Karen O

By: Tor Aarestad
November 22, 2012

We can trace the beginnings of the KAREN O (born 1978) persona to the fertile grounds of Ohio, source of 87% of the greatness in American music. The funky miasma that produced the likes of Devo, Pere Ubu, the Electric Eels and, most importantly for our story, Lux Interior, must still have laid heavy over the plains, drifting westwards from Cleveland and Akron to Oberlin, where it blew up the skirt of young Karen Lee Orzolek. Originally a line-toer from New Jersey, Karen decamped to New York after an aborted Oberlin education, where she and imp-guitarist extraordinaire Nick Zinner flirted with folk before deciding to overheat those amp tubes with the garage sounds of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Emulating such great midwesterners as Iggy Pop and Lux, Karen O created a magnetic stage persona built on the power of self-abasement. Alcohol was involved in the early experiments; beer spewing onto herself and her audience, Karen O often dressed in aggressively unflattering costumes. Her movements were unmelodic, sexual but often unsexy, like a somersaulting child who reveals her diaper to the world. She rarely sang — instead ecstatically yelping, cooing, growling, whispering, or chanting — her often abrasive or insistent vocals matching Zinner’s equally creative and vexatious guitar screeds. Karen O made a project of being dorky chic, unmusically musical, awkwardly sexy. With age and professional success, all that has changed. But if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs come to town, I will be there in the hope of seeing Karen O, microphone fully in mouth, shrieking.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Terry Gilliam.

READ MORE about members of the Revivalist Generation (1974-82).

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