I remember the first time I met eyes with Karen O. I was in eighth grade, and somehow convinced my mom to let me skip school and take my friend and I to a one-day music festival in the Bay Area called BFD. I was mainly there so that I could sob while Dave Grohl serenaded me with "Everlong" but I left with a new obsession, a band I’d never heard of called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I stumbled upon their daytime set, and by the middle of their show I found myself reaching out to Karen's outstretched hand while she was laying down, wide-eyed, and screaming into a mic that was halfway down her throat. I knew right then that she was exactly the type of woman I aspired to be: strong, confident, beautiful, stylish, and borderline insane. Karen O was and still is an idol in my eyes.
Fast forward 10 years and a handful of Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows later, and last night I found myself sitting at a round table with my feet touching the stage of The Manderley Bar in The McKittrick Hotel surrounded by a lot of dry ice. She emerged from the fog in silence, delicately, her presence casting a hush over the room. She confidently sported a royal blue sequined romper wrapped in blue chiffon attached to her fingers, standing atop killer glass-like seven-inch heels in front of a pink and blue neon heart-shaped sign that read, "Crush Palace."
She revisited the music that got her through some of the most difficult years of her life. “This song was written with some friends in a hotel room here in New York when I was 27 and very drunk,” she explained before cooing “Sunset Sun.” Her new album Crush Songs is a collection of the raw feelings associated with being confused and in love and lonely and sad in your 20s. Each song is tethered to the raw immediacy of the emotions you feel during this period. This was no Yeah Yeah Yeahs set- Karen’s performance is akin to a diary reading and I allowed myself to be serenaded.
“NYC Baby” was first up—the shortest and sweetest track. It’s an ideal intro song, melding seamlessly into the title track for Crush Songs. "Don't tell me that they're all the same," Karen sang through her teeth, as the audience sunk into themselves.
There is both a certainty and uncertainty in Karen’s compositions that are fully realized when you see them delivered up close and personal. "Love is soft, love's a fucking bitch," she sang while squinting to hit the notes of "Rapt," in her husky bedroom-rasp voice. "Do I really need another habit like you?" she questioned in song. "Do you need me too?" Karen is the conduit for her music in the most physical sense. The desperation in her songs echoed through her body. Instead of shaking and screaming and throwing herself about the stage like she would in a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show, we were exposed to a different side of Karen O— a side that was comfortable with being sad.
The set took an uplifting turn with a peppier version of "Day Go By," as she hopped about the stage, stomping to the beat, giggling and smiling, and making us feel as though we were inside a cathartic circle of love. "Gonna tell him that my pain is gone," she sang before yelling, "THE PAIN IS FUCKING GONE, BABY!" This was followed by cheers and shouts and people yelling, "Go Karen!"
Over the years I had only ever seen Karen from afar on festival stages. Last night was different. This was a post-It's Blitz! Karen O, the Karen O that I personally identified with as a teen. This was a type of Karen O that exuded a blend of confidence, vulnerability, and beauty. Somewhere mid-set she held out the microphone with a stiff hand—her signature move—wrapping her fingers one by one around it. I could see her holding back the tension, shedding the skin of the performer inside herself that wanted to dance and scream, but instead grasped the silence and turned it into a smoky intimate dream. Her performance was a celebration of herself, her career, and her growth and maturation as an artist. It was a celebration of love, happiness, loneliness, and all of the things that make us human without speaking in metaphors.
Kayla Monetta's new nickname is Kayla M. She's on Twitter — @kaylamomo