Around the turn of the century, a lot of our heroes seemed to come from New York City. There were the obvious 9/11-related ones – the firemen/firewomen, the police/po-po, and community members that banded together in a time of untold tragedy. But there were also those who rescued popular rock music from the worst patch it had seen in history. It was a time of aggressive, misogynistic rock, released under the suitably juvenile and faddish-sounding ‘nu-metal’ tag, a movement led by Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit, and trailed by bands filled with wallet-chain wearing, turntable-lugging angry, short types, who yelled empty odes about fucking bitches, fucking up bitches, and generally wallowing in unfocused, cartoonish anger and laser-focused business plans.
Enter: The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, two groups who dressed like it was 1977, treated their music as both ‘important art’ and ‘important art you can shimmy to’ and resolutely dealt in that nebulous ‘New York City sound’ – a term which means nothing really, but also means Television, Blondie, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker drumming while standing up, CBGBs, vintage jackets, and unisex jeans. (If you think unisex jeans don’t have a sound, try walking in them.)
‘Maps’ is both the vaguest and the most realised single from this era – a pop art blast of layered guitars, tumbling drums, and hypnotic vocals. Karen O uses less than thirty words throughout the song (count them, I dare ya) and rarely bothers stringing them into coherent sentences. This is a song driven by mood, and it’s impossible to mistake the anguish. “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” is the ultimate plea for someone to stay. Sure, there will be other opportunities, other love affairs, other people – there’s a whole world outside of NYC, despite what ‘How I Met Your Mother’ suggests – but why search for love elsewhere when it just won’t compare? That’s her entire argument, and she’s selling it well.
The song purportedly details the relationship between Karen O and Liars frontman Angus Andrew, although “details” is a strong term as discussed above. The video clip sees Karen crying real tears, and the story goes that she was actually upset at Angus’s failure to turn up for the video shoot: a story which cannot possibly be true, but has been woven into the song’s lore all the same. I get it. I sincerely want to believe it – it adds another irresistible layer to this song.
As for the meaning of ‘maps’ – your guess is as good as any, and certainly better than those currently living online, with one overzealous theory claiming it’s an acronym for ‘My Angus, Please Stay’ which seems too much of a sloppily reverse-engineered backronym to be remotely factual. My guess is that it refers to a relationship crippled by travel and distance, with maps laying out the physical distance between them. Or maybe it just sounds great, which is more than enough of a reason – after all, it’s not as if we are debating the meaning of Nick Zinner’s feedback blasts in the bridge.
Just last week Beyonce repurposed the song’s chorus for her own brand of furious heartache on the epic ‘Lemonade’ standout ‘Hold Up’, wrapping a startlingly personal narrative around the hook. ‘Lemonade’ details a marriage torn apart by infidelity, and the sentiment of “they don’t love you like I love you” is still as striking as it was back in 2003. There may be others who may love you in some capacity, but they will never compare. Karen O uses this line as a plea to stay, but Beyonce seems to bat it around as if to show her husband how foolish he was to ever believe that there might be something better and stronger out there. Then she devours him whole, in public, on his own shitty streaming service.