Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O used to douse herself in olive oil before going onstage. O once told Rolling Stone that she did it because she wanted to appear already sweaty—creating an aesthetic that fit the perfectly erratic, rabid performance and sound the band were going to give to their equally rabid fans. Not only did O do that—which she later regretted because, when the oil dripped into her eyes, it stung—but she also used to spit onstage; pour beer absolutely everywhere; raucously and sensually traverse around; and almost swallow whole her microphone. Yet, O could also be vulnerable and open, almost to an aching fault; singing, amid the screams, gut-wrenching love songs to a hot cavern of people. Anchored by Brian Chase’s deft drumming and Nick Zinner’s impeccably fuzzy chords, the band split the audience figuratively in half from such searing, energetic performances.
This is not necessarily a peculiar tableaux but few of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs contemporaries ever replicated it. O is a legend and was integral to the post-punk, so-called indie boom that flourished in New York at the turn of this century: The Strokes, TV On The Radio, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, etc. These bands—comprised largely of white men—would come to define a generation. Yeah Yeah Yeahs brought a raw energy to a scene that highlighted boredom and futility, saying fuck it, burning the house down instead of just lamenting in it.
The band built their buzz on a couple of EPs released over a short period of time around 2001. But their debut, Fever To Tell, released in April 2003 on Interscope, is a tour du force. So often when people reference this musical period, they speak of The Strokes’ debut, Is This It. The five-piece comprised of shaggy haired, unbothered dudes in their early 20s doing an unintentionally great iteration of Television made an exceptional record, which publications have lauded as the most important of the last decade.
But was it actually the most important of the era? Fever To Tell, a tumultuous 12 track record, I would argue, is the more important record of the Aughts indie boom. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut surpasses everything. Fever to Tell is unexpected; its white-hot and the epicentre of a good buzz. It is also, rather importantly, helmed by a woman in a scene oversaturated with men. Karen O’s vulnerability amid (and in) her chaotic, biting lyrics and performance give not only this band heart and depth, but the scene as well.
Fever To Tell opens with “Rich,” O’s vocals becoming the equivalent of a mischievous smirk. The tracks on Fever To Tell weave through what feels like a slick, hazy night out. It’s fresh; more so concerned with immediacy and not necessarily what it will be like in the morning. “Date With The Night” is a boom kick to the heart and gut; a blazing supercut of screaming guitars and O’s vocals that run rampant through New York’s streets. Chase and Zinner created an atmosphere both so moody and impulsive.
The simplicity of one guitar and one drummer doesn’t undercut the richness and vibrancy of Fever To Tell. Zinner thrashes and plays bluesy chords while Chase steadies us, seduces us, like on “Cold Light,” or throws the entire thing into a clashing frenzy like on “Black Tongue.” Lyrically, O is just as simple, direct, and often cryptic. On “Tick,” O jitters, “You make me want to lose/You make me want to lose/You look like shit/You take your time/Tick tick tick time.” Fever To Tell is the energetic, compulsive friend to The Strokes’ often sulky Is This It.
In Lizzy Goodman’s New York rock oral history, Meet Me In The Bathroom, O explains her approach to the scene:
I was not beholden to the rules of the game, which is a big thing in the rock world….There’s a legacy that is laid out. There’s a canon of rock and a lot of men worship that and kneel at the altar of that. I didn’t have to play by those rules.
I mean, I felt super, super isolated and super lonely because I could never really fully relate to my male bandmates and peers. I could relate to them only to a degree.”
Karen O, Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzie Goodman
Of all the revelations, anecdotes, and notes by all the players in the oral history of the scene, the ones around and by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, specifically O’s, are the most interesting. There are women who appear in the book, largely journalists, DJs, and publicists (the backbone of the industry,) but so few women who made music. Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches is featured in the early days of The Strokes but the band’s story is almost too hinged on the narrative of the five piece with whom they toured.
O’s presence was important, though it’s equally important to note that, historically, women have been present in most musical scenes in some way. This indie rock revelation is often referred to as the most exciting musical moment since the city’s punk explosion in the 1970s, which included such powerhouses as Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, and more. For O, a Korean-Polish American, to be among a veritable boys club of sometimes snobby rock stars and critics is massive. She’s quick to cite her band members and friends as supportive allies; progressive and intuitive. But she adds, “it’s hard to know how much that’s impacted my career and my drive as an artist but probably a fucking huge amount.”
Often people will point to “Maps” as the spectacular, vulnerable piece in the band’s debut, which it is. It’s not the only instance of vulnerability on the record. In the frenetic reverb and haze on tracks like “Y Control,” “Date With The Night,” “Man,” and “Cold Light” there is an expression of both immense power and powerlessness. On “Y Control,” O sings, “I wish I could/ buy back the woman you stole.”
But “Maps” changed the game. You can see its imprints on some of today’s best rock musicians like Mitski, Jasmyn Burke of Weaves, and Angel Olsen, to name a few. Zinner’s steady chord introing the song then building up to Chase’s drums is emotional enough without adding O’s vocals. It’s a devastating, simple love song. “My kind’s your kind/I’ll stay the same” O implores. The track is followed by “Modern Romance” and hidden track “Poor Song”—both tracks similarly about love, longing, and letting go—setting us up for a spectacularly visceral comedown on the record.
“Maps” has shown up recently in what is perhaps not the most shocking place but certainly one that leaves you in awe. On Beyoncé’s exquisite 2016 visual album, Lemonade, “Maps” is sampled on “Hold Up.” The track, co-written by another Aughts darling, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, took a musical sampling of “Maps,” along with the line “they don’t love you like I love you,” which is quite possibly the most recognizable part of the original song. To have the world’s biggest and most important pop star embrace the music of a punk-ish turn of the century New York band is huge. Even the video for “Hold Up” showcases the spirit of O’s delicate balance of vulnerability and rage with Beyoncé iconically swinging a bat around the street and laughing joyously.
In October last year, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released a deluxe reissue of Fever To Tell, complete with rarities, b-sides, and collector’s goodies like unheard demos, on the cusp of the record’s 15th anniversary. They supported it with a few shows in L.A. and New York before the year closed out. But now, in the album’s official 15th year, the band’s going on the road again, playing major slots at Governor’s Ball in New York and Osheaga in Montreal, headlining Toronto’s Field Trip festival, and more. We’re one of the few generations so passionately concerned with nostalgia and ensuring that we keep remembering the good from this pop cultural period. That I even wrote this piece is a testament to that.
But Fever To Tell, 15 years on, is so much more than just a spectacular debut in an exciting scene that needs to be remembered every few years. It’s the cornerstone of the moment; transcending it even. Is This It may have kicked off the era but Fever To Tell sustained it.