Before the second song of their set had ended, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands boldly stepped toward the edge of the Aragon Ballroom stage, where, in one motion, she spit-spewed her drink into the air and stomped on a device that blew forth a flurry of miniature pink Y’s that began slowly descending into, and onto, the audience. It was my first time seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in person, and all I could think was, F*** yeah.
I spent a good portion of the next day in a coffee shop in Chicago, seated at a table that was screwed into the floor, fumbling over how best to describe the experienced of the previous night. Total sensory overload, in the best sense.
It was one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ last stops on their Fever to Tell anniversary tour, and it was a night during which I was fighting off the remnants of my own flu-based fever, which by the start of the concert had downgraded into sporadic sniffling fits.
I came to Chicago in search of an Experience. I needed verification of the reason I’d decided to embark upon what I’ve decided to call the Year of Living Vaingerously™️: that the only way to face up to the fact that in less than nine months I will turn 30 (Yipes!) is to try and remember everything that was good about being young.
It’s not so much a nostalgia tour as an attempt to ground the next stage of my life in the virtues of youth, which I feel I would be loathe to forget. It’s what James Murphy said he did before re-starting LCD Soundsystem last year: what would 15-year-old me have wanted the present-day me to do?
To keep those two personalities in balance, to recognize that I need not bristle at the fact that I am growing older, and that there are responsibilities attendant to that fact. To not lament the thought that I was a boy not long ago, wondering all the while where the time went when it seemed as if it had been going oh, so slowly. Sizable chunks of life are measured in this manner.
I found myself grappling with versions of a younger me throughout this concert. I stared at me in high school; I was angry at the fact that I’d not allowed this wonderful band’s music to impact me when it might have mustered the greatest possible resonance. When I was more of a kid. When it could have fueled a tank of courage with which I could have pursued different dreams.
I can only really recall their music hitting me ‘round the head in my final days of college, when Skeletons filtered onto a YouTube playlist as I worked on my final project in the Journalism lab on the top floor of the main academic building. It was a Sunday, I think; if so, it was sunny outside.
So I was kicking myself in the foot, watching the kids clustered around me toward the front of the venue, the experience a more weighty one for them surely. They’d parse over the tiniest details and revel in the experience on the way home.
Then I’d snap out of my reverie, realizing that maybe this didn’t really matter all that much, anyhow. I was not at the age of ultimate serendipity, as far as this concert was concerned—like I’d been when the sixth Harry Potter book was released, and Harry’s age in the story coincided with my own in real life.
This was different, but in some ways, maybe it was better. I thought of the film Only Yesterday, about a Japanese woman in her mid- to late-twenties, stalled in life and circling back to memories of youth as she figured what route forward to take.
How that dynamic could lend added resonance to this occasion, for me. It filled me with the first frisson of hope I’d felt in months. Outside of the euphoria attendant in concert experience, I’ve been dangerously drifting, as if real life wasn’t enough. Something I’ve always respected Christopher Nolan for grappling with in his films, namely The Prestige and Inception — the perfection one senses in the presence of pure creation, and how re-entry into normal existence feels like life slapping a duller filter onto you.
The first time it, whatever this it was that night, thought it most definitely was an It, hit me came during the performance of Maps. As I’d checked the group’s set lists during their recent string of performances, I’d wondered why they played the song midway through the show. Wasn’t it a show-stopper ripe for the encore?
I found out why. It allowed Karen O a comfortable time frame with which she could provide an extended introduction, explaining how it had changed shape in the decade and a half of its existence. Maps has become a teenager steeped in wisdom and experience.
She dedicated the song not just to past loves unrequited, its initial vestige, but also to the different, powerful forms she’d found that love assumes. The love she felt in the venue that evening, perhaps most palpable in the ever-present waves of adulation rising toward a group that has been such an instrumental force in people’s lives.
The love she feels as a mother, and the respect she has gained for all mothers; the love she felt for the dearly departed, the most poignant example being Stewart Lupton, lead singer of Jonathan Fire Eater, who’d died the day before the show at the age of 43.
It put me in mind of the film, Her, for which Karen O provided a song. How that film was directed by Spike Jonze, one of her past beaus, and how the message at the end of that film, earned because of the turmoil throughout it, explained something truly eternal about this force, love. We have such a paltry understanding of it.
It is the most powerful element. Seeking to control it, or mold it to the preconceived notions and expectations we bring into relationships is to do it the ultimate disrespect. That the way we stumble through life, bottling up what we feel, denying ourselves a chance at completion because of our petty jealousies. The way they poison good things because we cannot comprehend that love cannot be put in the cage of our own expectations.
