Karen O is a performance artist, but she also is a bit of a throwback. She’s a rock star in an era where rock stars are dead, but she has also maintained some of the teenage innocence that reminds the audience that this “act” is just that. She is having fun dressing up in outrageous gear, she’s chuckling as the songs end and the crowd starts cheering and she’s basically reminding you not to take everything so seriously. She may look like a cross between Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, but the show she puts on is distinct to her. I have much respek for this band because they have created something new and unique while looking back to past influences, without losing their own current identity.
I saw a documentary called “Kill Your Idols” on the early aughts New York music scene that tried to draw parallels between it and the “No Wave” scene from the 70s. Obviously, in 2003, when it was filmed, people were starting to see that New York (and primarily Brooklyn) was the new place to be for young musicians. So the documentary sought to go back to the Godfathers of the “No Wave” scene to see what they thought of what was happening in Brooklyn circa 2002-2003. What they said was pretty great -- all these old school downtown New York punks were pissed off that these young bands seemed to be missing the point altogether. The point being that their noisy music was a statement on how not to conform. It was a “fuck you” to the world. It was an outlet for fucked up people. It was funny and interesting to see the scorn they had for The Liars and The Strokes. It also made you realize how great Sonic Youth is to have mixed the best parts of that No Wave sound with some semblance of listenable rock music to make….Sonic Youth.
In that documentary, the YYY’s are interviewed long before “Maps” became an MTV hit and even longer before Karen O was playing to 30,000 people at All Points West Festival in Jersey City. Karen O and Nick Zinner seemed so damn young and naïve in the movie and it made you realize that they were basically just kids trying to make a name for themselves. They weren’t looking to make a statement and while Zinner truly seemed to love all the No Wave noise music from the 70s (he’s a huge Swans fan), it was clear from their interview that they weren’t owed anything and they were simply kids that were trying to go about this in their own way, which they did.
They graduated from Karen spitting beer all over the audience in small clubs to Karen spitting water all over a sea of people on huge stages around the world. Along the way, their overall sound became more conventional, less noisy and easier to digest. “Our Time” from the debut EP was lo fi and abrasive, “Maps” from the debut LP was a nice catchy ballad and “Y Control” was a nice indie punk song, but “Gold Lion” and “Zero” were huge pop songs that would have been the Shriek of The Week and more if progressive radio stations still existed. Even so, “Zero” is the tune I picked here, because it seems to exemplify where they’ve come from and where they are as the decade is coming to a close. It also asks us all to “get your leather on”, which is good for many points in my scorebook.