In the days after 9/11, US media conglomerate Clear Channel sent an internal memo to each of the 1,100 radio stations it owned. It included a list of more than 160 ‘lyrically questionable’ songs that programmers and DJs might want to consider not playing in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers.
Drowning Pool’s Bodies was on the list, as was AC/DC’s Shot Down In Flames, every single Rage Against The Machine song and – what?!? – Alanis Morissette’s Ironic. Also in there was System Of A Down’s Chop Suey!, the first single from the LA band’s second album, Toxicity, which had been released that very week. The lines ‘I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide/I cry when angels deserve to die’ were deemed too much for post-9/11 America to take, and the song was quietly pulled from the Clear Channel network.
“In music, that’s a badge of honour,” says System guitarist Daron Malakian. “So many great rock bands have been banned. It’s almost like you’re not part of the cool group if you’re not banned once or twice. I think it made the song more popular.”
He’s wrong, strictly speaking. Chop Suey! wasn’t officially banned, but the edict could have stopped System’s rapid career upswing dead in its tracks. Instead, it barely dented the song’s momentum. Alternately jarring, soothing, bullish and confusing, it reflected the shattered mirror that was America’s psyche at that precise moment – the perfect soundtrack to those disorientating times.
Today, Chop Suey! stands as System Of Down’s most famous song, and a 21st-century metal landmark. Its 600 million-plus Spotify plays are greater than any single Metallica song and bigger than the two most popular Slipknot songs combined. Last year it notched up one billion YouTube views – the first metal song to pass that figure, give or take Linkin Park’s In The End.
“When I wrote it, I did not think Chop Suey! was gonna be any different to any of our other songs,” says Daron. “But that was the one that pushed open the door for us.”
People connected to Chop Suey! in the period immediately before, during and after 9/11. And almost 20 years on, they haven’t stopped connecting to it.
Modern metal’s greatest song was born in the back of an RV travelling down some long- forgotten highway between stop-offs on the tour for System’s debut album.
“I was just hanging out by myself on a bed at the back,” says Daron. “There was an acoustic guitar I used to take around with me. I just started playing that acoustic guitar, and that’s when I started writing Chop Suey!.”
It didn’t tumble out fully formed, nor was it the only song he had flying around his head. It was one of a batch of ideas that the guitarist spent the best part of a year working on in private before he presented them to his bandmates and producer Rick Rubin as contenders for Toxicity.
Where the songs from System’s first album were designed to set off depth- charges in moshpits everywhere, this new song was simultaneously more experimental and more melodic. It shifted from broken-glass riff to quasi-rapped mutant-funk verses to a simple two-line sunburst of a chorus. Even at that early stage, it could only have been a System Of A Down song.
While the initial version had a recognisable shape, Daron’s original lyrics were completely different: ‘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?’ System singer Serj Tankian would alter song’s opening, turning it into an memorable clarion call: ‘Wake up/Grab a brush and put a little make-up.’
Like many of System’s songs, the finished lyrics were vivid but opaque, designed to be shouted along to but not necessarily understood. Precisely what ‘Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?/Here you go create another fable’ means is still up for grabs.
“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…”
If the song’s meaning was slippery, there was no denying the power of its hymnal cornerstone lyric: ‘Trust in my self-righteous suicide.’ That was the line that unlocked the song, and also gave it its working title: ‘Suicide’.
The band and Rick Rubin worked on the album at Cello Studios, Hollywood. “There were late, late hours,” says Daron of the sessions. “I was in my early 20s and there was a lot of experimentation of substances. Let’s leave it at that…”
When it came to picking a first single, the decision was unanimous: Chop Suey!. They just had to do something about the title, ‘Suicide’. “Because it wasn’t really about suicide,” says Daron. “It was a lazy title.”
Lazy and potentially provocative. Received wisdom is that the label strong-armed the band into changing it for fear that radio wouldn’t go near the song. “Not true,” counters Daron. “Nobody pressured us. We were, like, ‘It’s our first single from the album, do we want to give the radio a reason not to play it?’”
