Welcome to Strange Hits, a new column about songs you may forgot or simply not know hit the Top 40, acts whose very appearance in the charts is odd or intriguing, or just tracks that are too damn weird to fit our pre-conceived notions of what a Pop hit sounds like. For our first edition, we delve into “B.Y.O.B”, System of a Down‘s biggest chart hit to date.
Every era should have a healthy share of protest songs in the charts; since the 60’s, pop music has responded to the political upheaval of the times with anthems of rebellion, reflection, and hope. That’s why, in retrospective, it’s so unusual that the early 2000’s, an era marked by 9/11 and the horrors of the Bush administration, where neo-liberalism was quietly destroying the global South and the financial bubble was right about to burst, can be considered a time of relative silence from the music scene. Not that there weren’t dissident voices speaking truth to power back then ─ there was an amazing conscious rap movement happening at the time, for example ─, but almost none of them could access the musical mainstream. With all those anti-Vietnam War songs topping the charts in the 60’s and early 70’s, it’s fascinating that “B.Y.O.B”, by L.A alternative metal band System of a Down, is the biggest top 40 hit in the aughts that is explicitly anti-Iraq War.
And yet, it’s not the song’s incendiary politics why we find it odd that “B.Y.O.B” reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100, but literally everything else. System of a Down were no strangers to success; they had a massive following ever since their self-titled debut record (1998), and their sophomore album Toxicity (2001) is considered one of the greatest of the Nü metal era. But their sound was too challenging, too diverse and sometimes just too hectic to be put in the same basket as their peers, not to mention that their Armenian heritage plays a huge part in their sonic identity. “B.Y.O.B” opens with a blistering, furious thrash riff, which abruptly changes pace once Serj Tankian’s voice takes the stage, from 4/4 to 6/8, while the rhythm section provides a double-bass attack at breakneck speed. Then, out of nowhere, comes a laid-back, almost R&B-like hook, in which we hear Tankian comment on Iraq with the words “dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine”. The song goes back and forth with these sections until guitarist Daron Malakian hits us with a colossal bridge, accentuated by extreme metal blast-beats ─ Australian music critic David James Young recently noted that this may be the only global hit to ever include such fast-paced rhythms ─ and culminating with the line “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?” , which shows a connection to one of Metal’s first anti-war hymns, Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”.
With the releases of Mezmerize and Hypnotize, their two 2005 albums that crystallized the band’s ambitions beyond the Nü metal realm, System of a Down established themselves as perhaps the last truly exciting band of its era. They, along with Deftones, were always the most forward-thinking of the bunch, and the success of “B.Y.O.B” proved that there was still a demand for adventurous heavy music on the Rock charts. The L.A band’s mixture of complexity and accessibility sounds fresh and vibrant even today, which may be why some of us are still so eagerly waiting for a follow-up album.