Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #61. “How Do You Own Disorder?”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 6, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Like many people, my first exposure to System of a Down came via 1998’s minor hit “Sugar,” which my metalhead brother was tickled pink by. I was minorly amused, certainly–the song’s juxtaposition of powerdrill-like crunch with lounge-cat jazz tempos was cute enough, and the casual references to mental insanity, domestic violence and mass murder certainly fit with the musical times, even if the band seemed a little more self-aware than Rammstein or Static-X. I can’t say that I was hugely impressed, though–the attitude was there, as was the musical dexterity, but there wasn’t much of an actual song to speak of. Far too much of “Sugar” was pushed to the hilt, played for maximum effect. And as we had just spent the last decade or so learning, when it came to alternative rock, to make a true classic, you generally needed a really good quiet part to go with your really good loud part.

Toxicity was the number one album in America on September 11th, 2001. I’m only going to mention that once in this article, because I generally think it’s bullshit when critics try to tie everything going on in popular music to the general tenor of the times, and God knows I hated it at the time when just about every record of significance somehow ended up getting tied to 9/11. So whether or not you want to buy into the fact that System of a Down were basically the perfect band to soundtrack that specific point in hisotry–chaotic, enraged and generally disquieting–is entirely up to you. Personally, I don’t remember thinking at the time that their success felt particularly emblamatic of anything. I was just glad that they appeared to be writing songs that, even to my then-nu-metal-hating ears, were actually pretty damn good.

“Chop Suey” was the first single off Toxicity, and its blend of punishing thrash verses with hauntingly pretty choruses was a pretty clear sign of things to come for the band. But the album’s title track was the one that took it a step further, because it didn’t just do the LOUDquietLOUD thing we’d heard a million times before. Oh, sure, it did do that–deliberately-paced verses simmering with tension, erupting into all-out frenzy on the chorus. But to my ears, the key thing with “Toxicity” was always that the quiet parts were just as unsettling as the loud parts, and the loud parts were just as tuneful and compelling as the quiet parts. More pressingly “Toxicity” was the first System of a Down song I heard where the intensity of the emotion matched the intensity of the playing, where the band finally seemed to be taking themselves somewhat  seriousl– not short-changing their message with cheap puns, or playing up their dynamics for pure shock value.

Not that I really know what “Toxicity” is about, necessarily. Once again, the good folks over at Songfacts.com have failed me, as the song appears to fit meanings ranging from being a conspiracy theory about the government poisoning the environment to a skewering of superficial Los Angeles celebrity culture. Personally, I don’t really care, since the lyrics of the verses are of little importance to me, as many of them are largely incomprehensible (“Flashlight reveries caught in the headlights of a truck”?), and that foreboding, waltz-timed guitar riff is what always keeps my attention anyway. At least until singer Serj Tankian snaps me back to attention with that title phrase, “The toxicity of our city, of our city”–which regardless of what you believe it to be referring to, is a generally evocative and intriguing phrase, and one which sets up shit to really go down as the verse winds to an end and the chorus comes in.

And being a System of a Down song, of course, the chorus does not introduce itself in a subtle manner. Instantly, a guitar stab, a couple drum hits, and Serj bleating at the top of his lungs (or, what would be the top of his lungs if he were 99% of other rock vocalists) “YOU! / WHAT, DO YOU OWN THE WORLD! / HOW DO YOU OWN DISORDER??? / DIS-ORDER!!!It’s heavy to be sure, but it makes the transition without losing the melody or odd rhythms of the verses. Really, it’s mostly a showcase for drummer John Dolmayan to do his thing, as he creates an absolute maelstorm of pounding fills (which have made the song a personal favorite to play on…yeah, I know, I’m sick of talking about it too) for Tankina to do his wailing over. It’s a positively nutso chorus, one borne out of the anthemic nature of most great metal hooks, but one which also feels weird and unnerving and, especially in the context of increasingly dumbed-down turn-of-the-century nu-metal, profoundly different. (Even The Neptunes liked it–I remember them raving about it in SPIN’s 2002 singles column).

They were already well on their way, but “Toxicity” the song and album sealed up System of a Down’s status as the band that all the kids cooler than I was in High School listened to, their mix of super-charged aggression, instrumental virtuosity and artistic credibility quickly becoming irresistible to anyone under the age of 25 with a guitar, video game controller or bong in their hands. They even supplanted Tool and The Deftones as the token “I don’t really listen to metal, but…” band among indie kids. They probably could have become the biggest metal band since Metallica, but after the double-release of Hypnotize / Mesmerize midway through the decade, System went on a permanent hiatus, status currently uncertain. Serj Tankian went solo, and a couple of the other guys joined Scars on Broadway, but their combined torch-carrying since has been minimal at best.

Nonetheless, “Toxicity” lives on as one of the key rock singles of the Naughty Oughties. The world in general and hard rock in specific was in desperate times in 2001-02, and we needed help that we simply weren’t going to get from Disturbed and Trapt. “Toxicity” showed that maybe the genre was still capable of producing something pretty cool and pretty strange, and that fans were still smart enough to know it when they heard it. At the very least, it helped us bide our time until the tremendous hype and inevitable disappointment of the New Rock Revolution.

(Have any thoughts or rememberances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”

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