Before going solo, Robyn Adele Anderson performed with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox (which is often abbreviated to PMJ). The idea behind PMJ, which started in NYC in 2011, was to arrange popular contemporary songs in the style of early twentieth-century music. The group first went viral when Anderson sang Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop.
Thrift Shop (2013) gained 1m views in its first week. The Anderson-fronted video of Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop (2013) also went viral. PMJ always had a rotating cast of singers but, after two years, Anderson was absent for a year, and then appeared sporadically, possibly due to a breakup with Bradlee. Here is Anderson’s cover of System of a Down:
Anderson’s cover of Chop Suey was released under her own name, but the concept draws from her time in PMJ. Who would have thought that Chop Suey could sound like this!? It swings, it sways and it beguiles. It could not be further from the Rick Rubin-produced original. Rubin has described the original verse section as so broken up and unusual that it is hard to sing and possibly hard to listen to. Speaking to Far Out Magazine, Rubin highlights the contrast between the frantic verse and the chorus.
“The chorus,” he says, “is this big, soaring, emotional, surging, beautiful thing. It’s just real heavy, biblical and grand. It’s so unusual that it goes between these crazy rhythmic explosive verses into this emotional, anthemic ending.” Daron Malakian, who wrote the lyrics, said that the song reflects on the way the cause of a person’s death affects the way that they are perceived, particularly if it involves the stigma of suicide. Brace yourself. Up next is System of a Down’s signature song.
In the US, Toxicity, the album which includes Chop Suey, was at the top of the album charts when the 9/11 attacks of 2001 occurred. Many radio stations stopped playing the single as the line “I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide” was viewed as inappropriate for airplay in the wake of the suicidal airplane attacks. The coincidence of Chop Suey’s release as a single shortly before 9/11 hasn’t gotten in the way of the song’s popularity. According to Wikipedia, with 1.2 billion YouTube views Chop Suey is the tenth most-watched rock video on the channel. This is a testament not only to the impact of the music but also to the resonance of the serious issues raised by the lyrics.
At first, listen to Robyn Adele Anderson’s 2017 lounge jazz cover of Chop Suey, it is hard to believe that the song was ever controversial. Nonetheless, Anderson is a canny, experienced performer who specialised in Arabic, Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Binghamton University. She is aware of the song’s release history and cognisant of the song’s lyrical themes. As you listen closer to her version, the contrast between the snappy, frothy jazz of the verses and the more baroque chorus becomes unsettling. It is very effective and it is appropriate for the subject matter. I am reminded of the contrast between the decadent stage shows and the ever more precarious Wiemar Republic setting in the movie Cabaret (1972), where the more serious the situation becomes, the more the performers seek to keep the cabaret upbeat and frivolous.
Like many people, I have a friend who committed suicide. If a person of sound mind commits suicide, should you respect that decision? It is a difficult and important question that System of a Down leaves open, as does Robyn Adele Anderson.
On a different, much lighter note, here is Robyn Adele Anderson’s second most popular video (after Chop Suey’s 15m views); a cover of the Gorillaz’s Clint Eastwood (10m views):