I experienced my first categorically bisexual three-way—a completely unexpected yet unforgettable coming-of-age story—when I was 15. I noticed an 18-year old guy with Buddy Holly glasses from the Catholic school across town cradling a copy of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a hyperbolized smirk on his face, as I browsed the bargain bins of a used bookstore. His image would pop into my head years later as I watched My So Called Life for the first time, and heard Claire Danes utter five little words about Jared Leto: “I like the way he leans.” I was hooked.
The progression of romance was tedious. We spent weeks locked in our poster-plastered room. Those 10 pm curfews kept us from meeting at shows downtown or midnight cult movie screenings. Instead we exchanged opinions and recommendations via AOL Instant Messenger and our parents’ landlines. Following a nervous and tentative suggestion on his part, we started mailing each other weekly mix CDs with covers collaged in National Geographic images and—if I was feeling energetic enough and he “got lucky” —emblazoned with glitter.
That was the first time I fell in love. While listening to Track 6 of the March 2003 Mix I fell in love with Karen O.
All it took was a few seconds of Karen O’s wailing harmonies and a single Yeah Yeah Yeahs song to turn me on, and promptly turn off my budding relationship with the would-be-if-he-could-be Buddy Holly. “Art Star,” or Track 6 of the March 2003 Mix, was skeletal, a mere echo of some secret, conniving relationship between drums and doo doo doos; two minutes and a single second mostly comprised of Karen O screaming into a the microphone. It was loud. It was grating. It was addictive.
I’ve been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation./I’ve been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations.
By the time I’d finished the song, I was bored of the boy. He was awkward and strange; terrified to hold my hand, let alone speak to me in the words of sex, abandonment, and totality. Until then, I was a nerdy girl in a small city too afraid to drink at parties, let alone smoke a joint. Karen O was my rebellion. She told a subversive story and it somehow became my own without me feeling like a sellout. I kept the CD long after I forgot Buddy Holly’s last name.
I knew I was onto something—this one track that seemed to speak volumes more than the typical pubescent discovery of Catcher in the Rye. Everyone had Holden Caulfield, but I wanted more. I wanted her. “Art Star” set me off, but it wasn’t until the release of 2006’s Show Your Bones, years after my initial discovery, that I reached the height of my Karen O conversion.
In a 2005 Believer interview, Karen O stated in as unvarnished a tone as possible:
“I’m fully putting myself out there for the people and for the sake of trying to lure them into the experience and out of that sort of detachment that you’re talking about. I think that’s why it takes so much out of me. And I think that’s why I resent it to some degree. I feel like I’m picking up the slack for a whole generation of nonbelievers.”
I’m sure I qualify as one of those prosaic audience members, one of that “generation of nonbelievers,” critical of everything and everyone. But I was a great believer in her. Too young in a city where liquor laws prevented anyone under the age of 18 from attending desirable music venues, I sat in my room, listened and read CD pamphlets from cover to cover.
There was something about Karen O’s ability to costume herself in a way that didn’t disfigure her identity, but magnified it; the way she spoke to fashion magazines with a constant tinge of irony, a tone that made her sound like she had a bad taste in her mouth; her comfort throwing her body around a stage; even her hair. She was a success story, and so my story got wrapped up in hers.
I grew up. I moved away from my conservative small town to Los Angeles, where I felt it was impossible to be disinterested. There was just too much going on. As I think back now, I knew all along that Karen O was here in L.A. as well, touching down in some nearby apartment between tours. But I grew up. And as I did, she faded into the distance.
3. Show Your Bones
When Interscope Records released Show Your Bones in 2006 the singles “Gold Lion” and “Cheated Hearts” seemed immediately everywhere. I heard “Cheated Hearts” in a run-down corner convenience store and knew immediately whose voice was blaring through the cheap overhead speakers. Karen O hadn’t changed—not really, not exactly—but somehow listening to her did more than satisfy a nostalgic craving for a lost coming-of-age moment. I was hearing something totally new.
Only two weeks after I heard that single my local dive bar had the entirety of Show Your Bones on its jukebox (ironically, I thought anyway, on the same page as Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the Day). And so, one night, in a fit of defensive angst while drinking with the usual Los Angeles music snobs and naysayers (i.e. my closest friends), I scrounged up enough quarters to play the album in its entirety.
We waited. The first track, “Gold Lion,” started. Then we eavesdropped.
