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Loudspeaker: Revisiting Karen Carpenter

On Dec. 17, 1982, a frail Karen Carpenter made her last public appearance as a vocalist in the “multi-purpose” room at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California. She sang Christmas carols for her godchildren and their classmates as part of the school’s holiday concert, performing without her brother Richard who made up the other half of their musical duo. Everyone in attendance who was old enough to remember her at the height of Carpenters fame was shocked to see her now, a gaunt and sickly figure in contrast with the Christmas cheer around her. A short two months later, Carpenter would be discovered collapsed on the floor of her parents’ home, having gone into heart failure precipitated by anorexia nervosa and bulimia. She would be the first modern celebrity to die from an eating disorder, dead at the age of 32.

For years prior to her death, Carpenter had struggled with anorexia. In 1973, at the peak of the Carpenters’ fame, she began a crash diet, starved herself and obsessively took laxatives and medication to increase metabolism. At this point, she weighed 120 pounds. By 1975, after two years of this regimen, she would drop to a fragile 91 pounds. Audiences were shocked that the once seemingly healthy Carpenter looked so gaunt in a matter of years, precipitating fears that she was dying of cancer. Even as the Carpenters’ fame slowly wound down by the 1980s, Karen would continue her unhealthy regimen, convinced she was gaining weight even as she slowly wasted away.

But what instigated this tragedy? Media coverage at the time of Karen Carpenter’s death was focused on the shock of it all, that a clean-cut and innocent figure could die in such a tragic and, for the time, unusual way. Even at the height of their fame in the 1970s, the Carpenters were lampooned as too soft and too innocent, a musical contrast to the bloated and often druggy world of 1970s rock. It has only been with recent critical re-evaluations that the true nature of the Carpenters’ music has been discovered, its emotional resonance as echoing as Karen Carpenter’s powerful contralto voice. 

If the Carpenters claimed a musical emotion for themselves, it was the feeling of longing. Karen Carpenter’s voice contributed to this in no small part with its resonance. “They Long To Be (Close To You)” is arguably the Carpenters’ most well-known song, hitting #1 on US Billboard Charts in 1970. It is a song about infatuation, opening with the lyrics, “Why do birds suddenly appear/ Every time you are near?/ Just like me, they long to be/ Close to you.” Other hits include “Superstar,” the story of an unrequited love affair with a musician on the road, or “Rainy Days and Mondays,” a song about loneliness and ennui. Karen Carpenter’s voice was the key to the emotional thrust of these songs, adding a vibrancy and echo to source material that already captured feelings of yearning and heartsickness.

In spite of their musical qualities — or more likely because of them — the Carpenters were perpetually haunted by the spectre of uncoolness in their time in the spotlight, too soft for rock and too wholesome for pop. But time has been kind to their music. In particular, the avatar of rock ‘n’ roll cool and former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon is a fan of the Carpenters. This affection was made musically clear with the song “Tunic (Song for Karen),” an internal monologue from Karen Carpenter’s perspective which appears on the 1990 album “Goo.” Gordon even wrote an open fan letter to Karen years after her death.

Like any fan letter, Gordon concludes the letter with a series of questions, asking “Did anyone ever ask you that question — what’s it like being a girl in music? What were yr dreams? Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs? Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?” In spite of musical re-evaluation over the past three decades, it seems we are not closer to answering that question. 35 years on, all that remains is Karen Carpenter’s exquisite voice and those same feelings of longing that colored her music.

— Maxwell Fenton ’19

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    SteveFeb 26, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Very well written, and touching. Thank you for this.

  • S

    SteveFeb 24, 2018 at 4:05 pm

    Beautifully written — thanks!