The singing/drumming half of the 1970s’ hitmakers the Carpenters died at age 32 in 1983 of health issues related to anorexia. As popular as she was in her lifetime, Karen Carpenter has, according to a new book, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, “generated different afterlives” (read: more popular than ever). She matters, author Karen Tongson writes, “to people of color, immigrants, queer people, gender outlaws, and everyone other than the white Nixon-era suburbanites she and her music are said to have represented.”A professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California, Tongson offers an offbeat, affectionate and provocative meditation about the many “afterlives” of Karen Carpenter.
Karen Carpenter was an afterthought in her own family. Her brother Richard, three years her senior, was the musical prodigy, the “genius” on whom their parents doted and hung dreams of fame. Growing up in New Haven, the tomboyish little sister played street baseball and football, had a paper route, and a wide circle of friends and cousins with whom to play. When she was 13, her parents moved the family to the bland Los Angeles suburb of Downey in order to be near the entertainment/music industry, where Richard was destined to make his mark. Karen tagged along, still pounding those skins and generally being the good little sister. She joined the marching band, and played in a jazz trio with her brother, then followed him to college at Cal State Long Beach in 1967.
The pair really came into their own at Cal State Long Beach, as members of the college choir and two-thirds of a jazz trio gigging around Long Beach. After the trio won a local talent contest, largely due to Karen’s showy drum soloing, their profile was raised.
A recording of that trio at a talent show…wait for the drum solo:
With some friends, they formed a six-person choral group called Spectrum. They had wholesome haircuts and wore matching blazers and Pepsodent smiles—a veritable antidote to the scruffy hippies infesting every other college campus in America.
Spectrum got a record deal with Joe Osborne, a bassist with the Wrecking Crew, and their demo fell into the hands of Herb Alpert, who signed them to A&M. Richard began collaborating with John Bettis, a friend from the college choir, co-writing and arranging songs that would later end up on Carpenters albums. Though Spectrum didn’t “make a dent in the music scene” at the time, that seamless sound that would dominate Top 40 radio in the 1970s was born.
Somewhere in that transition process, it was discovered that Karen, still playing drums, had a distinctive and unique voice, a velvety alto that, if properly miked, was both intimate and radio-friendly. She also had an ability to clearly enunciate the words of any song, a rare commodity in a time of acid rock and screaming vocals. In the Carpenter family, Richard may have still been the king but on stage and on records, Karen was what drew the fans.
“Don’t Be Afraid to Love,” written by Richard Carpenter, was one of the early demos recorded by the newly named Carpenters in 1968:
Because their “soft rock” was so forgettable back then to rock & roll fanatics (and, likely, many PKM readers), it is easy to forget how popular the Carpenters were. Between 1969 and 1981, they released ten albums, had countless hit singles and sold 90 million records. And, whether they liked it or not, they were THE easy-listening alternative for Middle America. A seemingly perfect brother/sister duo, their music slid out of car speakers and home stereos like warm molasses broadcast from another world where Vietnam, Watergate and fornication did not exist.
One of the reasons for Karen’s many “afterlives” is the tinge of martyrdom her early death gave her, at least to her diehard fans. The hits were not just popular in the U.S.; they attracted an international audience, including in the Philippines, where Karen Tongson’s parents, both professional musicians, fell under the spell of the Carpenters and, in tribute, named their daughter Karen.
As Tongson points out: Karen Carpenter’s death was the first by a pop star due to under-indulgence, rather than overindulgence, “a protracted suicide aided by her underconsumption—the refusal to eat and nourish her body.” Ah, but here’s a surprising rub (well, a surprise to me): she always saw herself as “a drummer who sings.”
There are some amazing examples of her chops on YouTube. Check this one out:
In hindsight, I can also see the truth about her equally amazing voice, which added some secret sauce to the Carpenters’ otherwise schmaltzy sound.
PKM: When the Carpenters were hitmakers, I didn’t pay them much mind, mostly because that was an era of great rock innovation, maybe the greatest (1969-73, 75-81) and I ignored almost everything that was played on Top 40 radio. Now, of course, I can listen and appreciate the uniqueness of Karen Carpenter (far more than Richard). What is it about that voice that is so intoxicating? It’s not the glass-busting variety or the flexible, multi-octave voice that is used by more histrionic performers.
Karen Tongson: I think when we talk about Karen’s voice—whether or not we’re musicians, critics, or fans—we often focus on its “natural” beauty, its inimitability, the richness of its timbre. What we don’t acknowledge as frequently is the craft behind her vocal performances, and in particular, her well-honed technique of singing closely to the mic. She really used the mic as an instrument to enhance the most resonant aspects of her timbre and range, and that closeness—that intimacy—makes her recorded voice feel as if its been breathed directly into our ears. That intimacy, the heartbreak you can hear in the tiniest of rasps and hitches of the throat is why we find it so intoxicating, and also melancholic.