A couple of guys sitting in the next booth argued about her lyrics (“No, I’m telling you, she’s saying, ‘We’ll build a fire in your eyes,’ man, not ‘in your mind.’”). A girl told her boyfriend about the first time she saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live, and how much better they were the second time when she wandered, broke and lonely, into a show in New York. We all fell silent, Karen O zealots and oppositionists alike. Regardless of the lyrical debate in the next booth, it was apparent that Karen O was as capable of drawing attention with her looks as our mental attention. She’d lit a fire in our eyes, minds, whatever. With yet another definitive album she’d regained her idol status in the music world—and, in my world, I remembered she’d never lost it. She was golden.
Gold lion’s gonna tell me where the light is/Gold lion’s gonna tell me where the light is
I’m sitting in a 1968 pick-up truck with a friend who’s trying to parallel park in a tight spot on a tighter street in Echo Park. I bite my nails even though I know it’s a nasty habit, and when my friend shoots me a look, I immediately cry out, “I swear I won’t embarrass you.”
“I know you won’t. But stop biting your nails. I can’t fucking concentrate on parking.”
We walk right past the house the first time and then he remembers which one it is and flips around. He yanks open the gate without hesitation, but I get nervous and say, “Are you sure this is her house? I mean, are you positive we’re not just walking into someone else’s yard?”
“Shut up. I’m sure.”
In hindsight, I can’t believe how excited I got about a house—an expired rental that was half empty and full of boxes labeled “bedroom” and “Karen’s.” But at the time I felt like I was about to come into direct contact with my pubescent self.
Once inside, we’re introduced to the assistant and I exhale at last. I pivot in the doorway taking in the house, which looks like anyone could live in it—vintage and thrift store furniture, kitsch art work, scuffed hardwood floors, piles of books, dead spiders in the corners and dog shit in the yard.
Once I’ve totally let my guard down and my thoughts have wandered off to dog feces, dirty bathroom toilet seats and moldy crumbs under stoves, that’s when it happens: “Karen!” my friend hollers as she walks into the room.
This is not the Karen O from music videos. Her hair is beautifully unkempt and she’s going gray. She’s wearing jeans and drinking tea out of a Show Your Bones tour mug plastered with her own face.
She leads us around the house to show us various furniture that’s available and she tells my friend that she’s fairly ready to move to New York. We all stop at a pile of books in the living room when she says, “Seriously take any of these books. Take them all.”
I’m looking at a scratch on my arm that’s starting to heal, when I hear my friend say “Is it alright if Kit takes some of these? There’s a bunch of stuff she would like.”
“Of course take some books,” she says. “But, you know, you should go look in the clothing room and see if there’s anything you want.”
5. The Woman You Stole
She led us through the house, pointing to different furniture that “had to go,” as she went, until we arrived at the spare bedroom where I was given access to her discarded clothing piles. And racks. And closet. And boxes. And jewelry.
“This isn’t one of those things where I say take as much as you want and don’t mean it,” she says, “Take it all.”
I spotted sparkling stage jewelry thrown across the bed.
Despite the temptation to refer to Karen O’s launch to international fame as “something like a phenomena,” many particulars allowed her to make the shift from Oberlin College “art star” to superstar. One of them is most certainly her stage clothing, made by friend and designer, Christian Joy. The pieces are as idiosyncratic as the singer herself, oscillating outfits comprised of capes and feathers, magenta high-waisted trousers, and gaudy-patterned unitards. I left with several pieces of ephemera stuffed into one of Karen O’s discarded San Francisco Amoeba bags.
Back on the street, I wasn’t a pimply 16-year-old girl anymore, but a fully grown adult trying to make rent in L.A.
I arrived at home feeling I’d accomplished some strange rite of passage and found some weird form of closure. I’d found out Karen O was a woman who wears a t-shirt and jeans, lets her hair go gray, packs her own moving boxes and drinks tea, which she happens to sip from a mug with her own face plastered on it.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from playing dress up in the mirror with all my new clothes. A Christian Joy onesie. An overstated faux-leather-and-brass bracelet. A backless wool dress accented with peacock feathers. That night, I twirled around at least twice as my speakers blared:
Giving it all, giving it all away
You’re gonna wake up someone
Well study it all
The wings, the crowd, your face
You’re gonna end up like one
Well, trouble at home
Travel the way you say
The road don’t like me
Travel it all away
The road’s gonna end on me
Man, they like me
‘Cause I’m a warrior, a warrior.
Then I went to bed, still a believer in this woman, a woman who traveled away to better things, but who’d left several powerful albums in her L.A. wake. Show Your Bones on vinyl leaned against my bookshelf as I drifted off to sleep.