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System v. The System

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In the spring of 2003, as the nation slouched towards the mother of all strategic blunders in Iraq, I was working as a producer for Fuse, a new rival to MTV. The mood in the country was ugly. Clear Channel, the conglomerate which owns 1,700 radio stations, had issued a banned song list which included John Lennon’s Imagine. Dixie Chicks CDs were being burned in large patriotic pyres.

One of the only mainstream bands to put it on the line was the eclectic metal band System of a Down, whose hit song Boom rang out:

Boom, boom, boom, boom,
Every time you drop the bomb,
You kill the God your child has born.
Boom, boom, boom, boom.

The band produced an unapologetic antiwar music video for Boom with Michael Moore, who at the time was finishing up Fahrenheit 9/11. Shot at the massive antiwar protests held around the world in February 2003, the video inter-cut protesters decrying the looming invasion with scenes of death and destruction. It was a well-produced, stirringly populist video for a popular song. But MTV and Fuse refused to play it. A Fuse executive told me that the network declined to play the video because the U.S. Army was a major sponsor of the channel – the people in ad sales didn’t want to piss off the generals.

Despite everything I know about how this screwed up country works, I was stunned. It was eerie to see how one middle manager in ad sales could so casually squelch such important dissent at such a critical time in our nation’s history. The scariest part is the military didn’t have to lift a finger.

The video eventually got on the air, but only after the war had started. The experience didn’t stop the band from continuing to speak out. As Serj Tankian, System’s lead singer, recently told me in an interview for Air America Radio, “Nothing’s made us think about muzzling ourselves. We say and do whatever is in our hearts.”

Today, System is hotter than ever. In 2004, they recorded two albums Mezmerize and Hypnotize. Mezmerize was released in the United States and Europe in May and quickly exploded to the top of the charts, the group’s second consecutive number one debut.

The second part of the two-CD set, Hypnotize, was released last month. Reviews have been mixed. Rolling Stone wrote “There is no getting around it: System of a Down nearly made the no-contest hard-rock album of 2005. Instead, they have released a double album, Mezmerize/Hypnotize, in six-month chunks—two separate records that each fall shy of pulverizing perfection and appear to be conceptually bound by little more than speed, fuzz and nonstop bile.” Nevertheless, the album hit number one last week on the Billboard charts.

Hypnotize continues the band’s assault on the Bush administration and consumer culture. In Attack, Tankian sings: “For today we will take the body parts… put ‘em up on the wall and bring the dark thereafter.” The song concludes, “We’re the prophetic generation of bottled water, bottled water/ Causing populations to die, to die, to die.”

As the war rages in Iraq and the administration’s approval ratings drop to close to 30%, dissent is no longer a dirty word. But war isn’t the band’s only political stand. In fact, there’s an issue that cuts even closer to home. All members of System of a Down are of Armenian descent and have been pushing for years for the U.S. Congress to issue a statement condemning the Turkish slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923.

The soft-spoken Tankian told me, “Whoever is living in the diaspora outside of Armenia, their only reason for living is having a survivor grandfather, as is my case, as is the case with the other guys in the band. We all grew up hearing the stories. So this is important for their memories for them. Right before I left LA, I promised my grandfather, who is 97, that I’d get ahold of Dennis Hastert and talk to him about it.”

Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) is the speaker of the House and chair of the influential International Relations Committee. In September, the committee overwhelmingly approved legislation recognizing the Armenian Genocide, despite objections from both Turkey and the Bush Administration. Even though the genocide came at the hands of the now defunct Ottoman Empire, successive Turkish governments have steadfastly denied the killings were anything other than the legitimate squashing of an ethnic rebellion in a time of war.

Despite his previous public support for the measure in 2000, Rep. Hastert has twice prevented the Armenian Genocide legislation from coming to a full vote in the House. Most assume the speaker is simply following the lead of the White House, which doesn’t want to make already strained U.S.-Turkey relations any worse.

But there are other, more insidious, theories. Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator, has alleged that Rep. Hastert may have received tens of thousands of dollars of secret payments from Turkish officials in exchange for political favors and information. Edmonds told Vanity Fair magazine that she gave confidential testimony about the payments to congressional staffers, the Inspector General and members of the 9/11 Commission. Edmonds says that she heard of the payments while listening to FBI wiretaps of Turkish officials who were under surveillance by the FBI.

Rep. Hastert had denied the charges.

Tankian is undaunted in keeping his promise to his grandfather. While in Chicago for a tour date, he led a protest with the band and several hundred supporters in front of Hastert’s district offices (watch video of the protest here). When I asked Tankian why he thought it was proving so difficult to get a seemingly straight-forward recognition of a historical fact passed through Congress, he replied, “We have the same enemies of a lot of good and just causes. We have the military industrial complex, the Bush administration and a lot of corporate interests who have aligned themselves to a key NATO ally that they sell a lot of weapons and products to. They don’t want it to come out – these are the apologists for Turkey’s Armenian genocide.”

For more about System of a Down see www.systemofadown.com and www.soadfans.com. For more info about Tankian’s political activities, see Axis of Justice, the non-profit organization he started with Audioslave’s Tom Morello.