Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is akin to the 21st Century’s Siouxsie Sioux. An iconic frontwoman in her own right, she blends her outrageous stage antics with kaleidoscopic fashion and an unmistakable voice. Born in Seoul, Korea, to a Korean mother and Polish father, the family soon relocated to Englewood, New Jersey, where Karen O would grow up.
Coming out of that seminal New York scene at the dawn of the new Millenium, Yeah Yeah Yeahs meshed art-rock, post-punk and danceability. Comprised of drummer Brian Chase and guitarist/keyboardist Nick Zinner, the trio have only released four albums, although some of their singles are some of the most iconic of the past two decades.
‘Maps’, ‘Gold Lion’ and ‘Heads Will Roll’, have filled indie discos from their release until the present. Just like the aforementioned high priestess of punk, or Debbie Harry, Yeah Yeah Yeahs would not be the force they are without the unmistakable Karen O.
Aside from her work in the iconic trio, O has worked with a string of pioneering artists. The Flaming Lips, Swans, Santigold, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and James Iha are just a few to have been blessed with her collaboration. O also worked with Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Trent Reznor and English composer Atticus Ross on a cover of Led Zeppelin‘s ‘Immigrant Song’, for David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Given the Yeah Yeah Yeahs eclectic sound, O’s vocal range and her dynamic fashion sense, it comes as no surprise that the ethereal yet enigmatic frontwoman has a diverse range of influences. She has mentioned everybody from ESG to the Birthday Party to Nina Simone, and yes, Siouxsie Sioux as influences.
However, in a 2014 interview with the Guardian, Karen O revealed the band and album that soundtracked her teenage years. As a welcome surprise, O revealed that it was Grateful Dead’s 1970 album, Workingman’s Dead.
O’s mentioning of the Dead’s fourth album is an interesting one. The Californian icons eschewed their past psychedelia and pursued the Americana that chief songwriters Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter had become increasingly inspired by.
Karen O explained why Grateful Dead soundtracked her teenage years: “I went to a very preppy private high school in New Jersey and I didn’t fit in,” she said. “I liked to define myself by how different I was from the other kids. I spent a lot of time with my best friend from childhood’s gang who were public school kids in punk bands who’d discovered weed and acid. They switched from listening to Fugazi to the Grateful Dead and I followed suit.”
It comes as no surprise that teenage Karen O hung out with the pack of local rebels. She has retrospectively commented” “It’s almost embarrassing how well-behaved I was, which is probably why I do things like spit water on myself on stage as an adult.”
Expanding on the profound impact that the Grateful Dead had on her during the most hormone ridden period of a teenager’s life, O remembered: “Dead bootlegs soundtracked my 10th and 11th year in high school. I remember going to my first Dead show at Madison Square Garden. I was 15 and for the first time in my life I felt ecstatic to blend into the crowd, just another kid posing as a scrappy hippy in a sea of people dancing for hours in total abandon.”
A deep-rooted self-awareness lies within O’s comments. Clearly unhappy with her lot as a teenager, wanting to escape the niceties of a middle class, American upbringing, she turned to a group of local punks who pushed the boundaries. Her foray into punk and then into psychedelia via California’s number one gang of hippies isn’t really a surprise.
There isn’t actually much of a difference between hippies and punks to many a punk’s discontents. Anti-authoritarian in essence, both movements raged against the established order and boredom, providing a way out for swathes of disenfranchised teens ad infinitum.
O’s teenage adherence to the Grateful Dead has always been teased, if only subliminally. Her crazed on-stage performances, with the oft psychedelic clothing of fashionista Christian Joy display O’s penchant for all-things countercultural. Elements of this can be heard in Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Gold Lion’.
Listen to ‘Gold Lion’ below.