Message in the Music: System of a Down Destroys the American War Machine

(ANTIMEDIA) Though it is arguably the epitome of consumerism and the darker side of the “American dream,” Los Angeles has always been a source of new waves in the music scene. Some of America’s most iconic bands and musicians were picked up from the Los Angeles area, including Rage Against the Machine, N.W.A., Tool, The Doors, Sublime, Metallica, and many more.

Today, in part two of our “Message in the Music” series,  we’re going to take a look at the popular Los Angeles natives who make up System of a Down.

System of a Down (SOAD) formed in 1994, originally as a project called Soil. After a very brief existence, Soil called it quits, and System of a Down was born from the remaining pieces. Throughout their career, SOAD has used their popular artist platform to spread political awareness and a very powerful anti-establishment narrative.

With lyrical themes that typically revolve around politics, drugs, and sex, SOAD supplies their audience with a diversified catalog of subject matter. Here, we will observe and discuss a few SOAD tunes that aptly capture the modern political world.

As a reader and a listener, please keep in mind that music and lyrics have many interpretations, and everything presented here is derived from personal understandings. It is encouraged that you engage yourself with the messages and formulate your own meanings.


“War” is a track from SOAD’s 1998 self-titled debut. Though not as successful as their follow-up release, “Toxicity,” the self-titled album introduced a fresh twist on the then-evolving genre of nu-metal. “War” is a high-energy track that discusses the justification of war by the bloodthirsty. An excerpt of the verses reads:

We must call upon our bright darkness

Beliefs, they’re the bullets of the wicked

One was written on the sword,

For you must enter a room to destroy it

International security, call of the righteous man

Needs a reason to kill a man

History teaches us so

The reason he must attain must be approved by his God

His child, partisan brother of war

We will fight the heathens

Here, Tankian discusses how people justify war and foreign invasion through politics and religion. Threats are identified across the world ─ in this case, the Middle East ─ and are then declared a danger to international security. This leads the people to believe that being rid of these “heathens” is a service to the world, making warmongers and killers righteous in the eyes of their country and/or the eyes of God.

During a 2000 performance in Denver, CO, Serj Tankian (the band’s lead singer) introduced “War” with a short speech:

“When your lives depend upon American corporate profits in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America, all over the world. When the CIA has gone to bed with all the companies ─ financial institutions and multinational corporations ─ your destiny has ended. Your government has sold you to the 5% of the population that controls 95% of the assets. Your lives are over in the next 15-20 years. Why? WHY? Because your environment is fucking dying. There is not enough to support the human race, and why? Why!? For fucking profits! For fucking dollars! Wake the fuck up! It is time to bring the truth back from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, South America. It is time for the United States Administration, Congress, and the Pentagon to shut the fuck up and listen to you, the American people. It’s time!”

Listen to “War” below.


Many may still recall SOAD’s breakthrough 2001 single, “Chop Suey,” from their follow-up album, Toxicity. The album launched the band’s commercial career into full-swing and gave them a platform on which to spread their messages that was infinitely louder than before. What more appropriate way to open their best-selling album to date with a tune like “Prison Song?”

“Prison Song” is a protest against mass incarceration in the United States, as well as the failed war on drugs. The lyrics read:

Following the rights movement you clamped on with your iron fist

Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, you don’t even flinch

All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich

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

Drug money is used to rig elections and train brutal corporate sponsored dictators around the world

The message in “Prison Song” is almost too clear. Drug policy has failed and has been used as a tool to incarcerate the poor ─ or in Tankian’s words, the “new non-rich.” Tankian suggests the American government uses drug policy to cash in on an unregulated market and utilizes the profits to pay their way into foreign intervention. Additionally, he advocates that rather than responding to drug abuse with authoritarianism and prison, we should follow in the footsteps of other countries that have stabilized addiction epidemics through increased treatment programs.

Listen to “Prison Song” below.


“Boom!” is a social protest song against war, American apathy, and corporatism.

I’ve been walking through your streets

Where all your money’s earning

Where all your building’s crying

And clueless neckties working

Revolving fake lawn houses

Housing all your fears

Desensitized by TV, overbearing advertising

God of consumerism, and all your crooked pictures

Looking good, mirrorism

Filtering information for the public eye

Designed for profiteering

Your neighbor, what a guy


Every time you drop the bomb,

You kill the god your child has born

Modern globalization coupled with condemnations

Unnecessary death, matador corporations

Puppeting your frustrations with the blinded flag

Manufacturing consent is the name of the game

The bottom line is money, nobody gives a fuck.

4,000 hungry children leave us per hour from starvation

While billions spent on bombs, creating death showers.

Tankian takes a lot of shots with the verses in “Boom!” We’ll start at the beginning.

In the first verse, Tankian takes a moment to depict the average middle-class American citizen, personifying them as “clueless neckties.” He implies that we are jaded and distracted by media and superficiality, hiding behind veils of false security like real estate, fashion, and manipulated information.

The chorus reads, “Every time you drop the bomb, you kill the god your child has born.” This line seems to be derived from the phrase “god is in the eyes of a child” — the idea that children see the world with pure and uncorrupted sight. This suggests dropping bombs corrupts the innocence of children, as they see the worst side of humanity at such young ages. This violence thus obliterates the peaceful, pure, and innocent perspective they likely once held.

The second verse expands on the political and profitable side of the organization and execution of warfare. Tankian indicates that large corporations globalize by manufacturing enemies and gaining our consent for war through nationalism (the “blinded flag”) — similar to the tactics discussed in “War.” By informing the public of who is a danger to us and who we should be angry at (“manufacturing your frustrations”), these large “matador corporations” can wage war freely while the “clueless neckties” continue on in their state of obliviousness.

Listen to “Boom!” below.

These few System of a Down songs are only a glimpse at the depth and relevance Tankian projects in his lyrics. Other SOAD songs that contain powerful messages include:

“Soil” – A song about a friend’s suicide

“Deer Dance” – The police state

“A.D.D.” – A protest against corporate America

“B.Y.O.B.” – The war in Iraq

“Cigaro” – Satirizing bureaucrats and elitists

“Hypnotize” – The events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest


If there is an artist or band you think we should discuss, feel free to drop a name in the comment section below.

Message in the Music Part 1: What Tool Teaches Us About Humanity

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