SHOW ME YOUR RIFFS: Volume Six – Karen O


The moment that I fell in love with Karen O was in late 2003 when I saw the following film clip on television:

2003 was a year that a lot of amazing and a lot of bad music was released. It was the year that the whole “new rock” thing happened and bands like The Strokes etc etc etc were pushed quite heavily as the new direction for modern youth culture. A lot of these bands did indeed explode and scatter their influence all over the world but there was one band that was better than them all and who would outlast this whole movement on a creative and cultural relevance level, that band was Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

What made Yeah Yeah Yeahs stand out was their raw punk rock edge and the amazing presence of Karen O out the front. The simple roar of a song like “Maps” is the perfect example of what is so vital about the sound of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and when I heard it back then and hear it now nothing beats the bliss of those vocals or the roar of Nick Zinner’s guitar line backed ever so well by the intensity of Brian Chase’s drums. Yeah Yeah Yeahs had the capacity to roar with such tenderness and the rawness of their sound showcased a breath of fresh air compared to the other bands on offer from this era. The real star for me of this song is Karen O and her ability to deliver such emotional blasts of heartache through her vocal performance and overall stage presence. Even in a platform as disconnecting as a film clip Karen O was able to sell the extreme shiver and heartache of the muse inspiring her words on “Maps” and as a listener it is hard not to be drawn into the sound.

Karen O had that same special energy that Patti Smith displayed in the proto-punk era of being poetic, raw and emotionally moving. Add into this a unique stage presence that was equal parts art school and fashion icon sheen with peppering’s of punk rock queen and for the first time in 00’s we got our very first 21st Century rock star. People lined up to rip her off but no one could ever quite replicate her star power. It was a refreshing sight to behold compared to all of the male driven “new rock” that was happening and like Patti did in the 70’s, Karen O proved that punk rock is always done better by strong independent women.


My Journey with Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t begin proper until 2006 when I was 22 going on 23 and it happened when a friend of mine sent me a link to their brand new single “Gold Lion” which had just been released. I know how popular that song has since become but to deny its importance in my journey would be foolish because it was the song that connected me deeper to the band and artistry of Karen O as a performer. I was reminded of how amazing they were and how much “Maps” had connected with me back in 2003 and I was ready to devour this band. So the day their second album “Show Your Bones” was released I was there and purchased it with excitement. From start to finish “Show Your Bones” is a flawless movement of music and remains one of the first real classic albums from the new decade. It wasn’t just a great rock n roll record rooted in art school avant-gardisms and punk rock rawness; it was an amazing pop record. Every song has a unique sonic dialogue that connects it all together and over the albums eleven tracks you can hear the bands maturity and commitment to longevity. The music sways and swoons with a mysterious darkness with an optimistic collection of shivers signalling an end to the heartbreak while still keeping the haunting nature of ex-lovers buried deep inside the new rays of sunshine bursting out of the sound. The music is very hypnotic in its execution and whether it is one of the more expansive art rock moments or one of the simple pop songs you can’t help but relax into the journey and be thrust into the unique world of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.


This was the moment that Karen O installed a great amount of influence in my creative life. When I talk about influential artistic figures who inspire the kind of singer / artist I want to be there are five human beings who are at the top of my list. Those human beings are Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Kim Gordon and Karen O. Each of these artists possess an artistic quality that I’ve been attempting to reach my whole life and they are human beings that mirror how I’d like to see my music communicated to people. What Karen O inspires in me is a desire to be bold and vicious with my music yet to remain tender and swoony. The real beauty of Karen O lays in the way she has the capacity to engage a listener with her performance both in the live arena and with her recorded material.

Karen O’s lyrics always make great use of the “bury the meaning” discipline and there is nothing more important than that. It makes her whole delivery as a singer and poet even more attractive because as a listener you can relate so heavily to what it is she’s saying without ever really knowing her intention. This also comes down to her ability to use emotion quite well to fund her obscure phrases and abstract words to illustrate her pain and joy. When she sings her songs there are equal amounts of joy and rage spilling out of her voice but she never favours one over the other and through her dynamic range of sweetness and sullen starkness you get to witness the drama of her existence and like every good singer she twists her words and emotional delivery with all kinds of fact and fiction to keep the mystery alive. There is strength to the kind of mystery that Karen O demonstrates as an artist because it is so unique and hard for lesser human beings to mimic and in the years since she arrived, many people have attempted to cash in on her way of doing things.

Karen O is the perfect role model for any human being who wishes to make art that has the ability to heal. Being the chameleon that she is, Karen O has shown us that she has the creative intelligence to roar as a punk rock banshee, make us shiver with her pop music, be the queen of the disco and be a modern soul diva. It is this consistent re-invention that makes Karen O such a vital human being in this modern age of characterless artists and it doesn’t matter where she chooses to make her music, it will always be a joy to witness her ability to provide redemption from misery, pain and heartbreak elevating you to a diligent commitment to happiness and re-invention.

By: Dan Newton


One Reply to “SHOW ME YOUR RIFFS: Volume Six – Karen O”

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