Karen O tells me she's shy 363 days of the year, despite her famously raucous stage presence. Her voice is tender, even tranquil, and she giggles between thoughts. She thanks me for being flexible with my time, which is surreal because I've had posters of her on my wall (both literal and on Facebook) since I was fourteen.
In September 2000 — the year Von Dutch trucker hats and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were both ascending in popularity — an unknown band opened for the White Stripes at New York City's Mercury Lounge. The trio of punk twentysomethings — now known as Yeah Yeah Yeahs — was fronted by a foggy, greasy-looking woman; she wore black duct-tape hearts over her nipples under a white wife-beater, and she oozed with anarchy. Earlier that night, she had covered herself in olive oil. In her own words, she wanted to look sweaty and glistening.
"It was my chance to be completely free," says Karen O. "I had some funny ideas about what a rock star should look like, and the top of that list was sweat — it was about being free and being strong."
It's been almost two decades since Karen O, the woman fronting punk rock's greatest experiment in bass-less EPs and garage-blazing irony erupted in the music industry. Today, the band's legacy includes four best-selling albums, a cult-like fan following, and probably a dozen remixes to their 2009 single "Heads Will Roll." And it is far from over for them.
I spoke to Karen the morning of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first show in New York in four years. A part of their revival tour for the reissue of Fever to Tell, their performance saw all of the microphone blow jobs, shagged head-banging, and grape-spitting stage play that is synonymous with their front woman.
And in that regard Yeah Yeah Yeahs were especially distinguished — the audacity of being led by a woman set the band apart. In a genre monopolized by men, Karen O was, and still is, atypical. She built a career knowing what kind of patriarchy she was up against and decidedly ignored it. And her successors certainly took that paved road, too — artists like M.I.A., Kesha, Hayley Williams, and Sleigh Bells all apply the same visceral defiance to their work.
"I just wanted to break it all open," she says, reminiscing about her early performance days. "I wanted to shine bright and be that voice for a lot of women. I wanted to descend on the scene and jar people out of complacency. I wanted to fuck shit up."
Karen never deemed herself a feminist, either. She gets that question often, though — Are you a feminist? In an interview with Elle earlier this year, she said: "The work speaks for itself. I just want it to really be in the work rather than the talk."
Though her legacy as a provocateur is well established, Karen's beginnings were that of a shy teenage outcast. It was in her early twenties that she discovered English singer PJ Harvey's 4-Track Demos. Harvey's mild-mannered demeanor coupled with her unabashed artistry and stage presence left a deep impression on Karen's own persona. Harvey's self-produced album of demos defending female sexuality, reveling in aspirations and raw fantasy, is certainly mirrored in Karen O's own anthology.
"It's that freedom — like getting free," Karen says of Harvey. "It gave me the courage to do that myself."
For every trend, Karen did the opposite, and she reveled in her own craft — writing an album of breakup-inspired hits for the band's debut studio album, Fever to Tell, and the 2013 Oscar-nominated ballad "The Moon Song." She's gotten her iconic shag cut from the same New York hair stylist for over a decade, and she trademarked her onstage glitter masks and futuristic feather capes. Her originality is perhaps her greatest freedom from what she calls the American "like" culture.