90 Minutes to Love: Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Karen O

by Darren Clarke, March 7, 2022

“When I was growing up in Iowa I always knew something amazing was going to happen… I knew I was going to get to do something totally cool with my life… and I was standing there, I was watching her on stage and I was totally blown away. I was like- this is that totally cool thing that is going to happen to me.”

Designer Christian Joy on discovering Karen O

“I’m just trying to destroy any sense of self consciousness in the audience.”

Karen O on performing live

Christian Joy referred to the first ensembles she made for her favoured model Karen O as, “deconstructed prom dresses.” Joy’s creations took the traditional trappings of a communal rite of passage, stripped them down and reimagined them. In so doing Joy revealed the flimsy pretence behind the idea of a formal entrance into the serious world of adulthood and elevated it into something that maintained the whimsy central to preserving and enhancing that joi de vivre any reasonably unreasonable human spends their life trying to cultivate. .

In 2004 the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs performed a concert in Central Park, New York. To start the show Karen O ran on the stage in a Joy design- aqua marine Converse high tops, purple socks, naked fish net stockings, a vibrant, pink/orange/lime bodysuit, a black leather, studded, motorcycle glove on her right hand with a scarf (that seemed torn from her body suit) tied to the same wrist. Her flat black hair was unevenly cut- short on one side, long on the back, and seemed to morph into a different haircut with her every movement. O’s makeup was similarly wildly applied- luminous red lipstick not limited to her lips, aqua marine eye makeup (to match the shoes) making for a half mask around her right eye down her cheek just above a few random strokes of lipstick.

Karen O the personage is 5’5″ but on stage seems appears closer to seven feet tall. In the Central Park show O’s fair skinned, loose limbed, frame was in almost constant, uninhibited, motion but intermittenly paused for all manner of poses. Her facial expressions were similarly fraught with almost cartoonish hyperbole. In the rare moments of pause it took a moment to calibrate O’s construction. But once you’ve been informed of her bloodlines it all makes a kind of awesome sense as you realize it’s the end result of Korea and Poland getting together and saying, “What’s the very best we can come up with?”

The last bit of Karen O’s getup for the Central Park show that day was a transparent, waist length, rain poncho. For the first three songs the poncho was literally everywhere on O’s body. It was over her head, it was around her waist, it was everywhere. And then she stopped posed like a superhero, legs wide, dug her two hands into the raincoat at her collarbone, and like Clark Kent ripping off his suit, tore the transparent rain coat in half to reveal the superheroine persona we should already have been keenly aware of.

“Glitter on the wet streets
Silver over everything
The river’s all wet
You’re all chrome.”

Heads Will Roll, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

There was so many levels of symbolism happening there. But mostly, simply, it’s Karen O destroying any sense of self consciousness in herself so you can too. She is varyingly sexy, playful, innocent, menacing, and bold as fuck. You may think there’s too much happening to appreciate who she is and what she is doing but too much happening is exactly what she is. It’s a transparent coat- there is no separation between the mild mannered Karen O and the superheroine Karen O.

For the viewer, for me, O broadens our idea of what feminine is while maintaining our appreciation for the singular person in front of us. In either case she reveals that at our root we are wild. That celebrating being untamed is fundamental to maintaining the singular within the plural. Karen O reminds us that so many of the things we trace and follow offer us nothing more than other people’s limitations and fears. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a prom dress. There’s everything wrong with being scared for it be different, there’s everything wrong with it being limited, not only other people’s perspectives on who we are and what we should be, but also our own perspective. O reminds us that as much as there is something elusive about who were are to ourselves, it is profoundly more so for others. Her fashion, her dance, her songs aren’t just a statement of who she is, it’s a loving embrace of the often strange, often wild, often unsuspected impulses within.

“I’m a woman, what you see
I’m a woman, what you see
I’m a woman, what you see
What you see, ain’t what I be, oh!”

Woman, Karen O and Danger Mouse

The early 2000’s garage rock revival often cites the likes The Strokes and The White Stripes as its’ foremost purveyors but the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs were IT. Karen O, guitarist/keyboardist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase were a welcome jolt of brazenly raw, bravely impulsive, potent-as-fuck, garage rock that didn’t so much reinvent the genre as revitalize it. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, like Christian Joy’s frolicking reimagining of the traditional prom dresses, flirted with the genre, owned it, disassembled it and put it back together as a vivid, soaring, ode to the eccentricity and electricity.

And so it is that this latest 90-Minute playlist comes out swinging like downed hydro wires in a wind storm. Dress yourself up in something wild and wonderful, something you’ve never considered putting on before and dance like everybody is watching and it doesn’t matter. Your superhero has always been waiting to be revealed to you from beneath a transparent coat.

Just press play.

“Tell me we’re rockers to swallow
Tell me we’re knockers to bite
And out of the beats of tomorrow
Tell me what beat fills the night.”

Rockers to Swallow, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

iTunes link