/Experimental/self-described as 'pop'), but the combination of clearly stated protest & absurdity.
    • They even throw in some Armenian folk riffs into many of their songs, giving them a somewhat Middle Eastern flavor.
    • The Genre-Busting probably shouldn't come as any surprise since they've named Frank Zappa as one of their primary influences. Indeed, several critics have compared them to Zappa.
  • Genre Mashup: A mix of of alternative rock, hardcore punk, grindcore, thrash metal, death metal, progressive rock, and Middle Eastern folk, all wrapped up in a package of Frank Zappa/Mike Patton-esque idiosyncrasy and weirdness. While commonly called nu metal (a scene that certainly embraced them, though they rejected the label and generally were not fans of the genre), they generally spurned easy stylistic labels and refused to participate in genre debates, usually just stating that they sounded like themselves.
  • Grindcore: A definite influence, and it is quite noticeable on tracks like "Temper" (an unused demo track) and "Vicinity of Obscenity".
  • Hešvy MŽtal ‹mlaut: "Nüguns" is written like this on the track listing.
  • Hidden Track: An adaptation of the Armenian hymn "Der Voghormia" (meaning "Lord Have Mercy"), after "Aerials".
  • Humans Are Bastards: Their lyrics tend to be very cynical and critical of society as a whole.
    Everybody, everybody, everybody living now. Everybody, everybody, everybody sucks!
  • Ice-Cream Koan: "Aerials", and arguably most of their repertoire.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics : A lot of their music isn't quite indecipherable, but is quite hard to decipher.
    • At 1:59 of "Suggestions" Serj sings "The ships are multiplying day after day sir and they're coming close to the shore sir, shore sir" as if he's on helium. It's slightly more discernible on live versions, which suggests it might have been sped up to enhance the effect.
    • The fast vocal riff for "B.Y.O.B."
    • Large portions of a lot of their more absurdist songs, such as "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Bounce", etc.
    • From "Fuck the System":
      I but a little bit bit bit show, but a little bit bit bit shame, but a little bit bit bit-BIT BIT BIT
    • "I-E-A-I-A-I-O" flirts with this trope. The lyrics are decipherable, but performed at such high speed that it takes several re-listenings to make them out properly.
      Peter's pecker picked another pickle-bearing pussy pepper! Why?! / Meetin' John Dale Jr, winked an eye, point a finger! Why?! / A former cop, undercover, just got shot, now recovered! Why?! / Fightin' crime with a partner! Lois Lane 'n Jimmy Carter! Wooo!
    • ďChop Suey!Ē is so well-known for this that itís somewhat of a meme.
  • Intercourse with You: "She's Like Heroin", "Violent Pornography", "Bounce", "Cherry/Virginity", and "Vicinity of Obscenity".
  • Large Ham: Started out as Serj ("Sugar", "Bounce", pretty much most of the first two albums), but Daron slowly began to take the spotlight ("Needles", much of Mezmerize/Hypnotize), while Serj sits at the Cloudcuckoolander ("This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Revenga", "Radio/Video") / Deadpan Snarker ("Cigaro") / occasionally The Quiet One ("Lost in Hollywood") position. With the release of Serj's two solo albums, he's gone back to the Large Ham he's meant to be ("Lie Lie Lie", "Beethoven's Cunt", pretty much everything else).
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Aerials", for one.
  • Loudness War: To some extent, a LOT of their work, especially just about everything on Toxicity. They're all Rick Rubin productions and three of their albums were mastered by Vlado Meller. Clipping is basically guaranteed, unfortunately.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Many, including "Bounce" (a very heavy song about group sex), "Shimmy" (a hard song including lyrics about indoctrination and subjugation, also about wanting to dance all night and not being late for school), and "Kill Rock 'n Roll", a heavy, serious song about the time Daron hit a rabbit with his car. (Note the cryptic lines "eat all the grass that you want / accidents happen in the dark".)
    • In fact, to people who associate the sound of metal with dark, nihilistic lyrics about mass murderers and Satan, the band's entire output could qualify, as they show a good deal of moral consciousness in their lyrics, especially in their addressing of political issues and tragic world events.
  • Metal Scream: Both Serj and Daron are good at these.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Just as an example, Steal This Album! is sixteen tracks over 43 minutes ó that's just over 2:30 on average, with "Bubbles" just under two minutes long and "36" only forty-five seconds long. A song that lasts for four minutes or more is extremely hard to come by in general, though there usually is one track per album that exceeds five minutes and at least one other that equals or exceeds four (the sole exception being Steal This Album!, where only one song exceeds four minutes in length and none exceed five).
    • Both Mezmerize and Hypnotize, despite being released separately, are under 40 minutes and so could have fit on a single CD.
