“Go on, why don’t you play something?” Those were the words I heard most often in music class between the ages of 13 and 16. I’d started taking guitar lessons after-school and, once the boys in my mandatory music class found out, they were forever challenging me to prove I could really play. No matter how many solos I nailed, barre chords I showed them, or songs I played from memory, they’d keep going, reinforcing the idea that because I was a girl I mustn’t be as good as them. I felt like a fraud – did they keep testing me because I actually wasn’t very good? – and an outsider.
Karen O was my salvation. I can still remember the first time I heard her voice. Not her singing voice, but speaking. I was 13 years old, shut away in my tiny bedroom with the radio on – just like any other evening in my nowhere town. “This is Karen O, O, O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” she drawled through the speakers. I had no idea who she was, but just the way she said those 11 syllables made me want to find out.
As a relative newcomer to the world of indie at the time, I was in the process of devouring all I could find about it. I read every word printed in NME, listened to every alternative-leaning show on Radio 1, snuck downstairs in the middle of the night to scour band forums and webzines for new discoveries and hoped my parents didn’t hear the beeps and whirrs of our dial-up internet. There weren’t many women visible in all of those places – Karen, Brody Dalle, Meg White, Marcie Bolen are the only ones I remember having a recurring presence. I had been looking to men – The Strokes and The Libertines in particular – for everything from style cues to how to form my world view, lacking a female presence to look up to or even much evidence that women should be taken as seriously as men in rock.
That all changed when I found ‘Fever To Tell‘. For a period of time, I’d put it in my Discman every morning and tuck it into my inside blazer pocket (less chance of it jolting and skipping as I walked) and listen to Karen drawl, shriek, moan and purr as I headed to school each day. It was a daily confidence boost, a reminder to be myself and of women’s power and place in music. The Strokes and The Libertines meant the world to me, but neither of them made me feel the same strength and energy that Yeah Yeah Yeahs did.
Before I’d thrown myself headlong into indie, I’d listened to Top 40 pop, where lust and sexuality was veiled with metaphors or went over my naïve teen head. Hearing the way Karen sung about sex was a revelation. On ‘Cold Light’, she was lascivious as she sang “Cold light/Hot night/Be my heater, be my lover/And we could do it to each other.” On ‘Pin’, she was similarly blunt (“I like to sleep with him/Pushing in the pin”), while ‘Date With The Night’ had her exploring a whole other realm – masturbation (“I got a date with the night/Burning out my finger… We’re sweating in the winter/Both thighs squeeze tight”). And then there were all the moans, howls and sexual groans that punctuated nearly ever song on the record. It was like a big neon flashing sign that declared it total fine to, as a woman, talk about, or even have, urges. On the flipside, she could also be extremely vulnerable. ‘Maps’ still makes me cry – in part because of Karen’s fragile, emotive performance, and in part because of Nick Zinner’s beautifully sad guitar line.
The first time I saw Karen’s performance style was in the ‘Date With The Night’ video. She was wild and thrashing, face contorting, beer spouting out of her lips. At some points, she had he had confidently on her hip, at others she was on the floor thrusting upwards. It was one of the most exciting things I’d seen – a world away from pristine pop stars gyrating sexily, or some of the male bands I’d been listening to who stood moodily playing their instruments. This was messy, and unpolished, and thrillingly real.
And then there were her clothes – the Christian Joy custom designs, the one leather glove, the rips and tears and holes. She looked completely alien to anything I was used to, and I loved it. I wanted to be that brilliantly cool – weird, unique, but somehow with a strong sense of style – and I tried. I scoured charity shops for clothes to cut up and customise in the hopes of looking half as good. The next non-school uniform day I turned up in a pair of jeans that once had white fringe down the sides. Now, they had scraps of random fabric, from camouflage to bright orange, sewn over the ugly, thready remnants, and bright pink and yellow fabric paint splattered over the denim. I probably looked a state, but that kind of experimentation was an important step in figuring out who I was (and realising I probably shouldn’t be a fashion designer). Without Karen, I might not have had the courage to try these new things, to push myself outside of the trends of my peers, or embrace my own identity. With her, I had something to strive for and someone to dream of being. I still want to be Karen O, and I probably always will.