PKM: I might be wrong but my sense is that her voice is the sort into which many different subgroups and people can find something to cling to. Like Chet Baker’s or Nick Drake’s. A sort of blank slate? Are they happy? Are they sad” Are they in pain or filled with joy?
Karen Tongson: It’s less a “blank slate” than what I tried to describe above: something so close that it resonates deep within ourselves, within our own chests, through our ears. I always describe Karen’s voice as sounding redolent with sadness, even when she sings about joy. Chet has that aspect to his voice as well, whereas someone like Ella Fitzgerald sounds joyful (like she’s smiling) even when she’s singing about something tragic (e.g. her recording of “Miss Otis Regrets”).
PKM: Do you think it was partly an accident of timing that had the Carpenters pegged as America’s “good two shoes” (four shoes?)? With Vietnam raging, the cities alight with civil unrest, protesters in the streets, Nixon, Agnew, etc., the Carpenters seemed so disconnected from the times, and the times, at least for the young, demanded “relevant” music?
Karen Tongson: I don’t think it was timing as much as how the era itself has been memorialized by various music critics, especially rock critics. We tend to lionize, as well as codify the era as one that seemed so unequivocally about unrest, when just as many countervailing forces in culture were so deeply prevalent. While they may have been disconnected from a particular zeitgeist, they were obviously tapped into another sensibility that only grew as the decade progressed, even as their star may have waned. The Carpenters were far from being alone as a MOR, or “adult friendly” act, and by the time we get deeper into the ‘70s, the influence of their “smooth sound” branches out into the genres we now call soft rock, yacht rock, etc. It preceded them (think about The Association and Bread), and grew and transformed, after them.
PKM: What is it that Karen Carpenter represents to these various communities that you mention in your book? Is it her suffering in silence? Her early death from something that could have been prevented with the right understanding and patience and help?
Karen Tongson: As I express throughout the book and in interviews elsewhere, there’s something about Karen’s musical wheelhouse–melancholic ballads about unrequited love–that made it feel like she was serving us latter-day torch songs, which has so many resonances with LGBTQ+ listeners, as well as the experience of suffering in silence. The whole purpose of the book is to explore these various resonances across identities—from gender and sexuality, to race and nationality. One can even say all of her nostalgic musings about home and yesterdays also feels significant to many immigrant communities who feel themselves far away from home and longing for a time they might’ve imagined as simpler, even if they weren’t. And finally, an early death always creates an “aura” around a performer, especially for communities who are themselves confronted with the possibility of not surviving.
PKM: What sort of reaction have you gotten from Carpenters’ fans for your book? Do some buy it mistakenly believe that it’s going to be a biography?
Karen Tongson: You know, I’ve had a marvelous time interacting with Carpenters fans, and for the most part, the response has been resoundingly positive! I actually presented my book at the Carpenters’ 50thAnniversary Celebration, a fan convention with several hundred attendees from all over the world (Singapore, Japan, Europe, the UK) and Australia) held here in Southern California. I have to admit I felt some trepidation. I didn’t know if I’d be challenged for exploring Karen’s biography in these speculative and expansive ways relating to my own life story and POV. In the end, though, everyone I met was so lovely. And there was such a massive LGBTQ+ contingent at the conference, that I felt right at home.
PKM: Did you ever see the Todd Haynes’ film with the Barbie dolls (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story)? I don’t think he was mocking her or mocking the music. I think he was getting at some of the things you were looking into in your book—the oddity of the “normalcy” of the pair, set against the turmoil underneath, the perfect façade masking something elusive underneath. Even “We’ve Only Just Begun” can be, in the right mood, interpreted as mournful, can’t it?
The opening to Todd Haynes’ Superstar:
Karen Tongson: Of course I’ve seen the film—and I wrote about it in the book. I see what I’ve done in the book as another iteration of what Todd Haynes and Cynthia Schneider (his co-writer/producer on the film) are doing in Superstar, albeit far less campy and a little more earnest. Both the film and my book are homages, and an exploration of the queer relationships so many of us have to the Carpenters and Karen.
PKM: I have to say that it was a shock when she died. The Carpenters seemed to keep their private lives hermetically sealed from the public. Had she been battling anorexia now, I doubt it would have remained secret for long. Would the openness about such diseases today have saved her? Or was her condition, and its underlying causes (family dynamics, depression, etc.) too profound to respond to such “fixes”?
Karen Tongson: I think it’s too easy to speculate on the idea that Karen could somehow have been “saved” by the ubiquity and invasiveness of celebrity journalism in the contemporary age. Look at the many singers now, some alive, some lost to us, who suffer silently and secretly with a range of addictions, mental illnesses and other difficult struggles. What I do know is that Karen Carpenter’s death brought a kind of attention to anorexia and eating disorders that hadn’t been brought to it previously, so who knows what “awareness” would’ve actually been raised without her relative martyrdom to that awareness.