  • Mood Whiplash: Serj himself has said "Bounce" coming right after "Chop Suey!" in the track listing is an example of this. Also, "Vicinity of Obscenity" being the next song after "Holy Mountains", and probably more.
    • On the first album, the dramatic power ballad "Spiders" is followed by the bouncy comedy song "D Devil".
    • They were kings of this with the singles they released, especially the choruses. Using their standard hard rock as a baseline you had "Sugar" (which veered into nonsense comedy), "Chop Suey!" (which had a Middle-Eastern tinge), and "B.Y.O.B." (which veered into reggae).
    • Seemingly half of their song transitions are examples of this, not to mention the songs themselves. The common usage of Careful with That Axe can contribute further to this.
  • Motor Mouth: One of the band's very defining characteristics. Almost every song by them has Serj singing really, really fast, so fast most of the lyrics can't be easily figured out with no help. "I-E-A-I-A-I-O" in particular contains several rapidly-spoken tongue-twisters.
  • N-Word Privileges:
    • Their reworking of "Shame on a Nigga".
    • "Will They Die 4 U?", their collaboration with Mase, Puff Daddy and Lil Kim from the South Park Chef Aid album, where Serj can be heard singing/shouting beginning on the second round of the chorus, while Mase raps it.
  • New Media Are Evil: Subverted by Steal This Album!, as it essentially encourages the fans not to buy it, and nothing about the album suggests that SOAD was angry about the material being leaked or potentially "stolen".
    • SoaD wasn't angry about the material being leaked at all, just that the songs weren't quite finished. They were happy to put out the material and present it like it was a bootleg. The band have absolutely no problem with people downloading their demo tapes, and have been known to play the exclusive material from them live.
    • On the other hand "Violent Pornography" says "Turn off your TV!".
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Stealing Society", "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song", "B.Y.O.B.", "Chop Suey", "Chic 'n' Stu", "36", "U-Fig".
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: "Bounce".
  • Precision F-Strike: In the middle of "Lost in Hollywood", a slow ballad, Daron sings "All you bitches put your hands in the air and wave em' like you just don't care".
    • Their reworking of "The Metro" by Berlin has just one change to the lyrics at the end:
    ''FUCK. YOU. For loving me,
    Riding on the metro
  • Protest Song: "B.Y.O.B.", "Prison Song", "Deer Dance", "Tentative", "Holy Mountain", "U-Fig", "Fuck the System", "Soldier Side", etc... probably about half their songs, honestly.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Repeated a few times in "Soil". Also in "B.Y.O.B."'s bridge:
  • Rap Metal: Delved into this when they did a version of "Shame on a Nigga.
  • Rearrange the Song: The leaked Toxicity outtake "Desecrate" (also known as "Defy You") and "Nuguns" on Steal This Album share the same instrumental, but entirely different lyrics.
  • Recycled Lyrics: Though the band never returned to "Friik" after Demo Tape 4, Serj had its lyrics published as a poem in his book "Cool Gardens" in 2001. He also rerecorded the song "Blue" from the tape in his solo career, which means that every one of the songs on the tape has been released in some way.
    • The early demo track "PIG" was rewritten into "Mr Jack", with the majority of lyrics and tune reused, the main difference being that the heavy section at the beginning was moved to the end, replacing the original coda, and new verses were written around what had been PIG's Subdued Section.
  • Riding the Bomb: Music video for "Boom".
  • Rock-Star Song: "Radio/Video". Inverted by "Lost in Hollywood."
  • Sanity Slippage Song: The last 60 seconds of "Sugar" is a good example of this.
    • "Mind", "Blue" and "Friik" are about this too. "Blue" is a man going mad from a woman leaving him and turning to a god he doesn't really believe in, "Friik" is a man who is aware he's going crazy but is unable to stop it, and "Mind" is a man who keeps having panic attacks due to having been abused as a child.
  • Science Is Wrong: "Science has failed our mother Earth." However, somewhat Played With as the song isn't necessarily protesting science in and of itself but the way that technology has raised the destructive capabilities of the human race exponentially, particularly when it comes to warfare and environmental degradation. The band explicitly compares the religious wars of the past with more recent wars fought with advanced technology.
    Fighting off the diseased programming
    Of centuries, centuries, centuries, centuries
    Science fails to recognise the single most
    Potent element of human existence
  • Self-Deprecation: This gem from a 2001 live performance:
    Daron: "We are System of a Down!
    ...and we fucking suck!"
  • Self-Titled Album: Their debut.
  • Separated by a Common Language/Have a Gay Old Time: "Lost in Hollywood" uses the "cigarette" meaning of the word "fag", which is usually a British usage.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The line "We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train" in "Deer Dance" is a paraphrase of a quote from anarchist historian Howard Zinn (best known for writing A People's History of the United States), which is also the title of a documentary about Zinn's life and work.
