Rock music has always been about making a statement. From Big Mama Thornton to AC/DC, rock music offers the grit and intensity to say something bold. Take that and turn it up to 11 with System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” Released just a month before the 9/11 attack, the strangely named song incited controversy, fueling a rumor that the group were psychics and prophets. How did such a strange song make so many waves?
The calm before the storm: the making of the song.
“Chop Suey!” is very busy both lyrically and musically. The driving strums of the guitar and frontman Serj Tankian’s rapid-fire verses make for an overstimulating experience that takes a second for the brain to catch up. Despite the busyness of the song, the way it came into being was actually quite… calm.
The song was born in the back of an RV between stop-offs on the tour for System’s debut album. Guitarist Daron Malakian always had an acoustic guitar on-hand and picked it up to entertain himself on the long drive on some random, unnamed highway.
“I was just hanging out by myself on a bed at the back,” said Malakian. “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!”
“Chop Suey!” comes from the band’s second album, Toxicity. As bold a move as it was to release this as a single, it solidified the group’s breakout hit. The song begins with an iconic, driving chord progression before the rapid-fire chaos of the verses unfolds. Frontman Serg Tankian’s energy on the verses comes out in righteous anger before slowing down to the half-time lines that would ignite the controversy.
I don’t think you trust
In… My… Self-righteous suicide
I… Cry… When angels deserve to die
“Our fans were starting to say, ‘Hey, these guys are prophets, they’re saying things that hadn’t happened yet,’” says Malakian. “‘Self-righteous suicide’, ‘Aerials in the sky’ [from the Toxicity track Aerials], Jet Pilot.’ I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s cool they think that. Let’s make them believe we actually did it.’”
Despite the assumptions, the song was intended to make a comment on the ways that people die. Malakian said that people judge others for how they pass, especially if due to any drug-related issues.
“The song is about how when people die, they will be regarded differently depending on the way they pass,” said Malakian. “Like, if I were to die from a drug overdose, everyone would say I deserved it because I abused drugs, hence the line Angels deserve to die.”
So… What exactly is chop suey? The meaning behind the song title.
The title of the song is named after a Chinese stew made with meat or fish, plus bamboo sprouts, onions, rice, and water chestnuts. While seemingly random, the group chose the title to describe their musical style: lots of stuff thrown together. The title stands out and is not mentioned at all in the lyrics, but the strange choice is believed to have helped the song’s success.
While the song would eventually receive a gold certification status from the Recording Industry Association, the song’s initial charting success was cut short.
In the days after 9/11, US media conglomerate Clear Channel sent a memo to each of its radio stations with a list of questionable songs that programmers and DJs might want to consider not playing in the wake of the 9/11 attack. “Chop Suey!” was removed from the radio for a brief time as Clear Channel and promoters thought it too aggressive considering the circumstances.
Despite the timing, the song still managed to make the US Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number 7 on US Billboard Alternative Airplay.
“In music, that’s a badge of honor,” said 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.”
Listen to System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” below:
Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage