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In "Unthinking Majority," from Elect the Dead, Serj Tankian's first solo album, the longtime System of a Down lead singer declares, "We don't need your hypocrisy/Execute real democracy" — and unlike knee-jerk provocateurs for whom sloganeering is an end in itself, he's actually thought about what he means by this last phrase.
"Real democracy is one where there are no levers that may reverse popular vote (electoral reversal in 2000)," Tankian asserts via e-mail. "Where citizens are represented more than corporations or foreign governments and their interests in some cases (K Street lobbying firms, no campaign-contribution ceiling for corps like for citizens). Where you have more than one party, or more than two parties that are the different sides of one coin (instant runoff voting would help encourage independent candidates). Where there is a free and non-partisan media to report the truth (imagine that)."
Tankian began sharing his version of reality with a wider public in 1998, when System's debut disc arrived, and since then, he's often paid a price for his forthrightness. In the days following 9/11, for instance, he posted a critical essay on the band's website — a move that led to a barrage of abuse from right-wingers and most likely contributed to the temporary suspension of System airplay at Clear Channel-owned radio stations across the country. "This is what happens when you allow the media in your country to reach near-monopolistic levels of corporate Darwinism," Tankian notes. "It was the closest I've ever felt to the '50s, when McCarthyism scared everyone into submission."
More recently, Tankian, who's of Armenian descent, championed a campaign for Congress to recognize the 1915-era murder of approximately 1.5 million Armenians as an act of genocide committed by the nation of Turkey. In the end, the legislation collapsed after opponents argued that it would hurt U.S. relations with Turkey, which the current administration sees as an ally in the war on terrorism. Tankian was frustrated by this turn of events: "A genocide isn't a point that can be negotiated like trade," he emphasizes. But even as he vows to continue fighting on behalf of the cause, he tries to maintain a balance in his professional and personal life. As he puts it, "You don't have to be boring to be political. You can be a good human being and work toward justice and have fun in your life as well.
"We all know way too many bands that take themselves too seriously," he concedes — but in his view, "I never have. After all, this is music, not brain surgery. It's magic and math combined. If you can't laugh within your day no matter what you do for a living, you're not really living."
Even the unthinking majority can agree with that.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Serj Tankian.