He had a ready-made replacement title: Chop Suey!. It’s partly a play on words – ‘suicide’ chopped in half – and partly a left-field nod to old black and white gangster movies he’d watched as a kid. “It was something they used to say: ‘We’ll make chop suey out of him!’ It meant, ‘We’re gonna kill him.’ It tied in with the whole death thing.”
Chop Suey! was released on August 13, 2001, three weeks ahead of Toxicity. Its hyper-kinetic video – filmed in the courtyard of a once-seedy Sunset Strip hotel that Daron and bassist Shavo Odadjian remembered crawling with hookers and junkies back when they were kids - reflected the song’s shifting personality, while the guitarist’s bug-eyed nerviness and henna-tattooed torso screamed ‘Step away from the weirdo!’
The music and visuals channelled nu metal’s original freaks-on-a-leash spirit, but it was all a world away from the army of wallet-chained mooks that had sprung up in the wake of Korn and Limp Bizkit’s mega-success. MTV hit the video hard, pushing it to an audience who had missed System’s debut album. That was when Daron got the first inkling that he’d written a hit.
“We were on tour when the video came out,” he says. “I hadn’t seen it, but we went to this mall and suddenly people recognised us: ‘Can we take a picture of you?’ That had never fucking happened to me before.”
Chop Suey! was the perfect primer for Toxicity’s why-use-one-idea-when-72-will-do approach, and its success helped its parent album shift 200,000 copies in the US in its first seven days. But exactly a week after Toxicity’s release, Al Qaeda flew two planes into the World Trade Center and the song formerly known as ‘Suicide’ was yanked from the airwaves.
That’s when things started getting weird. The tinfoil-hatted wing of their fanbase zeroed in on the line ‘self-righteous suicide’. In their fevered imaginations, Chop Suey! had predicted what was coming.
“Our fans were starting to say, ‘Hey, these guys are prophets, they’re saying things that hadn’t happened yet,’” says Daron. “‘Self righteous suicide’, ‘Aerials in the sky’ [from Toxicity track Aerials], Jet Pilot.’ I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s cool they think that. Let’s make them believe we actually did it.’”
Metal’s industrial-conspiracy complex was way off base, of course. So were Clear Channel, whose tacit ban failed to halt Chop Suey!’s rise. Despite 9/11 - or maybe because of it – the song burrowed deep into America’s psyche.
“It has this very experimental side that wasn’t like anything the radio was playing at the time, but also a really melodic side that really caught people,” says Daron. “There’s this naturally hooky thing that comes out of me whenever I write. It’s not just Chop Suey!. I’d extend it to BYOB, Toxicity, any of the other System Of A Down songs that were radio hits.”
Chop Suey! fired the starting gun on System Of A Down’s superstar phase, helping propel Toxicity to No.1 in the US and elevating its creators to arena headliner status and beyond. But it also heralded nu metal’s final hurrah: Toxicity was the scene’s last true blockbuster album. “Do we even fall in the nu metal category?” says Daron. “I don’t think we sound like any of those bands. Personally, I think we sound like System Of A Down.”
Genre labels may be fluid, but Chop Suey!’s success isn’t. The digital metrics are indelible: one billion YouTube views and 623 million Spotify streams. More impressively, its cultural impact can be measured by the head-spinning array of covers out there down the years: metal versions (most notably by Motionless In White), classical versions, cello versions, tiny drum versions, chill-out versions, a version by comedian Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live and, inevitably, a version by pre-teen internet drum prodigy Nandi Bushell. As recently as December 2020, it was covered in lockdown by US metalcore band August Burns Red.
“It’s a song like Livin’ On A Prayer or Don’t Stop Believin’,” says August Burns Red guitarist JB Brubaker, who fell in love with it as a punk-loving kid back in 2001. “It’s transcended generations and is just one of those songs that everyone recognises. To me, it’s a track that defined an era in rock music.”
Chop Suey! may have taken on a life of its own in a way that System Of A Down could never have imagined, but for the man who wrote it on a bed in the back of an RV travelling between gigs more than two decades ago, it remains oddly personal.
“It makes me feel proud that what we do still holds up, and that people still connect with it,” says Daron. “But it’s funny that this little song that I had such a tiny moment with in that RV has become this thing that people can’t imagine their lives without. That’s special to me.”
Published in Metal Hammer #346