By Bec Wolfers
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are many things: pop, punk, rock, electronic, experimental, soft, hard. But at the core of this band is one thing: art.
I can be perfectly content with a band even if all they offer is amazing music. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs share an additional body of work with the world. This band, and especially lead singer Karen O, have never shied away from fully expressing themselves visually as well as musically.
I finally got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform this year at Big Day Out, and boy, did they not disappoint. Even from a distance, singer Karen O had a magnetic presence, brandishing her lifesaver-roll mic cord like a whip, and hamming it up onstage.
There is always a great deal of colour and interesting symbolism at play throughout the Yeah Yeah Yeahs art, whether it be: album covers, promotional photos, live performances or music videos. All of this accompanying imagery not only makes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ works a pleasure to consume, it also adds to the richness and mythology of their band’s story.
The Album Covers
Album art has always been an exciting part of buying a record for me. You can tell so much about a musician’s personality and intention with their choice of album cover – is it humorous, playful, sarcastic, earnest, mysterious, simple, complex, homemade or refined?
The cover for ‘Fever to Tell’, the band’s first LP release, complements the music really well. A raw collage design, it’s boisterous and colourful, speaks of the urban jungle of New York City, and there are a ton of things going on – just like in the music of this body of work.
‘Show Your Bones’, and the single cover for ‘Gold Lion’, show the aesthetic being pared down to a ‘bare bones’ (see what I did there?), simpler look, but still quite raw and organic – again, similar in feel to the album, with its heavy use of acoustic guitar.
‘It’s Blitz’ has a more stylized and stark aesthetic, and the clean white background and electric-yellow egg yolk hint at a brighter feel. The action shot of a breaking egg is a simple, yet brilliantly effective image – and fittingly, this was the first album where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs really ‘broke their own mold’. The YYY brought in heavily prominent electronic sounds for the first time on ‘It’s Blitz’.
The artwork for ‘Mosquito’ and ‘Sacrelige’ are the most synthetic and basically most computer-generated looking of all of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s covers. This sits really well with the album’s sound; there is a lot of use of drum samples, and some of the songs are bordering on trance. But the imagery for ‘Mosquito’ is still as creative, colourful, playful and experimental as the music.
The Promo Shots
Promotional images show a lot about how a band chooses to present themselves. A photo in a magazine or on a website, for a budding fan who hasn’t seen them perform live, is often the first window into what a band may be like.
I love the fact that, even in their photoshoots, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show a great deal of creativity and personality. From being wrapped in toilet paper, to wearing fake lips or attaching pegs to Brian’s glasses, there is never a dull promo shot for this band.
Karen, live and in videos, acts as the band’s shaman, channeling the music through her aesthetic and her passion-filled performance. It’s been suggested that clothes make the man, and Karen O’s fashion choices have certainly helped the band garner a lot of attention. Karen O has always dressed in a perfectly wacky balance – not ridiculous to the point of someone like Bjork, but always with a twist, always relating to the music, and never boring. At one of her first YYY gigs in New York, Karen O was reported to have worn nipple pasties onstage and doused herself with olive oil before performing. A Yeah Yeah Yeahs gig is more like performance art than a straight band show. The crazy outfits and stage props (like Karen’s signature lollipop microphone cable) help turn live Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows into real multi-sensory experiences.
Karen O’s fantastic bubble-sleeved, plastic wrapped dress in the video for ‘Heads Will Roll’ was what cemented her as a fashion icon in my mind. Karen met her longtime stylist and friend, Christian Joy, by happening into a boutique Christian worked in, in East Village, New York. Loving the deconstructed prom dresses Christian had designed, Karen asked her if she would make one for her. Their partnership grew from there. Christian is responsible for one of Karen’s most memorable onstage getups – the skeleton suit (image three, above), complete with detachable intestines that Karen could pull out during a performance.
Karen is the Lady Gaga of the alt world. Like legends such as Michael Jackson and David Bowie, Karen’s look enhances the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s music, and has helped transformed her into a bona fide rockstar and icon.
I’ll let the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ music videos speak for themselves. Each one of them has something special about it, whether it’s playing with the fourth wall (in ‘Maps’; acknowledging the fact that they’re making a music video), showcasing out-of-control children (Y Control), delivering delicious visual feasts (in ‘Gold Lion and ‘Heads Will Roll’), or telling a sad, unsettling story (‘Sacrelige’). The colours, outfits and locations of YYY clips always feel very symbolic and carefully chosen.
Heads Will Roll
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have created the magic of their own colourful world in their aesthetic, and it’s as multi-layered, creative, vibrant and luscious as their music. I look forward to seeing more from them in the future, and can’t wait to see the rest of the videos for this album’s single releases – I have a hunch the video for ‘Mosquito’ could be a lot of fun!