The Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn't even have a CD released when the hype started more than a year ago. They were just this amazing live band from NYC riding that wave of New York retro-rock hype. Pundits exclaimed that they blew the White Stripes off stage. Even Rolling Stone was sucking their dick.
But these observers did have a point. With no more than a guitarist, a drummer, and a lead singer, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were annihilating every audience they played for. Embodied in vocalist Karen O -- the bastard child of Nina Hagen and Iggy Pop -- the band's dirty garage-punk reeks of authenticity, with scathing lyrics, tight musicianship, and an excess-driven stage presence that makes the Strokes come off like the Backstreet Boys. By the time the band's self-titled EP was released by Touch and Go Records last July, it was as if they were already legendary.
I'll be the first to admit: I've never seen the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform, except on video. I've never witnessed the sex appeal of Karen O as she dances around the stage like a dervish. And I've yet to be snagged by the barbed riffs and rhythms delivered by Nick Zinner and Brian Chase respectively. What I do know is this: Karen O used to be a nerd. I know this because I knew her back when we were in film school together at NYU.
The media plays her off as this crazy sex goddess, but the Karen O I knew was timid and awkward, with a profile lower than a limbo stick at a Smurf beach party. All this leaves me with two questions: How the hell did she pull this off? And, perhaps more importantly, will my mounting jealousy prevent me from ever figuring that out? The answers, by the way, are A) She always had it in her, and B) Yes, yes, it will.
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs kicked things off almost three years ago, New York City had a rock 'n' roll scene, but for the most part it was bland and unfocused, full of too many Black Flag cover bands and hordes of swarthy, legitimately ugly people. These days, thanks to the Strokes, the electroclash trend, and Diesel's line of "dirty" jeans, looking ugly is now cool, thus NYC's rock clubs have become Valhalla for members of the city's fashionable elite. When Zinner, O, and Chase got caught up in it, however, it was quite a different story. "[The old scene] kind of spurred the whole inspiration to try and fuck things up -- you know, our way to try and rock the boat," Karen O tells me from Brooklyn via telephone, amidst a flurry of jitter-driven "ums," "likes," and "ya knows" that seem to indicate that O is even more nervous than I am. "Because certain things, like the kind of, um, cheesy, stagnant rock 'n' roll that was on in those days ... "
She trails off.
" ... we decided to do something really dirty," she says, catching her train of thought, "thinking, 'Fuck Rock' or something."
Wait a second, did she just say "Fuck Rock"? Is this the same shy girl I would say hi to in the halls? The same girl I had that acting class with, the girl who totally sucked when we did that scene together because she hated being in front of people? (For what it's worth, I sucked worse.) And now she's telling me that that whole time she was dreaming of starting a band that played something called "Fuck Rock"?
"It's usually the kind of people who are the most soft-spoken that can, you know, kick ass onstage," she points out.
"Soft-spoken"? Fuck that, O was a straight-up dork. I know because I was a dork, which is why we shared a certain bond -- a bond among dorks. And thus, as we talk, a growing resentment stirs within me, something having to do with the Morrissey song "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful." I wouldn't say that O and I were "friends" per se, but I knew her well enough to know that she's broken ranks with us dorks and become cool, and, as selfish as it sounds, that drives me freakin' nuts.
So I start to think of all the ways I can trash Karen O and her band. The album! I'll trash their self-titled EP, smash it into the ground I will. But listening to it I realize I can't. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are just too good. Through five songs that clock in at less than fourteen minutes, Karen O has transformed herself from an introvert to a caustic hellion, the sexiest bitch you've ever heard in one moment, the last person you'd ever wanna screw with in the next. "Bang" finds O begging the world to fuck her -- "Bang, bang, baby, the bigger the better" -- while on the garage-punk-death metal thrasher "Art Star," she dismantles the snotball conceptual art community. Then there's "Mystery Girl," which thumps and wiggles amidst Zinner's crunchy guitars riffs as O tells us about a strange femme fatale who appears to bear quite a close resemblance to the singer herself: "Mystery girl/Keep on faking your mystery world/'Cause the mystery boys will be your toys."
"When I get up on stage, I really do just kind of switch," she says. "I don't walk around in the same outfits that I wear onstage. It has a lot to do with taking on a persona, but it's not forced: It's organic in that sense."
I'm starting to figure this out. Karen O is a dork in rock star's clothing. The stuttering, the Valley Girl-speak, the fact that so many music writers (dorks) love her -- it all adds up.
Finally there's "Our Time," a prescient anthem the Yeah Yeah Yeahs must have written with a crystal ball. "It's our time, sweet babe/To break on through/It's the year to be hated/So glad that we made it," she sings, anticipating the feelings of someone like myself, someone who knows exactly what's going on here -- that the dorks are taking over. But the more you think about it, the more you realize how cool that is. I mean, Iggy was a dork, Siouxsie was a dork, hell, the Ramones were definitely dorks. No one wants their rock made by peeps that were cool before they played it: that would suck (see Limp Bizkit, Oasis, et al.). What Karen O and her Yeah Yeah Yeahs have taught is that the best thing about rock 'n' roll is that it can transform total dorks into total gods.
So that's what's going on with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If you're a dork, then you'd better start taking notes.
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