“A Real Purity”: Karen O on Performing Before the Internet Changed Everything

“A Real Purity”: Karen O on Performing Before the Internet Changed Everything

From the moment she introduced herself to a packed crowd at New York City’s Mercury Lounge over 20 years ago, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer and songwriter Karen O, born Karen Lee Orzolek, has been regarded as one of the most captivating performers in music.

In those early years spent as the only frontwoman in an explosive male-dominated music scene that gave birth to bands like the Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, and TV on the Radio, Karen wielded the microphone like a bullhorn, simultaneously commanding and submitting to a crackling energy of bodily chaos and emotional catharsis. Many of these sweaty, beer-spitting exorcisms are on full display in the newly released film Meet Me in the Bathrooma documentary adaptation of music journalist Lizzy Goodman‘s acclaimed 2017 book of the same name.

Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, but its nationwide distribution seems serendipitously timed, released just a month and half after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ latest effort, cool it down, the band’s first record nine years. With the 20th anniversary of the trio’s debut album, Fever to Tell, also set to occur next year, Karen has found herself in a unique period where her past is in steady conversation with her present. After recently performing two of the biggest headlining shows of her band’s career at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, she spoke with Vanity Fair about the evolution of her performance, seeing a version of herself through archival footage, and being part of an artistic movement that could never be duplicated today.

Last month, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs headlined two big shows in New York and LA, where the Linda Lindas and Japanese Breakfast were opening acts. That must have been incredibly satisfying for you as an Asian American, being able to elevate other Asian American musical artists, giving them the kind of opportunity that maybe you weren’t afforded when you were starting out.

It’s funny, because I really feel that it was such a mutually beneficial situation. I feel in a lot of ways the Linda Lindas and Japanese Breakfast gave me an opportunity, elevating me and selling out the biggest shows we’ve ever played in the States. Michelle [Zauner]especially with her book, [Crying in H Mart], she just cracked open this view on Asian American artists and Asian American women, putting them so much more on the radar. She’s generated so much interest from her story. I feel she opened a lot of doors for people to notice that I’m half-Asian again. Because I’ve gone through the majority of my career where most conversation topics were “what’s it like to be a woman in rock?” and so rarely was asked about being biracial or having Asian heritage. And then with the Linda Lindas, speaking to just sharing the shows with them, normally playing any sort of hometown show in New York, I don’t know what happens to me, but I generally go really dark. It’s just so much, and pressure, and there are a lot of ghosts. There’s an intensity to playing New York. And if it wasn’t for the Linda Lindas literally dancing in unison during our soundcheck like they were in a musical—and just seeing them in this empty tennis stadium—it filled me with just so much joy seeing that freshness of their perspective and worldview where everything is just amazing. They did me a real solid just taking the edge off the anticipatory anxiety I had about that show. It was meaningful to all of us and our fans. I was getting texts from people who were saying “I’ve never felt this represented before.” It was just such a joyful, cathartic show.

I have my copy of Meet Me in the Bathroom on my shelf and have watched the documentary. When you look back to that past self, to that freshness as you were describing with the Linda Lindas, what tends to stick out in your mind in terms of your growth, not just as an artist but as a person?

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