Karen O (Orzoleck), critically and culturally acclaimed frontwomen of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, sits at the intersection of discourses about indie music, gender, sexuality, and nation. Born in 1978 in South Korea to a Korean Mother and a Polish father, she is just as much a a product of her suburban New Jersey upbringing and her liberal arts education at both Oberlin and NYU. Orzoleck doesn’t shy away from the complications and the questions surrounding navigating identity formation and proscriptive answers on ‘what she is’ or how she will be classified. “I didn’t realize how much of an asset [being of mixed descent] is until I went to college,” she says, “and I had this real desire to explore that side of me that I’ve been neglecting for so long. Now it’s like I’d rather much be a half-breed that all white” (Half-Korean).
Orzoleck negotiates and complicates otherness and hardly ever comes to proscriptive answers on how she wants to be seen. A dynamic performer and a chameleon, Karen O nurtures a side-project aside from her Yeah Yeah Yeahs career—Native Korean Rock.
The name of the group proclaims, “this is the essence of rock music in Korea,” but the music is distinctly O. Stripped down, sometimes gentle vocals over strings, O started Native Korean Rock in 2008 with small, pop-up performances in Brooklyn and surrounding areas, and it has hardly progressed beyond that. Quite the opposite of rock music originating from Korea, O’s approach is seemingly hers from top down.
The agency expressed by being able to control—artistically and commercially—when the group plays, where, and what they sound like doing it, is a statement from O in counter-hegemony. Native Korean Rock is controlled top-to-bottom by the artists, and intentionally dodges understanding. By being such a chameleon, O and her 5-piece band flip the model minority on its head. At the same time that she is defying classification and taking an aggressive, controlling role in how she will be seen, she also dictates classification in a way that many might not understand.
How does Native Korean Rock display any similarities to actual Korean rock? The answer, O posits, is that it’s none of your business. Discourse surrounding the band’s name stirs up many questions, but one of the only answers available to us is that we don’t quite know. In an age when the caricature of Asianness for women does not include a guitar, a sense of agency, power, or an aura of “cool,” Karen O gets us talking about what it means to straddle the chasm of Asian Americaness in 2013.
Although Yeah Yeah Yeahs lie in an indie realm quickly being eaten up by media interests and promises of money (O already has offers from Playboy among other lucrative opportunities), Native Korean Rock remains untouched. Perhaps their central thesis is best captured in the chorus of their song “Body,” where O crows, “If you love somebody, anybody/ there will always be someone else/ so make it right, for yourself.”