It’s official–the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are buzzworthy. The new video for the single “Maps” features that lovely green stamp at the bottom deeming it worthy of consumption. Regardless of how much apprehension you must feel watching a video by a mysterious band led by a singer with a unique sense of style, MTV says it’s acceptable, and that’s really all that matters. Still, are those really bangs? And why do her eyes look like that? Where are the dancers, or the skateboards, or the BLING? Has MTV lost it? This channel just doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of the nation’s youth like it had for the last five years. Have the days of Sisqo finally passed?
The answer, dear child, is no. Fear not. MTV has always featured dreadful music and, I promise you, will continue to do so until Judgment Day. The inclusion of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the festivities is MTV’s way of throwing a bone to its detractors, myself included. So what if it’s been 10 months since the official release date of the album? I don’t care — it’s a good video, and I’m glad it’s on the air. Perhaps this little nugget of hip propaganda will turn the kiddies on to some exciting, somewhat new music. And maybe, just maybe, Britney’s girls will find a new role model in the vivacious Karen O.
A similar phenomenon occurred about ten years ago when MTV introduced a little lady from England named Polly Jean Harvey. I remember it very distinctly, because Alanis Morissette was very big at the time, and Garbage had just released its first album. All of us young teenage consumers were trying to adjust to this new breed of tough woman, after having grown accustomed to the abrasive apathy of the male-dominated grunge movement. When these women began to generate publicity that was sufficient enough to capture the mainstream attention span, MTV (and corporate radio alike) started to churn out singles by terribly forgettable artists (remember Poe? if you do, try this one out for size — who the hell was Tracy Bonham?). Tepid and cautious as ever, MTV slipped an independent video into its schedule via those venerable titans of the teenage nation — Beavis and Butthead.
“This chick is weird.” That was the hilariously astute observation of PJ Harvey by the incorrigible Beavis, and he was absolutely right. Unlike any I’d seen before, the video depicted this thin, plain young woman floating down a stream. I’ll admit that the song’s coda, complete with its whispered mantra, freaked me out a little bit. Impressionable young Catholic boys from the Midwest never quite experience any human emotions besides profound lust and the subsequent shame, so this was entirely new. The grotesque imagery of the video and the horrendous, albeit ambiguous, subject matter of the lyrics excited me to no end, and I found myself humming “Down By the Water” as I memorized the Apostles’ Creed. Once I had $11.99 (those were the days), I rushed out and bought PJ Harvey’s 1995 release, “To Bring You My Love.”
I warn you: Do not be lulled by the repetition of the title song. Though it appears that you are in safe territory, nothing can prepare you for the release of the stored energy that those first two blasts of distortion give you midway through the song. From there, you learn never to doubt the volatile morbidity of the woman in the red dress on the cover. Corpses shake maracas, dinosaurs stomp out bass lines, skeletons tap the keyboards, and, in the midst of it all, Polly Jean dissects the deepest regions of her exposed heart. The scrupulous instrumentation only intensifies the astonishing power of her versatile voice.
She can scream, screech, yodel, howl, murmur and croon — not only in the same song, but occasionally in the same line. It’s nearly impossible to become accustomed to her voice, and that is one of its greatest, most enduring attributes. The manly baritone of the title song’s resilient narrator has nothing to say to the desperate, pleading abandoned mother of “C’mon Billy” — until she turns her anxious appeal into the harsh, guttural “I remember(!)” and then coos, “lover’s play,” at the end of the line. In the middle of this particular lyric, the song transforms from one of pathetic submission into one of violent passive-aggression. The nuances of her vocals always invigorate her songs. “Long Snake Moan” begins with a seductive “Mmm hmm,” heralding the onslaught of guitars and sexual innuendo that the song’s title promises.
I would be completely remiss if I did not say that, although I love Karen O, she remains a mildly diluted prototype of her electric progenitor. Ms. O writhes on the floor, bites the microphone, and delivers both ironic and sincere love songs that typically confound female stereotypes. Fine. PJ Harvey, on the other hand, asserts her feminism through her adherence to her true individuality. We can tell, just by looking at her, that Karen O is unique, but PJ Harvey informs us through her refusal to compromise her human emotions.
Her earlier albums, like those of Liz Phair or the YYYs, defied female stereotypes by rubbing them in the face of conventionality until, in the words of Harvey herself, they bled. On this album, her finest, she finally relinquishes this formulaic feminist stance and speaks from her heart. She wants to be loved, and she’ll do anything, even “curse God above,” to get it. Why does she kill her daughter in “Down By The Water?” Who knows? Ask the father.