September 7, 2002
If you looked at the music charts at the beginning of the 21st century, it was a rather apolitical landscape. Then came the September 11 attacks. The immediate aftermath was a lot of patriotic, if not jingoistic, chest-beating, mostly from the country music universe. On the rock charts, the response was more blurry. Some artists were happy to bang the drum for a brand new war effort; others recognized how calamitous war would be.
"Aerials" may not be an overtly political song, but System of a Down made no bones about being a political band. That made them something of an outlier on turn of the century alternative radio, but when you make music that absolutely slaps, or have a vocalist as talented as Serj Tankian, well, there was no way I could ignore this group.
Serj Tankian was born in 1967 in Beirut, Lebanon, the grandson of survivors of the Armenian genocide. He moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was seven, where they settled in with the Armenian community and he met future bandmates Daron Malakian and Shavo Odadjian. Tankian went to college at California State University, Northridge, and after graduating was briefly the CEO of a software company marketed toward jewelers.
All the while, he was interested in playing music, and eventually decided to pursue it as his career. He joined Malakian and Odadjian in a band called Soil in the mid-90s, but the group was short-lived. The three of them went on to form System of a Down, rounding out the group with drummer Andy Khachaturian. Khachaturian soon left the group after suffering a hand injury, but would go on to form the group The Apex Theory. (Their biggest hit on my chart, the delirious "Shh... Hope Diggy", peaked at #36 in 2002.) He was replaced by John Dolmayan.
All four members are of Armenian descent, and the tortured history of Armenians following the 1915 genocide, something the modern-day country of Turkiye still refuses to acknowledge, weighed heavily on the band's music. The first song they recorded was a contribution to a compilation album raising awareness of the atrocity. The band played shows at clubs in Los Angeles where they caught the attention of super-producer Rick Rubin, who's already been in this column with his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Rubin signed the band to his record label, even though he didn't think they would attract a wide audience. The band quickly went to work on their debut album, and System of a Down was released in 1998. They slowly built a following, played the second stage on the Ozzfest tour, and touring with bands like Slayer, Fear Factory, and Incubus. A couple of their singles even caught the ears of radio programmers. "Sugar" and "Spiders" both scraped the Modern Rock chart toward the end of 1999.
For their next album, the band sought a wide range of inspiration. Wikipedia lists everything from thrash metal, folk, jazz, hip-hop, and Middle Eastern music as influences on the sound of the record. But mixing of those genres gave the band a unique sound and identity. Nowhere was this more apparent than on lead single "Chop Suey!". The song mystified me when I first heard it, and every time it came on, I felt curiosity more than pleasure. As in, "where the fuck did these guys come from?" Maybe that's why the song only peaked at #7 on my top 40 in the fall of 2001, which feels like a criminally low peak.
I obviously wasn't the only one who wanted to know what this band was about. Their album Toxicity was released in the summer of 2001, and was the #1 album in the United States on 9/11. Unfortunately for the group, the attacks dented the album's momentum, especially after Clear Channel included "Chop Suey!" on their list of songs they discouraged radio stations from playing after the attacks. The song stalled out at #7 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, and #12 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
I doubt a band like System of a Down could ever do anything that would be considered "playing it safe", but I probably felt that way when I heard the follow-up single "Toxicity". It's a fine song, but it didn't captivate me the way "Chop Suey!" did, and it only got to #24 on my top 40. Still, the song wound up being the biggest hit yet for the group, getting to #3 on the alternative chart.
"Aerials" wound up being the third single from the album. It's the final track on Toxicity, not counting the hidden track "Arto" that follows it. It's kind of a quiet storm of a song, slowly building up to Tankian's vocals. The song deals with conformity and how easily people can lose their sense of self in society. "Life is a waterfall/we're one in the river/and one again after the fall". Tankian's narrator criticizes how shallow people can be following the trends. People want and take, but never try to give back. "We are the ones who want to play/Always wanna go/But you never want to stay".
That's deep shit for a 16-year-old to process, and it probably took a while for the message to sink in. Of course, conformity is an issue almost every teenager deals with at some point, I was starting to come out of my shell at this time, only to deal with my parents' impending divorce. I think I was finally starting to carve out my identity, and a band like System of a Down would play a large role in shaping it.
Let's talk about the video for a minute. The main character in it is an androgynous, slightly extraterrestrial-looking child. At first we see them posing with low-riders and looking like an total gangster. The child is feted by models and the press, and poses for a pretentious photographer. But it's clear the child feels some ambivalence about the fame they've achieved. For the viewer, it seems clear that everyone around the child seems like a hanger-on, leeching out their fame to get a fraction of their own. It was an arresting video to watch back then, especially when it was in constant rotation on MTV2.
The song would be the biggest hit yet for the group. It was their first chart-topper on the Modern Rock chart, and made it to #55 on the Billboard Hot 100.
During the Toxicity album cycle, some unreleased tracks for the sessions leaked and made the rounds on the internet. Rather than be litigious about it, the band simply finished the tracks and released the songs as Steal This Album! in the fall of 2002. Three songs from the album made my chart: "Innervisions" got to #20 in the winter of 2003, "I-E-A-I-A-I-O" got to #28, and "Boom!", on the strength of a fiercely anti-Iraq War video, got to #38.
As the fallout from the 9/11 attacks and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made their mark on American society, many musicians found they had to tread carefully in the new terrain. System of a Down would not be one of them. They leaned into the brewing anti-war sentiments they felt to make their most ambitious albums yet. But we'll get into that later. System of a Down will return to this column.
Here's Machine Gun Kelly covering "Aerials" on The Howard Stern Show in 2022.
(Machine Gun Kelly's biggest hit on my top 40, 2020's "Bloody Valentine", peaked at #3.)