Oh, Serj Tankian. Bless him. Few songwriters better exemplify the pitfalls of overtly political songwriting than the top-hatted occasional poet and former System of a Down frontman — no one’s denying that his heart’s in the right place, but by God does he write some stridently awful lyrics. With Tankian’s new album out this week, we got to thinking about his work with his former band, and about political songwriting in general. We generally have nothing but respect for anyone who wants their songs to do more than rhyme “moon” with “June,” but the art of tackling politics in song is a difficult one to master — get it wrong and you come off as either hopelessly clueless or a tedious proselytizing windbag. So here are some examples of both. To be clear: it’s not like we disagree with the political views of these songs (or most of them, anyway). It’s just that they’re not exactly how we’d choose to try to put across those views. Sigh.
System of a Down — ”BYOB”
See, here’s the problem with Tankian’s songwriting. Reducing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to a snappy two-line soundbite like “Why don’t presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?” — especially when prefacing it with ranting about fascism etc. — does no one any favors. It’s ultimately the same sort of four-legs-good, two-legs-bad rhetoric so beloved by the exact same people that Tankian wants to condemn. There’s too much polarizing rhetoric in this country — it’s easy and satisfying to stand up and decry people who don’t agree with your politics as Nazis/commies, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything beyond preaching to the converted (and, in this case, doing so in a rather juvenile way).