Karen O and the Evolution of Asian American Identity

As a child growing up in Hawai’i, the term “closed off” was an understatement.  My island bubble, the capitol of both slipper-wearing and of Asian and Polynesian dominance; fighting the juxtaposition of being a part of the United States and somehow existing culturally separate for so long, perhaps (definitely) led to my teenage-Asian American-Pacific Islander identity issues.  Seeing Asian and POC faces all the time was natural, yet when I turned on the TV, watched films, listened to music, etc. my bubble straight up burst.  There were little to no POC let alone Asian people, which to a child living in an isolated society flooded with the latter, I eventually realized, might have been slightly damaging. But in high school a new possibility came alive in my discovery of Karen O.

The first time I saw Karen O was in 2003 when her band, Yeah Yeah Yeahsreleased the music video for “Maps“, the breakout single off their full-length album, Fever To Tell.

karen-o-mapsInterscope

Set in anywhere, USA, the video depicts the band onstage during an audition in a high school auditorium with Karen O at the forefront.  The half-Korean, half-Polish shrieking beast appears with a blank look on her face, wearing all-white playsuit splattered with what could be or could not be blood.  My impressionable 15-year-old mind was completely stunned but fascinated by her crazy facial twists and circus-esque energy; I found something that praised “uniqueness” and Karen O was my icon. 

In my island nation, people were very much the same as one another; to be weird meant to stick out, to be ridiculed, to be thought of as “other”.  It never occurred to me that the typical Asian American woman, which surrounded me everyday and was always polite, happy and delicate, could represent themselves on a public platform, in such a garishly honest way, fearless of repercussion and judgment.  Although she is not the first woman of Asian descent to conquer indie rock, she certainly came about at the perfect time – the internet era – prodding the minds of young POC so effortlessly.  

While she isn’t completely outspoken about being Asian American, she has created a tunnel to normalcy for fellow artists including Sandra Vu of Dum Dum Girls and SISU, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, and Jessica Numsuwankijkul of Heliotropes. Without this constant reminder of her heritage, Karen O has somehow managed to represent a comfortability for a heavily stereotyped community, making it ok not only for musicians but all out-of-the-box individuals to destroy expectations and conquer everything.  

2 Comments

  1. Straight up didn’t know about Karen O, will look her up. But i’ve never read the Hawaii Asian American experience so eloquently before as such in that first paragraph.

    Liked by 1 person

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