Why Karen O Was New York's Biggest & Best Rock Star Of The '00s

Photo: Tim Whitby/WireImage/Getty Image
Summarising her role in the tumultuous, riotous New York rock scene that came to define the first decade of the 21st century, Karen O says: “Every now and then I’ll hear, ‘Thank you so much, you really got me through high school… and I don’t know what to say back… But really in my head I’m like, ‘I manifested that shit for you! I wanted to get in there like a motherfucker and that’s what I did.’”
This singular line from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ charismatic singer comes towards the conclusion of Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, US music writer Lizzy Goodman’s fun, sprawling and definitive oral history of the time, published in the UK today.
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Encompassing vast interviews with band members, scene-makers, producers, label executives, journalists, hangers-on, also-rans and many more in between (remember The Moldy Peaches?), the book tells the gossipy tales of a brief, scuzzy moment.
Of how The Strokes, with their natural packaging of leather jackets, skinny guitar lines, skinnier jeans and downtown cool, kickstarted a revival in interest in garage rock and New York itself – and set a certain style template that continues today. Following them came a new rock onslaught with the likes of Interpol and on to the more commercially successful Killers and Kings of Leon. The book also tells the concurrent story of the rise of James Murphy, his band LCD Soundsystem and label DFA, and delves into the later-blooming Brooklyn scene, from TV on the Radio to Vampire Weekend.
And, of course, a vital part of all this was the emergence of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the loud, messy trio of Brian Chase, Nick Zinner, and Karen O, who emerges as one of the book’s true heroes. It was her time.
“For me, the main character of the story is New York City,” Goodman tells me, “but Karen is the era’s signature rock star. She embodies everything that made the city and this period of time great – she’s joyous and dangerous, innocent and playful but also absolutely do-or-die committed to every note she sang, pair of ripped fishnets she wore, and fountain of beer she spewed onstage. I also found that everyone else was in awe of her, and still is. The era produced some great rock stars – Julian Casablancas and Jack White, James Murphy – but almost all of them name-checked Karen as the barometer for the era’s essential feel, this blend of youth and abandon.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner recalls in the book: “She had this infectious, super-wild, didn’t-give-a-fuck, awesome, fun, silly thing.”
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From the arrival of the band’s first EP in 2001, through their volatile live shows and on to subsequent albums, particularly debut Fever to Tell in 2003, Karen O quickly received attention from the music and style press, and fans alike. Her wild onstage persona, vocal and lyrical depth and eccentric outfits, conceived with designer Christian Joy, made her a totem of the time.
“Karen was our fearless leader,” says Joy, a constant collaborator, in Meet Me In The Bathroom. ”I feel like a lot of girls, myself included, finally felt like we had someone onstage we could relate to.”
Marc Spitz, then a writer at Spin magazine, continues the theme: “She was bold in her lyrics… She brought some good put-the-boys-in-their-place sort of energy.”
Fitting in a male-dominated music world was common but for music journalist April Long, Karen O changed things. “To see Karen with her stuff out in her ripped stockings and her red lipstick and her overt sexuality was absolutely stunning,” Long tells Goodman. “I think that’s what people responded to... it was to see this woman owning her sexuality and owning the stage.”
Throughout the book there is a sense of Karen navigating contradictions: being a prominent woman in a very male-centric scene, but not wanting to be solely defined by that – while being fully aware of it; constantly called on to have opinions on feminism yet not seeking to be on a soapbox, but also having clear thoughts to express. “I am going to paraphrase Susan Sarandon here,” Goodman explains, “and say that the goal of feminism is that women get to be as big assholes as men. Karen is and always has been a rock star who is a woman, just as Jack White is a rock star who is a man. And yet we don’t live in a world (YET!) where one is equal to the other, not only in terms of issues like equal pay and other forms of circumstantial and financial opportunity but in terms of sheer numbers.”
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Goodman adds: “What I think Karen concluded, is to speak to these issues when and if you feel moved to, but to always remember that there is no greater feminist action Karen O could take than getting onstage and slaying night after night.”
Since Yeah Yeah Yeahs' fourth album Mosquito in 2013, things have been relatively quiet for the band, though they are returning to live shows later this year. In the meantime, Karen O released a low-key solo album, was nominated for an Oscar for a song in the film Her, and had her first child with husband Barnaby Clay, a filmmaker.
What comes next isn’t clear but Goodman sees her as an important figure in music, a beacon of the early 2000s, and a continuing influence now – for women and men.
This influence isn’t about imitation, it’s more an idea and an energy, Goodman explains: “Karen’s greatest legacy – any great artist's legacy – has to do with radiating a sense of truth about themselves and the world around them, which inspires their fans to do the same in their own lives. Let’s just say there are a lot of Karen disciples running around, you can recognise them by their swagger, their sense of joy, and their steely, don’t-fuck-with-me internal will.”
Meet Me In The Bathroom is published today by Faber & Faber.
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