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Shocking Omissions: The Embodied Vulnerability Of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Fever To Tell'

On <em>Fever To Tell</em>, Karen O creates art that breaks down boundaries in a very public way.
Rob Kim
Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
On <em>Fever To Tell</em>, Karen O creates art that breaks down boundaries in a very public way.

This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

Indie rock lore holds the New York City of the early aughts in special regard. In the midst of a subcultural interim when Brooklyn began to be gentrified and Manhattan was taking its last gasp, celebrated macho indie rock bands like The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem and Interpol rose to popularity. In New York and all throughout the eastern seaboard, indie rock coexisted with electroclash and early laptop-rock bands as artists drew inspiration from both the art rock of the past and contemporary electronic music. From that same period of stylized and innovative-yet-nostalgic NYC indie rock came Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band composed of frontwoman Karen O, drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner. But on its debut album, 2003's Fever To Tell, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs escaped the confines and conventions of early aughts indie rock through Karen O's ability to match sexuality with intimacy and heartbreak.

After putting out a few heavily hyped and critically successful EPs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs released Fever To Tellon Interscope. The album did well commercially: It was nominated for the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album and eventually went gold. But its legacy truly lies in its subtext: as a study in both explicit representations of female sexuality and in massive, all-encompassing heartbreak.Fever To Telloperates as a space of feminist transgression; when Karen O gasps for air on "Cold Light," or screams on "Date With The Night," she's creating art that breaks down boundaries in a very public way.

On Fever To Tell,two fundamental styles of Karen O come together. On the one hand, there is Karen O the sexual provocateur and iconoclast garage rocker, the Karen O who douses herself in olive oil and dances on stage in nothing but a pair of pasties, singing as if she were at the brink of orgasm. We encounter this side of Karen O as early as the first track, "Rich," where she pleads for a guy to "stick it in;" she draws in imagery of flesh ripping clean off; she articulates what it feels like to "be a hot noise." In the furiously quick "Tick," she starts the song in a high-pitched shriek, building up the song like a literal time bomb until it explodes and she stops singing altogether and starts moaning. This is an album that is dripping with sex, even on the tracks that are the most heartbreaking.

But the other side of Karen O on this album is the version of her as a woman who has suffered. So what happens when we encounter the heartbreak on this album? What happens when Karen O is just as public about being someone who is capable of falling out of love as she is about the power she wields as a sexual being? This heartbreak shows Karen O as a complex picture: She is a woman who has loved and who has lost,a woman who sings from the bleak other side of having once been deeply and madly in love. More importantly, she explores this part of herself while she talks about sex; she expresses her heartbreak through her confidence in herself. On "Modern Romance," for example, the album's noise and fuzz are dialed back. Everything is sparse; Karen O's lyrics are simple but not understated. "Go get strong," she quivers in the first few seconds of the track. Lyrically, "Modern Romance," is painful. Karen O's words come slowly, one after another; they feel premeditated. This style of drawn out songwriting isn't exclusive to the sadness in "Modern Romance;" it's everywhere on the album. Heartbreak, sex — all of it is expressed with the same care and intentionality.

This is clearest on one Fever To Tell's most iconic songs: "Maps." It's a song that is, at this point, a touchstone for rock music in the early 2000s. And it has a life of its own; it's been sampled and referenced in everything from Beyonce's "Hold Up" to Guitar Hero to a Black Eyed Peas track. It totally shreds and is ultra-catchy, but all of that shredding and catchiness serve to highlight the fear and terror of falling out of love. Through all of the noise is a lyric that is now ingrained in rock's consciousness: "They don't love you like I love you." This line stings; when you see Karen O perform it in the music video, she's in tears. "Maps" ties Fever Of Telltogether; it shows how both sex and love are about vulnerability, and how wielding power and energy and experiencing heartbreak are not mutually exclusive.

When women's art focuses on the dissolution of love, listeners and critics often connect it to an outpouring of emotions that seem to come from nowhere other than the body. Women's songwriting is described as "vulnerable" and "raw," instead of being seen as a study, as workand practice. But Fever To Tell pushes back against this by being both studied and visceral; on it, Karen O redefines experiences of viscerality and vulnerability, reappropriating signs and signifiers used to mark female sexuality. Karen O constructs her own careful language to talk about parts of herself that people are quick to dismiss. Fever To Tellforces listeners to reckon with the ways in which women and femmes have been historically silenced and ridiculed for having the desire to talk about their bodies as their own.

Ultimately, Fever To Tellis a deeply personal and complicated album that explores something that is universal. You can love and you can fall out of love. You can have sex but also feel both nervous and excited about it. In Yeah Yeah Yeahs' cannon dismantling debut album, it is OK to feel everything at once.

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