WHEN SINGLE VOICES
UNITE AS ONE
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
On the surface, of course, no way. Such positions are naive. As a tool, at most, it amplifies revolution, shapes minds, raises awareness, sparks concern. But it doesn't topple regimes alone. You need a willing audience for that.
Truth to Power (Oscilloscope Laboratories) could be a standard music documentary. Ultimately, however, it chooses a different path. It begins more than a century ago with the Armenian Genocide that wiped out 1 million people during World War I. A boy named Stepan Haytayan survived the slaughter and lived to recount his harrowing story for future generations, even for posterity on film (2006’s Screamers).
His grandson, the Beirut-born Tankian, fled the unyielding unrest with his family in 1975 and resurfaced in Los Angeles, growing up in a neighborhood known as Little Armenia. He attended school, graduated from Cal State Northridge with a business degree, and began his professional adulthood in downtown L.A.’s jewelry district.
An offscreen voice poses that most innocuous interview question: “Can music change the world?”
But it wasn't the life he sought. While in college, he’d experimented with a Casio keyboard and dabbled in music. This side pursuit resulted in his first band, Forever Young, an Armenian-American unit performing in both English and their native tongue.
Forever Young led to Soil in the early ’90s, with Tankian abandoning all jewelry-adjacent dreams. Eight months later, the frontman/keyboardist pulled bandmates Daron Malakian (guitar) and bassist/ex-manager Shavo Odadjian into a new venture. After recrutiting drummer Ontronik Khachaturian, they re-emerged in 1994 as System of a Down. (Full disclosure: Not a fan, but I dig where they're coming from.)
The group arrived at an interesting cultural juncture, where metal was on the commercial wane and dreams intersected with purpose. In the world at large, the United States government had still refused to recognize the Armenian genocide 90 years after the fact; it didn't matter matter whose ideology was most prevalent. Armenia itself remained brutally unscrupulous in the long aftermath. There were no recognized Armenian celebrities in the United States; current System drummer John Dolmayan cracks that the Kardashians hadn’t fully arrived yet. System of a Down, however, is fueled by Tankian’s understanding of the Armenian condition and his desire to rain fire on it — an interesting stance for a loud metal band whose immense fanbase may not have been interested in such matters. “It’s time to tell Turkey to go fuck themselves!” he shouts at an early show. His audience cheers its approval, even if they don't care.
System of a Down’s story interweaves with its leader’s determination to stoke consciences. We see the band in vintage footage with producer Rick Rubin — a perennially hirsute Buddha, calmly injecting wisdom in contemporary rap sessions with Tankian — as they execute their self-titled 1998 debut. Toxicity followed in 2001, as did personal and sociopolitical turmoil. (You didn't even have to be in a band to feel that.) The day before the latter's release, overcrowding forced the cancellation of a free show in Hollywood, resulting in a six-hour riot. A week later, two commercial planes hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists crashed into lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center, collapsing both towers and killing nearly 3,000 people.
Tankian responded to the horror with a heartfwrenchingly-conflicted-yet-incendiary essay, “Understanding Oil,” on the band’s website. Its controversial conclusions exploded in upheaval as the United States braced for war. To many, Tankian seemed to justify the violence. Clear Channel pulled the “Chop Suey!” single and the frontman was tossed before media tribunals to explain his position to no one's satisfaction. Even his angry bandmates were taken aback. Is Tankian anti-American or what? Nope, just your average passionate humanist at a very wrong time.
Of course, that didn't prevent Tankian from lobbying to hire documentarian/gadfly/provocateur Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) to provoke with an animated video for Steal This Album!'s "Boom!" (2002) featuring protest footage and cartoon depictions of then-president George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Tony Blair riding rockets like broncos to their own annihilation.
Tankian spent much of his offstage time lobbying for the United States to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Genocide. His efforts failed. Meanwhile, System of a Down sputtered to hiatus on a strong pair of albums, the Grammy-winning Mezmerize and Hypnotize (both 2005). "As you grow as an artist," Tankian mused, "you have more to give as an artist." He proved it with a string of acclaimed solo albums, beginning with 2007's Elect the Dead and including a symphonic work, Orca Symphony, No. 1 (2012).
System of a Down reconvened a few years later for live dates, culminating with a free, two-hour-plus April 2015 performance in ever-troubled Armenia. Little could they have known that a coming force of change was watching from the audience. Tankian could visit his home country to raise awareness all he wanted and join failed efforts to change the fates of bought-and-sold parliamentary elections, but the movement required something small and determined that would resonate just as loudly as a System song at top volume.
It arrived in the form of journalist Nikol Pashinyan, fronting a powerful protest movement that eventually forced the 2018 ouster of Armenian prime minister Serzh Sargsyan. During the protests, Tankian, watching with interest from the United States, was surprised to hear Pashinyan invoke his name as some kind of talisman. The kid who'd fled Beirut 40 years earlier had been elevated to a folk hero in his home country, far superior to any rock stardom he enjoyed. Later, when Tankian dines with Pashniyan and the new leader tells him he was present at Armenia's System of a Down concert, quietly plotting revolution, two agents of good realize what they've accomplished at opposite poles of influence. And remember when America spent 100 years ignoring the Armenian Genocide? In 2019, we recognized it at last.
So, yes. Music can change the world in the end. But it requires an effective union, even if unconscious, between loud and soft, creator and audience. Hear the System, fight the system. Whatever you do, don't stop.
NOTE: You can't keep Serj Tankian quiet. Watch for his upcoming Elasticity EP on March 15 and check him out in an upcoming episode of WTF with Marc Maron.