10 Years, 100 Songs: #71. “Wait…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 22, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
As far as underground-meets-mainstream moments went in the 00s, there were few more unnerving than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ performance of “Maps” at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards, pictured above. In between awards getting handed out for Jack Black and Sean William Scott, and on a bill with D12 and the Beastie Boys, here comes Karen O, with her short hair and her shorter skirt, and the rest of the band playing this gorgeous, distortion-gorged ballad against a surreal backdrop of gigantic flowers, until Karen gets positively smothered with rose petals at the end of the song. I don’t remember exactly how host Lindsay Lohan elected to handle the moment aftewards, but I’m sure it went over with equivalent awkwardness to Ian Ziering declaring that the Flaming Lips “rocked the house!” on Beverly Hills, 90210.
Then again, “Maps” always felt sort of out of place in popular culture in general. In fact, if you wanted to craft an argument that some songs are just too good for the public to ignore, you’re not going to come up with much better evidence than “Maps.” It was a weird song, with a weird video, by a weird band, with a weird lead singer. Nothing about it would really point to it being a breakout hit, aside from the fact that it was very, very good–and also happened to break in a year where modern rock audiences, for whatever reason, seemed a little more inclined to give legitimate airspace to more off-the-beaten-path bands like Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. Maybe it was a time and place thing–and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs certainly got no shortage of support from media hype, which might have had something to do with it as well–but really, accurate or not, I prefer to look at “Maps” as an example of how Great Music Will Out.
Not that it’s a completely uncommercial song–it sounds huge, certainly, and Karen O was an undeniably charismatic leadwoman. But she wasn’t charismatic the way I thought she’d be from all the scene buzz the band got, which led me to believe that she’d either be from the riot grrrl school of confrontational, aggressively counter-hegemonic punk rock chix, or just more of a headline-grabbig diva, from the Courtney Love / Gwen Stefani lineage. In reality, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the second coming of The Pretenders, and Karen O was the female rock star who best blended attitude, fashion, toughness and vulnerability since the heyday of Chrissy Hynde. That’s a pretty lofty standard to live up to–loftier than most people realize, perhaps, as The Pretenders have reached a status of underratedness that verges on the criminal–but “Maps” was not unlike the band’s “Brass in Pocket,” a song that could stun you with its songcraft or its emotional aching.
Naturally, if Karen was Chrissy reincarnate, then it would be unfair to deny guitarist Nick Zimmer his due as the YYYs answer to Pretenders axeman James Honeyman-Scott, and the success of “Maps” is just as much his as it is Miss O’s. Both guitarists were subtle innovators at their craft, cultivating sounds that were familiar, but thoroughly distinctive, and undeniably big-sounding. Zimmer’s guitar is the constant throughout “Maps,” from his intial eternally echoing one-note riff on the song’s intro, to his ghostly, shimmering riff that augments the chorus, to his thundering crunch that pulverizes the bridge, and back to the one note again until the exit. It’s all beautiful stuff, and combined with the unceasingly pounding drums and cranked-up-in-the-mix bass, it creates the musical torrent that makes the contrast with Karen’s disarmingly intimate vocals so great and compelling.
Although for all my talking about Miss O’s vocals being so vulnerable and intimate, I’ll be the first to admit–from the lyrics alone, I wouldn’t have a fucking clue what this song is about. The verses are practically non-existent, and the title is enigmatic to say the least. Really, the song’s emotional pull comes down to one line from the chorus: “Wait–they don’t love you like I love you.” And you know what? It’s more than enough. A lot of it is in the delivery–the fact that coming just out of the verses, she sings the “wait” with just enough of a lilt and hesitation that you feel like she’s really given pause by this thought. And “they don’t love you like I love you” is just a great line, basically emerging from nowhere to kind of blindside audiences with its forwardness–especially when she takes it up an octave from her hushed sigh to a full-on belt as the chorus continues. The ambiguity of the rest of the song just serves to make that one line as much of a bombshell as it deserves to be.
Of course, there is a story behind “Maps,” apparently involving Karen O’s real-life boyfriend Angus Andrew, lead singer of critical darlings Liars, who had to leave to go on tour or aceept a job offer or some such–though a relatively obscure one, the song was at heart a good, old-fashioned “Baby, please don’t leave me” ballad. So raw was the emotion for Karen in the song that she didn’t need any sort of chemical assistance to tear up in the video–the tears were legitimately O, caused by Andrew’s failure to show up to the video shoot, despite the entire enterprise essentially being devoted to him. You don’t need the song’s backstory to really feel it anyway, but it does kind of help to give the song some semblence of context, especially since even now, I can’t imagine why this song is called “Maps.” Really, if any of you reading out there have explanations or theories about this, I’d love to hear them.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs kept up a nice run of singles off Fever to Tell, with the incendiary “Date With the Night” and jaunty “Y Control” (with its unfortunately overlooked, Spike Jonze-directed video), and though the singles off sophomore album Show Your Bones were a little underwhelming, they came back strong with this year’s It’s Blitz, and lead single “Zero,” a sure shot for our year-end top ten here. Most impressively, they did what most of their New Rock Revolution contemporaries failed to, in constantly evolving and keeping their sound fresh, and they sound just as good doing synth-laden disco stompers as they did doing reverb-powered arena rave-ups. But “Maps” still stands alone in their catalogue, an unforgettably private and poignant intermission in a largely boisterous, unpersonal decade. (And by the way, “Brass in Pocket” is probably one of the ten best pop songs ever written).