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When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers System of a Down.
I’ve been working in music since I was about 19, but I’ve been obsessed with music since before I can remember. I got lucky growing up in a family with a diverse musical taste. My dad loved rock n’roll classics, and would play music games with us in the car on Saturdays while running errands with him in the mornings. We had to guess the name and artist of the song played, and whoever got it first won a small prize. I think we were the only 7, 9, and 12-year-olds who knew who Dee Snyder was, or that “Crazy Train” had one of the “best guitar intros in the history of music.” My dad also had an ear for electronic music. We used to go roller blading on Saturday mornings at this gym called Mildred E. Strang, where they would set up a full rink for families who wanted to come get their blading on. They would bring in a DJ and he would play everything from Jock Jams to Darude to Aqua and everything in between. My dad loved that music, and pretty soon we found our Saturday morning errands also including a trip to F.Y.E. Music store, and the car radio split between Quiet Riot and C&C Music Factory.
When we would get home, and open the front door, my mom would be busy blasting Colm Wilkinson or Les Miserables on the nice speakers, the living room speakers, that no child was allowed to touch under any circumstances. She loved Broadway music and I think that was probably one of the main reasons why my older sister got into theater and became a Broadway kid. My sister would make us put on plays on the staircase, and I think by the age of 9, I knew most the words to Miss Saigon, Jekyll & Hyde, Phantom of the Opera, and besides my family, knew no other child who had any idea of what I was talking about when I told of them of the most recent Broadway play I saw.
My oldest sister, who is six years above me, loved garage rock, metal and progressive. I would sit at the foot of her bed when she came home from school and listen to tapes with her. Sometimes, when she would go to friends houses, I would sneak into her room and turn on her silver radio, always to 92.3 K-Rock and bask in the sounds of guitar. Around the age of 10 or 11, I started to notice that some songs would put a weird, unfamiliar feeling in my stomach, and I would either become sick, or it would make me feel really, really good. (I later learned that some music I associated with sadness and death, and it would feed into my severe anxiety and make me ill.) I remember getting so excited every time this one song would come on K-Rock, something about “angels deserving to die.” I can’t explain the feeling, but it just made my insides feel really, really comfortable. Sometimes I would get so excited my eyes would fill up with tears and still, to this day, I don’t why my body does that when I hear certain types of music. There were a couple other songs I would wait for on the radio, and I ended up developing favorites, but these were dark, dark ages before the internet so I couldn’t look anything up online. A couple months later, I was in the car with my mom picking up my sister from play practice. I stayed in the car and adjusted the stereo to K-Rock and the guy came on and said “Now for POWER HOUR: System of a Down”. All of a sudden, the angels song came on (“Chop Suey!”), followed by “Aerials,” and then “Toxicity”. All these songs I fell in love with randomly on the radio were by the same damn band. Who were these magical music heroes? This had to be a sign. This must have meant they were my favorite band. Anyway, I finally told my sister about this band and she brought home Steal this Album. I didn’t tell my mom or really anyone because for some reason I thought I would get in trouble and not be allowed to listen to them. “Do you know who System of a Down is?” became a weird question I asked fellow students in seventh and eighth grade. When I had friends over, I always played them in the background just to kind of gauge a reaction. It never went over too well.
Over time, I obsessed. I loved everything about System of a Down. From Serj’s operatic vocals, to the pinging guitars that felt like they reached into your gut and pulled out a longing you didn’t know existed. There was something different about their sound, among all the other rock bands played on 92.3 K-Rock. There was something deeply intrinsic, and gutting in their sound. Take “Aerials,” “Dreaming,” “Holy Mountains,” and “Question!” - the crescendoes into loud, heightened musical messes under visceral vocals that are so strong, so pining, that it actually takes your breath away. Then they had songs like “Radio/Video” and “B.Y.O.B,” which are 100% rock songs, but somehow, someway they made you laugh, and dance. Like really, really dance. Like I’m pretty sure I requested “B.Y.O.B” at a high school dance one time. They made me emotional (and later on, emo), and I made sure I had every single one of their albums. When I was a sophomore in high school, their dual magic Hypnotize and Mesmerize came out, one on September 17th, and one on my birthday May 17th. Even more of a sign. I remember one time in high school dialing into 92.3 K-Rock and “requesting a song”. I begged the DJ to play “B.Y.O.B” and he said “only if you are on your knees”, which I’m sure he wouldn’t have said if he knew I was 16. They played it on air, I sounded like a man, and I cried because the feeling of hearing a song you love so much, before being able to stream music was one of the best feelings in the entire world. This music led to skateboarding, and skateboarding led to getting into really trivial, juvenile, stupid trouble, (like staying out too late or driving with a person in my car when I wasn’t supposed to and jumping on random peoples trampolines), which then led me to going to a private college for the first two years with 180 people in the middle of Georgia.
I’m only half kidding about music being the catalyst. I got along with no one the first couple of months, and I didn’t want to. (Taurus, very stubborn.) I did nothing but go to class, then back to my dorm room, plug in and listen to music the duration of the day and night. Later that semester, I ended up making one of the best friends I ever had, and will have, because he was one of the only other people on campus who listened to SOAD. We also realized that not only did we both obsess over SOAD, we also really, really loved trance, techno, and all electronic music. There was a weird connection between experimental rock and electronic, I later learned in life. Anyway, we used to take drives down empty roads for the sole purpose of blasting System of a Down, Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet for My Valentine. Those were some of my favorite memories in college, just being able to let your hair down and rock the hell out to music blasting with the windows down. That guys name was Dom and he’s still one of my favorite people I have ever met in my life.
People make fun of SOAD, but nobody really understands the power they had behind their sound. Not only did they have a purpose with their music, highlighting the Armenian genocide and other political shitstorms going on around us, but taking such severe issues and then masking them in either a humorous musical way, or just a pure, unadulterated, vulgar rock, was really, really cool. I will never be ashamed to have loved SOAD, and I will continue to wear my Toxicity shirt proudly. They were, and always will be profound, politically musical heroes.