This week the world bore witness to the return of metal legends System of a Down with a searing batch of their first new music in fifteen years. The politically charged songs came out of nowhere as it seemed as though the group were finished making music together. However, when we spoke to Shavo, he said: “I’m hoping when the restrictions lift on touring [they’ll begin playing shows], System will be back too.” There’s hope that the current governmental shitshow can be put under scrutiny as nobody can hold SOAD back, not even Saturday Night Live.
We thought there was no better time than now to revisit one of the band’s most iconic moments. Though their albums were sensational and their politics always aligned, one of System of A Down’s most revered moments came on SNL when the show attempted to censor the group and failed miserably. The slip would see SOAD be banned from the show as they turned faces red and the air blue.
Saturday Night Live has been an iconic piece of late-night live television since the sketch comedy and variety show first burst onto our screens back in 1975. It’s now a staple of the weekend and a chortling chronicle of pop culture—but it’s a show not without its quirks. As well as championing some of alternative comedy’s finest young stars over the years, the show has also boasted an eclectic offering of musical artists. It has arguably been one of the most forward-thinking mainstream music shows in US TV history. That said, when you put alternative artists in front of a mainstream audience, you’re always going to have some issues.
Over the years the show has become synonymous with brokering extraordinary talent but also banning the same kind of acts for their on-screen indiscretions. Whether it’s Rage Against The Machine’s flag mix-up or Cypress Hill smoking a joint on stage, producer Lorne Michaels has never been afraid to ban an artist for crossing a line that he deemed to be uncrossable.
It meant that as time progressed, the chances of a truly avant-garde and edgy band like punk brats Fear reaching the stage at Studio 8H dwindled dramatically as the acts became more and more mainstream. As more and more artists took the opportunity of a gigantic audience to make a statement, the acts became safer and safer or, at least, more willing to play the game the way the establishment deemed suitable. System of a Down, however, were not here to play anyone’s game but their own.
Jackass and MTV legend Johnny Knoxville was the host on the 7th May 2005 and welcomed System of a Down to the studio to take up their coveted musical guest spots. It must have worried the producers from the very beginning of rehearsals. While Knoxville was well aware of his role, Serj Tankian and the group are not usually the type of people to conform to mainstream values or bow to authority and their hunch was quickly proven right.
The group intended to perform their song ‘B.Y.O.B (Bring Your Own Bombs)’ for the audience in the studio and at home—the song had a strong political message and the group were determined to make sure that message was heard. Written as a protest against the Iraq War, the track hangs on a poignant refrain that would cause some tension.
The stringent tablet of rules SNL reads out for its guests meant that this song, with its deliberate political message, was already toeing the line of inappropriate for the producers. Now the band refused to avoid singing the profound “Where the fuck are you?” in the song. NBC decided to let the band sing the song as they pleased but planned to use the five-second delay the show operates on to censor the language.
To their credit, they managed to accurately bleep out the foul language each of the five times the band singing “Where the fuck are you?”. Not too shabby for a television production team.
The production room was likely enjoying a collective sigh of relief as they made it through the song and we like to think it was this thought that crossed guitarist Daron Malakian’s mind when he decided to lean into the microphone, with a glint in his eye, and scream “fuck yeah!” It sent some shockwaves through the television world and left the band firmly on the blacklist of conservative America.
It has seen the band put permanently on the naughty list and they haven’t, as of yet, ever been invited back. While there is form for Saturday Night Live forgiving and forgetting, we can’t see this reconciliation any time soon.