Your moment of zen: Karen O and Willie Nelson cover Queen's 'Under Pressure'

Mikael Wood
·3 min read

At first the song seems to be moving too slow, that iconic seven-note bass line — the one Vanilla Ice brought to the attention of anyone somehow unfamiliar with Queen and David Bowie — stretched to a meditative chopped-and-screwed crawl.

Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, it goes, and because you know it already, your brain is impatiently leaping ahead of the music — at least until you realize that, wait, meditation sounds pretty good right about now.

Just in time for the most anxiety-producing Election Day in modern U.S. history, Karen O and Willie Nelson have dropped an out-of-nowhere cover of “Under Pressure,” the smash 1981 single that paired two of England’s greatest rock acts (and later served as the musical foundation for one of the 1990s’ biggest rap hits).

But instead of tapping into the jittery energy of the original — a signature totem of an era when the U.K. was “being convulsed by a social, cultural and political counter-revolution,” as the New Statesman’s Jason Cowley has put it — the 87-year-old country-music legend and the 41-year-old Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman transform “Under Pressure” into a kind of anthem of reassurance.

The instrumentation is warm and rootsy, with acoustic guitar, pedal steel and sighing background vocals. (Produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, it features playing by the YYYs’ Nick Zinner along with Imaad Wasif, Priscilla Ahn and Johnny Hanson, the last of whom taught Bradley Cooper how to play guitar for “A Star Is Born.”)

And the singing is tender and conversational, like a friendly chat between two people from different walks of life who — get this — have managed to agree on something.

In a statement, Karen O said she’d been inspired to cover “Under Pressure” after finding “political urgency” in the song’s lyrics about buildings burning down and families splitting in half. She sought out Nelson through, of all people, their mutual friend Johnny Knoxville, the former star of MTV’s “Jackass.”

What’s so moving about Queen and Bowie's recording is that you can hear the anguish of those images in the performances by Bowie and Freddie Mercury, which make it sound like flames were practically licking the studio door (even if they cut the song in fancy Montreux, Switzerland).

Yet this new rendition avoids the stirring hysterics — a bold choice, given how hot the door feels at the moment — in favor of a calming deep-breath belief in the possibility of change.

“Love’s such an old-fashioned word / And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night,” Karen O and Nelson sing together, her voice high and breathy, his low and cracked. “Love dares you to change our ways of caring about ourselves.”

For many this week, voting could be considered a version of that self-care. So could listening to this song.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.