The Band That Invented Millennials
How the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a trio of Gen X rockers, made radical sincerity cool
We Millennials can feel it in our hips: our coolness curdling. Jokes about our fashions and facial expressions have proliferated, and they don’t just mock the idea of circa-40-year-olds hissing yas while squeezing into skinny jeans. They paint a caricature of a generation as business-casual incarnate, careerists in a failing corporation, who have been deluded into thinking that individuality consists of peppiness, baby-speak, and indie. Squad, how’d we get this way?
Cool It Down, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first album in nine years, sheds some light on that question. Life-affirming and eclectic dance-rock with apocalyptic themes, the music is lovely, and a reminder of how long the 21st century has been. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a trio of Gen Xers, accidentally helped create one of the dominant youth aesthetics—idealistic, scruffy, sellable—of the past two decades. Perhaps the band even foresaw where their listeners would end up today. “It’s our time … to be hated,” Karen O sang lovingly in 2001, on the band’s first EP.
If you listen back to that self-titled EP, you hear hallmarks of the previous century’s indie chic: loud abstraction, brambly guitars, and sneering singing that carried on the lineage of Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground. In 2000, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs debuted in a then-bubbling scene—featuring the Strokes, Interpol, and the White Stripes—whose so-called back-to-basics style was defined less by a sound than by a blasé attitude. In contrast to alt-rock’s moaning and pop’s people-pleasing impulses, this durable vision of cool meant acting like you didn’t care about very much at all.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs both joined and disrupted this biker-jacketed crowd. The singer, Karen O, was not just a rare leading woman in the scene—she was, crucially, an expressive one. Onstage, she swung microphones and spilled beer. In recordings, she growled and yelped with fanatical glee. The band’s hometown of New York City “was pretty fucking conservative at that point,” Karen O recalled to The New Yorker this year. “Going to a show, it was people standing there with their arms crossed, wondering: Are you up to snuff? And I was kind of on this warpath—to just set them free of self-consciousness, and myself as well.”
That effort was met with suspicion. Take the cautiously positive review that Pitchfork, that generational-taste arbiter, ran of the band’s 2003 debut, Fever to Tell. It now reads like a scroll written in the dialect of a forgotten civilization—one that worshiped authentic nihilism. “Over and over again, they’ve been accused of empty posturing,” the writer Eric Carr wrote, presumably summarizing the buzz in Lower East Side dive bars. He praised the vibrant noisemaking of the drummer Brian Chase and the guitarist and keyboardist Nick Zinner, but dinged their vocalist for trying too hard: “You can practically feel Karen O looking over her shoulder for approval with every faux-erotic squeal or disdainful shout.”
Yet gatekeepers and audiences, local and eventually international, joined in acclaim for one part of Fever to Tell: the song “Maps.” In the song’s intro, processional drums and a trembling guitar line promised a power ballad with all the poignance of a Steven Spielberg movie. But Karen O, in a feat of brilliant intuition, performed these big feelings understatedly. Smuggling a universe of longing into the meek command “wait,” broaching matters of the heart in sociological terms (“my kind’s your kind”), she made “Maps” an unmistakably indie love song. Which made it a persuasive one. “The emotive response it produces,” Carr raved, “is very real.”
That this lump-in-throat classic emerged from New York City shortly after 9/11 was no accident: The band’s music, Karen O recently told Vulture, “was the salve we slapped on the wound” left by tragedy. Listeners were clearly hungry to feel something. Looking back, the trajectory from what was hip in very-early-2000s rock to slightly-later-early-2000s rock is clear: Apathy gave way to engagement, jadedness to sincerity. The back-to-basics crowd began to fade away (the Strokes) or aim epic (the White Stripes). Radiohead turned from numb (Kid A in 2000) to ripshit (Hail to the Thief in 2003). Hipsterdom’s affective desert flowered in 2004 with the optimism of Modest Mouse’s hit “Float On” and the pep rally of Arcade Fire’s Funeral.
Technological and commercial shifts cheered on the rise of extroverted indie. MP3s and blogs made it easier for more people to seek out interesting bands, which may well have enticed some of those bands to recalibrate their ambitions to suit festivals, stadiums, and a potentially worldwide audience. The collapse of CD revenues forged new alliances between marketers and musicians—and made a particular blend of credibility and palatability valuable. Karen O contributing music to Spike Jonze’s 2005 commercial for Adidas was an early example of a paradigm we now take for granted: one in which selling out is no sin and relies not on muting one’s quirks but on merchandising them.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to be clear, didn’t pander. The music they made over the years thrashed and quavered according to urges that, in a haphazard way, always seemed to presage the next fad in anthem making. In 2006, “Gold Lion” played with the raw ingredients for the stomp-’n’-strum folk of Mumford & Sons a few years later. Off 2009’s It’s Blitz!, “Heads Will Roll” turned into an EDM classic despite being released before most people knew what EDM stood for. The underrated 2013 single “Sacrilege” was like a teaser for emo-gospel hits by Hozier and Paramore.
“Maps” continued to prove astonishingly important over the years. The super-producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke knowingly aped the song when writing Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the 2004 smash whose blend of dissonance, personality, and redemptive joy inspired at least a decade of Top 40 jingles. “Maps” also may be the 21st century’s earliest prominent example of the “Millennial whoop,” a chord pattern and vocal tic that became ubiquitous in 2010s pop. Beyoncé even used Karen O’s lyric “they don’t love you like I love you” on 2016’s Lemonade—an album whose undisguised ambition and broad, metaphor-rich uplift feels, now, like an era’s culmination.
The new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Cool It Down, is another wake-up call, another shot of sentiment, for a zeitgeist that theoretically needs it. “Cowards, here’s the sun!” Karen O barks at the start of “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” a canyon-echoing cry for resilience amid climate change and other frights. The song is about “defiance of ruin,” she told The Guardian. “It was me wanting to convey to my child that all’s not lost.” The rest of the album pursues similar aims inventively. Some of the songs are like madcap cartoons, with guitar riffs acting as slamming mallets while squiggly synths stand in for sneaky mice. Other, more atmospheric tracks sparkle in harmony with Karen O’s poetry about maintaining the capacity for wonder.
How telling that this brand of wonder is starting to sound like an older person’s luxury. Judging by popular rock-tinged music lately, the Zoomer mode is specific, personal, and prematurely exhausted: full of disassociated whimsy (Harry Styles), murmured desire (Steve Lacy), lush fatalism (Ethel Cain), diaristic venting (Olivia Rodrigo), cold candor (Billie Eilish), and hot anxiety (all the pop punks). Having survived terrorism, war, financial crises, internet chaos, percolating fascism, and a pandemic, we Millennials have a right to maintain faith in dancing through darkness. Another generation, shaped by the same forces, has a right to study their elders’ coping style, note what it has not accomplished, and cross their arms.