System of a Down’s ‘Toxicity’ Turns 20

On September 4, System of a Down’s seminal record, Toxicity, turned 20.

Videos by American Songwriter

Released back in 2001, the album and its brilliant blending of potent political sentiments, powerful heavy metal arrangements, and ingeniously catchy pop melodies took the world by storm, climbing to the No. 1 spot overnight (a position it held through 9/11, which happened just a week later). Produced by Rick Rubin, the urgency of its message and sound rings just as strong today as it did all those years ago… a sign of the talent possessed by the minds that brought it into the world.

A genuinely collaborative effort between Rubin and the band—consisting of vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan—the context around Toxicity’s creation and release have become a definitive episode in music history lore. A day before it dropped, a planned free show in a Los Angeles parking lot turned into a riot… which garnered international news coverage, putting the band’s name in headlines around the world. Then, censored by the post-9/11 radio restrictions—and the recipients of backlash due to an essay titled “Understanding Oil,” penned by Tankian in the wake of the attacks—the band was wrapped up in the zeitgeist of the confusing, era-defining times. 

But the enduring relevance of Toxicity proves that its success goes much, much deeper than just being a part of the circa-late-2001 news cycle… many of the songs are as hard-hitting now as they were then, if not more so. Just look at the opening track, “Prison Song,” with the lyrics:

All research and successful drug policy show / That treatment should be increased
And law enforcement decreased / While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences /
Utilizing drugs to pay for secret wars around the world / Drugs are now your global policy / Now you police the globe

If you had never heard the song before, you might even guess the tune was written twenty years later than it was, in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests—rather, its strong message against the drug-infused, state-supported war economy and American mass incarceration was a precursor to many of the dialogues being held today (though, as the song goes through the effort to point out, these political trends have been noticeably on the rise since the ‘80s).

Speaking to Variety for a story on the album’s 20th anniversary, Odadjian supposed it’s retained its relevance because of its ability to put these wider issues in a personal context. “It speaks on everything from war to suicide to spirituality to sex,” he said. “We are a social band. Sometimes you wake up not wanting to think about politics; sometimes you wake up horny, or angry, or grateful, or miserable… These are things [anyone] can relate to. I think politics-wise, shit’s going down right now that’s not so different from what was happening then. It’s different people playing the game, but it’s still politics.”

Jumping onto that, Malakian added, “I think it’s still relevant because the lyrics come from a place of everyday life. Times change, but there are things in society that stay the same…. It comes down to: we’re all living on this planet and have our own experiences, and if you can feel your experiences through our songs, that’s what I was trying to achieve lyrically.”

Musically, the equation all came down to a perfect pairing between “artist” and “producer”—the band stands by the fact that Rubin was the perfect person to complement their signature style. “He has such an ear,” Odadjian said. “He doesn’t need to change your style, but he knows how to make your style pop. For example, Daron brought in ‘Aerials’—we played it for Rick and he was like, ‘Eh, it’s good.’ Our egos dropped as he said there was something missing in a song we felt was our masterpiece. Rick came in and said, ‘You know that main riff? You never play it heavy…. Somewhere in the middle, why don’t you break it down and play it?’ It made the song. He just threw it at us like a bird whispering something in our ear.”

Perhaps the most memorable moment on Toxicity is its breakout single, “Chop Suey,” which remains SOAD’s biggest hit to date. Originally titled “Suicide,” once the band got a feel for how good of a tune it was going to be, they realized they needed to change the name to make it as radio-friendly as it could be. And when it came to finishing the lyrics, it was another case of Rick Rubin magic.

“I was stuck on lyrics at one point for ‘Chop Suey,’” Tankian said. “I remember going to Rick Rubin’s house and him saying, ‘Pick up a book, flip to a page and see what you see.’ It was quite incredible—I did that and we ended up with the [bridge]: ‘How have you forsaken me/ Father have you forsaken me.’ I like using the universal method sometimes because when you’re on the right path the universe conspires with you.”

In the Variety interview, the band made clear that looking back on Toxicity and the two decades it’s been around, they’re proud of what they’ve made. “I’m just glad that people still recognize the band and the album after such a long time,” Malakian said. “When we decide to play live, people still show up, you know? So, I’m grateful that so much time has gone and the band seems to still be relevant.”

While the future of the band looks like it’ll probably entail a continuation of their hiatus (due to political and personal differences), Toxicity is the special kind of album that will forever remain timeless. Speaking with Variety, the band’s long-time manager, David “Beno” Benveniste, summed it up pretty well.

“I’ve been in this business 26 years now and I can say with complete conviction and declaration that Toxicity is one of the most important and proud pieces of art that I’ve ever been associated with—not only as a manager in helping it come to fruition but as a fan of music and culture,” he said. “I honestly put that record up there with the greatest hard rock records of all time.”

System of a Down’s Toxicity turned 20 on September 4—watch the music video for the title track below:

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