How love, when felt and provided in its purest form, allows the heart to expand. When that lesson is learned, the heart does not stop expanding.
It was the perfect progression from the Fever to Tell documentary the group had made for this string of shows, chronicling an early-aughts tour through the United Kingdom. More so than the raw energy of what where then more intimate settings to play in, I was struck by the unstinting portrayal the band allowed of themselves: Karen O’s heavy drinking, the band’s utter bewilderment in the face of stream-of-consciousness questions from journalists, the first iterations of some of the interdynamic-al fissures that would almost break the band apart, a few years down the line.
This is a glimpse into who we were, they were telling us. This was three kids who loved music trying to figure out their place in this whirlwind that’s blown up around them. This is mixing growing up with a heartfelt desire not to sell out. I could feel my eyes brimming.
The seamless segue from Modern Romance, which plays as the documentary ends and the live show begins, drew a line between the then and now. So much time has passed, and yet it seems as if it were a crumpled paper that someone snatched from your hand.
The concert feels like a blur, as only the best shows do. I remember standing, I remember jumping, I remember pumping my fist at lyrics and sound that meant a whole lot to me. As I’d walk home later, to a cozy B&B near Andersonville, I’d find myself incapable of putting my finger on the sense of loss that hovered alongside like a sickening cloud.
I love walking home after a show for this exact reason. There are so many thoughts and feelings that come spilling out of the venue alongside you; so much to parse over. The steady rhythm of one foot after the other a continuation of the sound of the concert that serves as a rhythmic backdrop accompaniment. I fell under a spell, noticing after several blocks I’d been alternating humming along to Poor Song and Soft Shock. I remembered walking past a young woman who’d been standing against a wall, simply smiling. That was all she needed to say about how much this concert had meant to her.
Something about being on the cusp of 30; not yet old enough to be taken under by nostalgia’s undertow; still close enough to my youth to feel, perhaps most acutely because the memories are still rather fresh, what it was I was struggling with. To quote a Stars song, it’s what happens when you realize you must say goodbye to the youth you think you had. Who I’ve become, and whether a rock show can, or should, still move mountains within me as music once was able to do. I used to spend afternoons swimming in the thoughts and emotions drawn from a fantastic song.
Something that Will Sheff said resonates, that nostalgia can be a response to the fear we feel in modern society. But it does not have to consume you. You can enjoy the way it makes you feel without wanting to cry over opportunities missed. Then, it simply becomes something you keep in a corner of the room of your mind’s eye, and you are able to move forward.
I noticed at the concert that there were kids wholly present; seizing experiences the way I wish I could still do. But that’s alright. It’s good to see the torch get passed. The kids always know what to do with it.
And it’s never to late to dream. It’s never too late to remember why music is paramount. It can still help you through dark times. It can help you find the nerve to do something new. I once mused upon this quality of great art as I left a cafe in Paris in spring, that eternal bastion of hope, walking on air thanks to something brilliant I’d just read. This is enough, I thought then. I thought of my parents, both doctors. I thought of everything practical people do in terms of professions. I had so much respect for the immediate ways they impacted and aided society.
But I knew then, and I think I’ve always known, that I cannot do things like that. I wanted instead to write stuff, to make stuff, that makes people feel like I felt right then. That might give them the courage to turn away from darkness and live.
Like what the YYYs made me feel on a warm Tuesday night in Chicago. I was thousands of miles from home, and yet I felt totally safe. I felt good.
I remembered the reason Karen O’s power finally came through, for me. She could detail the pains of love, the desire to be left alone (Body, on her solo album Crush Songs, is one of my all-time favorites), while always making known that just as it is necessary to allow those feelings their space and time, you cannot let them overcome you. You must bring yourself back. So, as I made my way home that warm Tuesday night, I thought of this utter contentment I was feeling. I wanted to delve right back into this band’s catalog. I wanted to listen to them as I wrote what I was going to write next.
How this thing, this very good thing, had filled me with a belief. That this is a step toward the next stage of something good. There’s a photo Nick Zinner, the YYYs guitarist, took of Karen O backstage before the show. She’s sitting on a couch, quietly reflective, a bit of sunlight streaming past. That she can still muster the energy to be everything an audience needs her to be...No, that’s not right. Like love, it can’t be on our terms; rather, it should be a celebration of what she decides to be. Which is always so cool.
To grow with her and this band as they enter into the next stage of their existence. Isn’t that exciting? An ability to not turn away from the pain attendant in life; but rather, to stare it full in the face and say, Yes…that gives me the desire to live.