How The Yeah Yeahs' 'Maps' Helped Change the Way We View the Relationship Between Pop and Indie

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Maps
Courtesy Photo

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Maps"

There’s hardly an image more enduring than a female artist’s tears, and there’s hardly a story in indie rock’s history that has persisted quite like the one behind the music video for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' beloved mid-'00s single “Maps. “They were real tears,” frontwoman Karen O. confessed to the NME about her emotional video performance in 2007. “My boyfriend at the time” -- rumoured to be Angus Andrew of the band Liars -- “was supposed to come the shoot - he was three hours late and I was about to leave for tour.”

Those real tears, sweaty hair and desperate insistence of “Wait! They don’t love you like I love you” became a source of true human emotion that pop records have been co-opting since its release in 2003. With parent album Fever to Tell now nearing its 15th anniversary -- The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut LP was released on April 29, 2013 -- it’s clear that the song’s impact has only grown in the decade a half since.

Back in ‘03, the video’s timing couldn’t have been better. Not long into the new millennium, the Internet became the most popular medium for new musical discovery by quite some margin. Listeners were following their own ears rather than relying on radio-based gatekeepers and locally rooted scenes. As a result, indie rock’s penchant for puritanism and subcultural snobbery was dwindling, and authenticity was beginning to be privileged over obscurity.

The digital landscape challenged indie rock’s former boundaries so much that scenesters became sentimentalists and anti-mainstream antagonists were quieted. As physical sales declined, revenue patterns shifted. An artist’s main source of income then came primarily from advertisements and soundtracks, meaning that you’d have as much chance finding your new favorite band on the soundtrack to The O.C. as you would at some run-down bar in Brooklyn. The once antithetical camps of indie rock and pop were beginning to collapse, and it was the exact environment for "Maps" to thrive.

As the music video for “Maps” circulated across the internet, its download rate from file-sharing apps like Napster rocketed. The sheer demand led to its eventual radio play, as it was sandwiched between pop hits on mainstream stations. While the single was released in February of 2004, it didn’t reach the charts until two months later and then peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart after enjoying heavy rotation on MTV. As Jonathan Gray of Stylus Magazine then put it: “Pop radio was playing my music and I had no understanding as to why.”

The single not only put indie rock into the mainstream arena, but it forged a relationship with listeners of pop, too. With its urgent emotions and indelible riffs, “Maps” expanded the horizons of what pop music could be, even gracing the lower stretches of the Billboard Hot 100 -- and going a long way towards fulfilling the promise of a New Rock Revolution, as championed by the likes of The Strokes and The White Stripes who preceded them.

Then, it caught the attention of two of the world’s biggest pop producers -- Max Martin and Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald. “Maps” was, as Luke told Billboard in 2010, an “indie song [that] was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes… and it goes back down to five.” So, the producers said to one another, “Why don’t we do that...  but put a big chorus on it?” The release of Kelly Clarkson’s game-changing “Since U Been Gone" shortly followed.

Written in the same G major key as "Maps" and sharing an almost indistinguishable post-chorus guitar break and middle eight, Kelly Clarkson’s monumental hit -- which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 2005, and remained on the chart for 46 weeks -- opened up an entire avenue of pop music that was fundamentally inspired by of Karen O’s performance in “Maps,” and lent pop an emotional range it hadn’t been treated to in years.

And, thanks to Karen O, pop music went through something of a teenage rebellion phase. The joint success of “Maps” and “Since U Been Gone” helped inspire pop stars like P!nk, Ashlee Simpson and Katy Perry to undergo a recalcitrant shift towards indie rock in order to distance themselves from their more overtly corporate pasts. Max Martin needed indie rock to distance himself from Boyzone, Kelly Clarkson needed indie rock to distance herself from American Idol, and later on, Ashlee Simpson needed it to distance herself from her sister.

In a way, indie needed pop, too. You might not believe it, but the people who now boast “I ONLY listen to pop music” and “NO GUITARS” once used to flaunt the exact opposite. "I think what's interesting about 'Since U Been Gone' is that before that, so-called mainstream pop music ... was the music that you weren't supposed to like if you were a serious music fan,” Tokyo Police Club’s Graham Wright related to NPR in 2014 "But because it took 20 seconds [into ‘Since U Been Gone’] to actually figure that out, by the time you sort of had that reaction it was too late — the music had already cut straight to your heart."

Rockists who once sanctioned themselves to basement shows and downtown record stores were having their hierarchical tastes challenged. Even if it was derivative, they were beginning to enjoy a song on mainstream radio, and admitting it became increasingly painless. Although Karen O rejected Kelly Clarkson’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ pastiche as “poisonous varmit,” other prominent indie rock musicians were spearheading the idea that pop music could be just as valuable as rock and any of its variants.

Mash-up culture, which boomed shortly after “Gone,” put the two genres within the same framework and onto the same level. Indie-punk rocker Ted Leo did just that in 2005, with his live acoustic blend of “Maps” and “Since U Been Gone,” which ended up going viral. Strumming with palm-muted down strokes, the mash-up elucidated the similarities between the two songs, and made the message clear to indie puritans: “Look, you can enjoy pop music too.”

“Maps” has made appearances in some of our greatest pop hits since. Take the Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 hit "Meet Me Halfway," with its sampling of Maps’ one-note riff, for instance. As soon as you hear it you feel a sense of urgency. And even when the chorus is turned absurd as in Beyonce’s Lemonade highlight “Hold Up,” the same feelings emerge. “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you/ Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you,” she sings, lifting the chorus sentiment of Maps via a tweet made by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koernig. But Karen O’s lovelorn and anguish are still felt, only the pain has been obscured, turned to pathos.

Throughout the 15 years that “Maps” has been in the world, bands like Paramore, Alt-J, Glass Animals have drawn from the winning formula that the single first inspired. Musicians continue to poptimise indie rock and reap great commercial success by directly and cunningly striking the heart of mass audiences. While the intermingling of genres was once deemed a “guilty pleasure,” as was the case with “Since U Been Gone,” now with today’s iterations of indie maximizing their pop inclinations and potential, the underground has finally afforded the music prestige. Just 15 years later, the barriers between pop and indie rock barely exist, and a lot of it comes down to one indelible moment of sweat, urgency and tears.