    • The line "Manufacturing consent is the name of the game" from "Boom!" refers to a seminal anarchist work of media analysis by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent. The title of the work is actually lifted from the work of liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann, but it's quite likely that System meant their lyric to refer to Chomsky and Herman's work rather than Lippmann's, because Lippmann used the concept approvingly, while Chomsky and Herman most certainly did not.
    • The title of Steal This Album! refers to Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, another anarchist. (Sensing a pattern here yet?)
  • Shown Their Work: "Prison Song" uses accurate (for the time) statistics in the lyrics.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Like one of their influences, System of A Down are seemingly fairly cynical on the outset when they're not just being outright weird, making songs about genocide, destructive foreign policy and the parasitic nature of capitalism, but also demonstrate a hope that we can progress past these errors to a better future, landing them somewhere in the middle.
  • Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism: In contrast, they are consistently on the libertarian side, being influenced by anarchist writers like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffman.
  • The Something Song: "Prison Song" and "Highway Song".
  • Something Something Leonard Bernstein: "Chop Suey!" certainly is quite strange to listen to before you figure out the high-speed shouting.
    WAKE UP! Ragabragamagalaka MAKEUP! Haddaskadafadawraka SHAKE-UP!
  • Soprano and Gravel: Serj does this all by himself on the first album, going from screeching to clean singing to guttural roars. Some of the clean singing on later albums is done by Daron. This is taken to its logical extremes in the demo track "Temper" where he sings the verses peacefully and growls the choruses.
    • Daron also sang in a couple places on the first album, such as at the end of "P.L.U.C.K."
  • Studio Chatter: The beginning to "Chop Suey!" is three drumstick taps and the engineer's voice saying "We're rolling 'Suicide'", the track's working title.
    • The demo of the Prison Song also has band members discussing "the second one can be a little longer but the first one has to be shorter", not to mention the producer saying "That's a great song", and Daron saying "Thank you".
  • Subdued Section: Many, many songs. A few of the best examples are "She's Like Heroin", "Aerials", and "Chop Suey!"
  • Suddenly Shouting: And speaking of "Chop Suey!":
    I don't think you trust... in... my... self-righteous suicide
    I... cry... when angels deserve to DIIIIIIIIIIIIIE!!!
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: Their ballads, like "Roulette", "Soldier Side", "Lost in Hollywood", "Lonely Day", and "Hypnotize."
  • Sympathy for the Devil: In A.D.D.:
    We offer prayers for your long lost soul.
  • Textless Album Cover: Their Self-Titled Album cover consists of nothing but a hand reaching towards the viewer.
  • Thrash Metal: Not SOAD's defining trait but they are capable of producing those intense high speed riffs characteristic of thrash, especially in "Prison Song", "Jet Pilot", "Cigaro", "Sad Statue", "Attack" and "BYOB."
  • Title Track: Toxicity and Hypnotize both contain a straight example.
  • Uncommon Time: "Question!", a song with so many time signatures the band has had trouble performing it live.
    • "Soil" alternates between 7/8 and 8/8 during the verses. Interestingly, "Know", also from Self-Titled, also alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 (8/8) during its breakdown.
    • "Peephole" is entirely in 3/4.
    • Toxicity's title track is entirely in 6/8. "Lonely Day" off of Hypnotize is also written this way.
    • Steal This Album!'s final track, "Streamline," alternates between 5/8 and 6/8 throughout most of its runtime.
    • "Vicinity of Obscenity"'s Banana Terracotta Pie part alternates between 13/16 and 15/16.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Bounce" uses pogo sticking as a metaphor for sex. In a live version included on a bonus disc of some versions of Toxicity, Serj drops the pretense that it's about pogo altogether and sings "I brought my pogo dick."
  • Vocal Tag Team: Daron and Serj on later albums as Daron started singing more.
  • War Is Hell: A large number of their Protest Songs have this theme.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Too many to list, but especially "I-E-A-I-A-I-O", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Old School Hollywood", and "Question!"
    • Daron admitted that "Suite Pee" was just a bunch of random lines strung together. Ditto "Sugar" and "Darts." Serj, meanwhile, stated in an AMA that "Vicinity of Obscenity" was inspired by Dadaism, making it a more deliberate example.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: "Nüguns," thanks to the umlaut. "Störagéd" also features both an umlaut and an accent, while "Genocidal Humanoidz" replaces the "s" with a "z."
  • Writing Around Trademarks: "CUB Ert" was influenced by the videogame "Q-Bert" and briefly known as this as a working title. The band didn't want to potentially get sued, thus changed it.
  • Younger Than They Look: Daron was born in 1975, he probably looked 5 to 10 years older than he was until he hit 40.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Serj Tankian


Miss Crawly drives & sings

The elderly Miss Crawly drives while singing along to a metal song ("Chop Suey!").

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / MusicAgeDissonance

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