Sexism is heavily ingrained in not just American culture, but in many cultures the world over. Women are frequently belittled and objectified in the media, in business and society, by the men around them, and (as a result of cultural brainwashing) ultimately by themselves. Perhaps because of this, the role of a woman in hard rock--be it punk, heavy metal, or the more extreme side of alternative--is a difficult one. The category is almost synonymous with testosterone-fueled aggression, and this makes it a challenge for a woman to establish her presence as equal but uniquely feminine. Often, as in the world of extreme metal, it comes across as women posing as men, generally saying "See, we can do what boys can do!" as opposed to "We can do things you boys can't!"
This, however, is not the case with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Instead of taking the self-conscious route, O wields her gender and sexuality like a weapon to smite her enemies with. Her lyrics are full of come-ons, gender-bending and role reversal and she delivers them in alternating shrieks, sighs, and orgasmic caterwauls. Her performance renders the listener, male or female, uncertain if they are supposed to find this erotic, frightening, empowering or offensive, and that's exactly how she wants it. Think what you will about her, but Karen O is unquestionably the fucking boss.
However, what makes Fever to Tell, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' full-length debut, an exciting record, is not simply its subliminal feminist politics. For most of its 37-minute runtime, it sounds as energetic, unpredictable, and dangerous as one could hope for--a breath of fresh air in today's world of calculated style and image. On standout tracks such as "Man" and "Date with the Night," guitarist Nick Zinner composes songs in the same spirit as the Blood Brothers, a spirit that implies he's been haphazardly crafting dirty post-everything rock gems out of the ugly pieces of songs that less interesting artists threw away. Drummer Brian Chase keeps things in order with tough, disciplined rhythms that seem to be the only force preventing O and Zinner from tearing their own songs apart with their otherwise irrepressible intensity. Even if some of the songs are less developed than others, it is this intensity that keeps things exciting.
After a seven-song stretch of trashy wall-to-wall rockers, the shit un-hits the fan somewhere in the middle of "No No No," as the song breaks down into a slow drone that provides a lead-in for the sobering three-song cycle that brings the record to a close. For any other band, jumping gears in this manner could seriously derail an album. Fortunately for O and Co., they are not any other band. Not only are these three songs perplexingly the strongest on the entire album, but they also contain its not-so-secret weapon.
Make no mistake--the gorgeous "Maps" is the deserving centerpiece of this debut, a sudden moment of emotional nakedness that completely disarms the listener. The single is responsible for much of the hype that this record was met with upon its initial release, and also gave the three musicians a taste of the mainstream success that seems so elusive to a band of their often gnarly character. As Karen O quietly pleads "Wait, they don't love you like I love you" over an ocean of twinkling guitars and thundering toms, the first genuine connection can be made between the band and the listener. This is the sound of desperation, longing and total emotional surrender. It is a sound that you can feel as well as hear.
Suddenly, it becomes irrelevant if you are listening to the words of a man or a woman.Finally, the reason for this band's greatness becomes clear: They are led by a frontwoman who is not simply one of the most distinctly feminine presences in modern rock, but also one of the most distinctly human.