Fever To Tell
By Lisa Kwon
Karen O was my idol throughout my early teen years. Of all the garage rock acts I loved in 2003, she had always looked and felt the most like me. Karen O’s band Yeah Yeah Yeahs melted me with their striking hot guitar chords; Karen O herself wailed like the nastiest guitar lick. I reveled in her lyrics, scared that I could never confess things so unabashedly as she, but comforted that at least the world had her to light a fire to modesty. At 12 years old, saying that I loved Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut album, Fever to Tell, was like licking battery acid: an adrenaline rush from a punitive dare.
Because I am a first generation Korean-American, I grew up with parents who didn’t know the meanings of parent teacher associations, tennis clubs, or birthday sleepovers. What they knew was how to put me in school, to assimilate, and to raise a well-educated American kid. In my predominantly white Los Angeles high school, it was awkward to not have someone else going through that experience with me. I often didn’t know what to do in the company of my white friends’ parents, and it felt as if they didn’t know what to do with me either. My skin color felt heavy in those years; I didn’t feel privileged to be Asian-American.
I found ways to ease the dissociative feeling. Back then I kept my musical heroes tucked away in my room, where I sang along to the weekly rock mixes I created in my private space. They made me feel better when I felt alone. Music also nudged me to experiment with my style. Karen O, of course, inspired me to show up to classes in an oversized red leather jacket, fishnet tights, and a skater dress. But feigning that attitude through my outfits was easy because it never required me to use my literal voice. In my loudest attire, I would sit quietly in class.
I was always shy, but during high school I had simply forgotten how to talk about myself. The first time I really spoke about the music I loved was when I began to interview for internships in the music industry. But even then, I spoke by rote. I responded with answers I had practiced for hours in front of a mirror, even when people only wanted to know my favorite rockstars. Talking about myself made me nervous even in the face of questions that were no different from the ones my best friends would ask. Somehow, feeling comfortable with the jobs I actually got was even harder than getting them in the first place. For most of the jobs I had, I was the only Asian on the team. Going into those first internships felt like going into high school again. I fixated on how different I looked from everyone else. I was careful about what I said to my colleagues, as if it would ruffle feathers if I wasn’t… as if I might reveal something embarrassing about my identity. Call it an unchecked anxiety from my high school days. Have you ever felt as if you could lose everything by saying the wrong thing? That was my anxiety, my everyday reality.
A few years ago, while deciding whether I was cut out for the music industry, I began finding great writers who wanted to profile non-white musicians. What began as a search for career motivation led me to find new music from Asian artists. I remember sitting down with Puberty 2 by Mitski. Through her interviews, I learned so much about being biracial and bowing to conformity in America. Then for most of 2016 I raved about TIFFANY’s EP I Just Wanna Dance after coming across it on Tumblr accounts. I came across an interview in NYLON with Charlene Kaye, now KAYE, whose song “Honey” became one of my favorite songs of 2016. Finally, I discovered Jay Som late last year when I stumbled upon her album Turn Into on Bandcamp. Through these platforms and publications, I found places that celebrated non-white musicians. There was a reason to be excited again; I was seeing more musicians who reminded me of myself.
Listening to these artists today reminds me of how inspired I was when I, a Korean-American, first saw Karen O, a cooler Korean- American, sing “Maps” (one of the most beautiful songs to come out of the 2000s). But when I look back on profiles of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs from 2003 to 2009, I find a handful of articles that treated her like a novelty act. They fixated on her stage antics and outfits, when what I found most exciting about her was that she built a career for herself above the confines of the garage rock revival. But at the time it felt as if there were room for only one Karen O-fronted band in the “credible,” “talented” indie rock lane.
Great music comes as a result of artists being fearlessly themselves, but the market was dictating which artists and how many of them would be allowed to exercise that agency freely. When only one type of artist is given a platform, we are led to believe that there is only one model for the way things (or people) should be.
This year I finally began seeing my Korean-American roots as a real positive identifier. I’d been raised to be a model minority and I’d been told not to disrupt. I now recognize that the idea of being a model minority is bullshit.
Becoming an individual with power in America as a person of color is an arduous task, but it helps to see others doing it. For those of us who have grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, the things we listen to and read on our own time are sometimes the only things that help us to recognize our voice.
Because of this, I have a few wishes for the industry to which I contribute. Let’s continue fostering conversations about the way that the industry is depoliticizing non-white music. It’s hard work to tell people that your song is urgent and that they need to hear it. But the work becomes all the more gratifying when there are more outlets for marginalized and underrepresented artists to speak and sing about their experiences. Be an outlet that publishes us not to be politically relevant but because you genuinely feel the need to share unheard stories.
All of this is why I wanted to work in music in the first place. I want to share the songs that need my help. Eventually, I learned that being in the thick of it with these artists - moving mountains to get them their paychecks and their moments - also requires me to love and express myself. No more private conversations with myself about the musicians who stoke my fire and remind me to be unforgettable.
I can't articulate what it is about being an Asian in America that makes me depressed, angry, and confused at times. Growing up I thought it was because my ethnicity was something to be sheepish about. Now I’m discovering that this country has made it so that we don’t know how to talk about ourselves. White American culture often uplifts those who are like them and leaves little room for those who aren’t. If I don’t take the reins and decide for myself how this American system will affect me, I will just walk along silently.
Am I scared of never being known, or am I scared of being known?
I still get weak when I hear my own voice out loud, but I speak because the art I love tells me to. For me, revisiting Karen O today is different because I don’t feel as alone as I once did. I have the same love for her, but her music has become my megaphone rather than my refuge.