She don’t mean a thing if she ain’t got that swing

By Mara Stankiewicz

She screams. She whines. She whispers. She provocatively swings the hips of her voice, making lines like “I’ll take you out, boy” tease and thrill. At the Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert Tuesday night at the Metro, Karen O’s vibrato—full of sexual energy and excitement—translated even the crudest mutterings into delightfully chic ones. From animated, low-pitched growls in “Art Star” to love-ridden, shaky utterances in “Maps,” Karen O’s concert antics supplied the worshipful crowd with tantrums of style and emotion.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ glam/garage/punk-rock music is indisputably eclectic—maybe stemming from the quirkiness of the liberal arts-educated members. Karen O (Orzolek) and drummer Brian Chase attended Oberlin College. Afterwards, Karen O joined New York University’s film school, where she met guitarist Nick Zinner, who had attended Bard College. At the time, Zinner was unhappy with the blues band he played with and wanted an outlet to experiment with his current musical tastes. That was in late 2000, and only two years later, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs found loads of airplay and chart spots in the U.K. after the release of their self-titled EP.

Already riding the wave of fame on five short songs, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were hesitant to sign with a major label for their first full-length album—but the labels weren’t as hesitant about them. In fact, major labels wined and dined the members all across the U.S. They were deemed the freshest, most promising new band since the White Stripes/Strokes invasion. Finally signing with Interscope, the Yeahs found a home on which to release the much-anticipated Fever to Tell. Four years later, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have received a Grammy nomination for their single “Maps” and several coveted spots on best-of lists throughout the magazine world—including Spin’s Best Album of 2003.

Karen may have dropped out of film school, but she never stopped desiring the spotlight. Punk outfits especially designed for her by Christian Joy (oversized t-shirt dresses, fishnets, cut-off black and hot-pink flight attendant uniforms—and don’t forget the motorcycle gloves), coupled with her dramatic voice and charisma, make her quite the on-stage spectacle. Carrying off lyrics such as “As a fuck, son, you sucked” never seemed so simple.

Most of all, her liveliness is not just captivating—it’s contagious. Like Mick Jagger inspiring middle-aged men everywhere to frolic in front of the bathroom mirror in tighty-whities, Karen O inspires many a shower concert. She motivates look-alikes everywhere to sing “Boy, you’re just a stupid bitch, and girl, you’re just a no-good dick” into their hairbrushes every morning (while adjusting the volume of their short black bobs).

One might suspect that the crowd’s constant affection for Karen O might inspire something similar to the “No Doubt Syndrome.” This doesn’t seem to be the case for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, however. On Tuesday night, Zinner and Chase collaborated altruistically—and contentedly—with Karen throughout the entire show. In fact, they graced the stage long before she did and waited peacefully among the chants of the crowd.

The band opened with two new songs, an unexpected but welcome change. Both songs revealed a harder, guitar-laden sound and Robert Plant-like outbursts from Miss O. Afterwards, they paid homage to their discography with lively renditions of “Pin,” “Rich,” and “Date with the Night,” all of which certainly made up for Karen O’s inability to do the songs justice the last time they came around town (Karen had a fever). “Date with the Night,” in particular, requires a large amount of energy to perform well. It succumbs to crunching and screeching guitars mid-song when Karen O’s whole-lunged screams turn into breathless pre-orgasmic whispers and then into mid-orgasmic gasps as she pants, “I’ll set you/I’ll set it off”. The band seemed ecstatic to be performing at the Chicago venue again—Karen O, in fact, smiled, giggled, and bounced uncontrollably throughout the performance.

On his good days, guitarist Zinner looks like a Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan. His simple, raw guitar pulses never sound redundant. His rising and falling scales on “Tick” and dreamy electronica-like sounds on “Rich” are necessary details for getting the point of the rhythm across. Zinner adds hooks where they’re least expected, leaving a discordant jumble of catchy riffs in their wake. In concert, though, he is much less animated than the music he produces; he takes on a more pensive, distraught musician persona. Drummer Chase, however, turns into a jumble of flailing arms and drumsticks, barely keeping up with himself. However, it seems nearly impossible to remain tame when supplying the tempo for such beautiful messes of punk pop.

The last three songs of Fever to Tell show the band’s more delicate, somber side—and the Holly Golightly version of Karen O’s alter-ego punk-rock primadonna. Performed live, these songs of heartbreak and despair not only affect the crowd, but also affect the band. Karen O dedicated their current MTV hit “Maps” to her Aussie boyfriend Angus (lead singer of the Liars), to Brian Chase’s love, and to Zinner’s—well, Zinner’s, uh, no one (he gave his dedication to the crowd). Upon singing the refrain of “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you,” Karen O looked nearly ready to weep (and if she had, appropriately, it would have been all over her map-patterned dress). And when it came time to play “Modern Romance,” she asked, “Is anyone out there in love tonight? Well, then don’t mind this song. It’s very discouraging.” With the lyrics “Well, don’t you know? There is no modern romance,” the song may have discouraged some, but reminded most of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ capacity to overwhelm the genre of manic-depressive punk they’ve created for themselves.

The set list spanned old favorites from “Mystery Girl” and “Miles Away” to new gems like “Y-Control” and “Black Tongue.” The band even played the secret song at the end of their album in the encore—the one with the lyrics about cool kids belonging together. Karen O’s adaptable voice, when poised over Zinner’s catchy riffs and Chase’s emphatic percussion, prove that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs deserve the hype they attracted prior to the release of their full-length album. It also proves that the Yeahs deserve yet another round with the Chicago crowd.