Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed the essential conflict of adolescence was that of Identity vs. Role Confusion, which basically boils down to becoming who you want to be or becoming who you think you’re supposed to be according to societies cues. I stepped into this stage sometime during the sixth grade, shifting out of my childhood preoccupations with baseball and books towards something that attracted me in a new, mysterious way: music.
There was one major problem with this development however: I wasn’t a “music kid.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like music enough (I’d split TV time between ESPN Classic and VH1 in grade school), but rather that I just didn’t quite fit in with the other kids in my grade that seemed to align their identity with music. These kids had mohawks and wore AC/DC shirts. They swore at the teacher under their breath. They smoked down by the creek next to the Bulldogs little league fields where I practiced. I was a straight A student that wore a different sports jersey every day and swore for the first time in the sixth grade to try to impress a girl (Spoiler: it didn’t work). I was just not “middle school cool.”
There was one kid in the Music Kid Crew that I thought I could maybe relate to named Billy. Billy was in my honors Language Arts class and he wore band shirts the same way I wore jerseys. He skateboarded and sometimes said weird stuff in class, but generally seemed nicer than most of his friends. He was receptive when I asked him if he liked Nirvana after I’d been particularly struck by the video for “You Know You’re Right” on VH1 before school one morning. He seemed like a bridge between who I was and who I wanted to become. Besides that, he had the coolest shirt I’d ever seen: a black System of a Down tee that depicted the band, cartoonized, riding an elephant through a field of mushroom people. It was loud. It was creepy. It was pink. It was basically everything I wasn’t.
Inspired by the shirt and what I saw as a blooming friendship, I began listening to System of a Down’s album Toxicity, which I had acquired sometime earlier through a record club my mom belonged to where you ordered 10 discs at a time from a catalog. I’d been vaguely interested in System of a Down during my sit-at-the-radio-and-record-songs-onto-a-cassette phase in the fifth grade (a tape with SOAD’s “Chop Suey!,” Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” The Strokes’ “Last Night,” and 3 Doors Down’s “Be Like That” probably still sits in the bottom of a drawer somewhere at my parent’s house), but the CD had remained in the plastic wrap until I thought my knowledge of the tracks might transfer into some form of Cool Music Kid social capital. I added Toxicity to the rotation that now included Nirvana’s recently released greatest hits, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and classic rock from my parent’s collection.
However, as music began to become a larger part of my self-conception, I was confronted with the one of the biggest turning points in the life of any young person that experiences it: I moved. This presented me the opportunity to reinvent myself, but also threatened to tear away my identity completely. That summer before I moved from Tinley Park to New Lenox, I listened to System of a Down almost compulsively. I forced my friends to listen to it instead of Lil Jon or Eminem. I played it loudly in the garage when my parents weren’t home. I screamed along with Serj Tankien and Daron Malakian (even the swear words). I was anxious and vaguely angry. I was mostly just scared.
Shortly after we moved into our new house, I asked my mom to buy me System of a Down’s self-titled debut from the record store in the strip mall next to the Frankfort Jewel on La Grange Rd. (My mom would later lift one of the huge cardboard promo posters for Hypnotize for me circa Christmas 2005. Thanks, Mom.) I remember sitting between my bed and wall in my still unfamiliar bedroom and blasting that CD on my bumblebee colored Walkman. While Linkin Park filled the pre-teeny angst part of myself at the time, songs like “Soil” and “Darts” seemed connected to something deeper than Chester Bennington’s unfocused anger, incorporating the complexity of suicide and names of Hindu gods (both which were lost on 12-year-old me) into songs that seemed schizophrenic and straightforward simultaneously. Some of it was goofy. Some of it was scary. It was spiritual in a way I couldn’t quite grasp. These elements had been in Toxicity, but my brain must have crossed some developmental threshold because this disc struck me to my role-confused core. Wedged against my mattress, I read the lyrics and liner notes as I listened, enthralled. In the footnote for “P.L.U.C.K.” (acronym for “Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers), I read, “System of a Down would like to dedicate this song to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish Government in 1915.” What was Armenia? What was genocide? Why did these dudes dedicate a song to people from almost a century ago?
I looked up what “genocide” meant in my mom’s Oxford Dictionary, salmon-colored and worn. I used my mom’s atlases to find out where Armenia was or, more accurately, was not anymore. I researched the Armenian Genocide on the Internet. I learned what a biased source was long before my high school teachers warned me against them. I read opinions about the event from various perspectives, from those that believed the world had to recognize the mass murder of the Armenian people to those that vehemently argued it had never even happened. A seed of interest in history was planted that would influence the course of my life until today. (This particular seed would germinate for almost eight years before I wrote a paper on the modern Turkish remembrance of the Armenian genocide in college.) Before System of a Down, I thought politics were something my mom listened to radio shows about. Now it felt important to pay attention. By some strange twist, it almost seemed to make me cooler to care about something, to want to be educated about the world, past and present.
The biggest thing happening in politics circa 2003 was the Iraq War. With help of my mom’s consistent NPR ear and songs like “War?” and “Boom!,” I made my anti-war position the first political stance of my life. System of a Down became a touchstone for my personal politics and, more importantly, helped me make new friends. (I’d asked for and gotten the influential cartoon shirt for my 13th birthday from my mom, broadcasting the new Me to the world.) One of my new friends refused to say the pledge to protest the war and she was threatened with suspension. She wrote a letter to the principal explaining her actions and remained in school. This seemed the embodiment of the type of infantile political beliefs I’d integrated into myself and, although I was way too afraid of administrative and parental reprimand to follow her lead, I supported and praised her. New Lenox wasn’t a particularly progressive or forgiving place for anyone that pushed against the conservative status quo, or at least that is how it seemed in my emerging (yet still basically non-existent) experience. I had to find another way to express my position opposite the norm and music seemed like a form of protest in itself in the subdivisions and school halls.
The ultimate form of protest for a 13-year-old boy in suburban Illinois, though? Wearing pink.
Watch System of a Down mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide with a performance in Yerevan below: