Favorite Tracks: "We've Only Just Begun" and "Reason to Believe" and "(They Long To Be) Close To You" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"
Thoughts: Oh man, so many feelings about the Carpenters. They're one of those artists/bands that I became obsessive about without even (or in addition to) memorizing their discography; other examples being Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, John Denver, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, etc. I might not know each and every song, but I have taken it upon myself to not just be their fan, but their advocate.
Let me be clear: I'm a big fan/advocate of Karen. I'm not sure if I was raised to think that Richard is a bit of an arrogant jerk, or if I learned that later when investigating into Karen's life on my own. I certainly grew up with The Carpenters playing on our family's stereo. I can't remember if it was my mom or dad or someone else, but I remember being told that Karen Carpenter's voice was the greatest in pop music (Paul McCartney said she had "the greatest female voice in the world"), and that was always followed by a comment on the great tragedy of her untimely and potentially preventable death at the age of 32, 30 years ago.
(Before I go any further (if you're even still with me at this point), this is going to be one of those posts that are focused less on the particular album and more on my relationship/interest in the artist--particularly because I'm afraid this is the only Carpenters album on the list. You've been warned!)
In college I read a book (I can't remember which--probably one of the many about women and eating disorders I began devouring--unforgiveable pun, I'm sorry) that referenced Todd Haynes' 1987 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. I couldn't find it on DVD because in 1989 Richard issued a "cease and desist" order on the film (supposedly for music rights reasons) despite Hayne's offer to exclusively show the movie in clinics and schools with all proceeds going to the Karen Carpenter Memorial Fund for Anorexia Research (now called The Carpenter Foundation).
So, to YouTube, where all great out-of-print videos live on. I recommend watching it, but be forewarned: it's not for everyone. Instead of actors Haynes used barbie dolls on set-to-scale handmade sets, and the opening is a pretty traumatic dramatization of Karen's mother finding her body. It's definitely unsettling and frequently jarring.
I believe my ingrained distrust and dislike of Richard Carpenter has to do with the image (however true or untrue) that he was jealous and possessive of Karen's obvious shining talent, and called every shot in their musical career. To say the Carpenters would still be The Carpenters without Richard is untrue, but if Karen had spent more time in charge of her own career (and life), who knows how bright her single spotlight in the history of music would have been? She did have one solo album she got to record only because it was done in 1979/1980 when Richard was being treated for his Quaalude addiction--which were introduced to him by their mother Agnes as a sleep aid). It was shelved in 1981 due to claims by the label and Richard that it wasn't good enough to release. Karen was heartbroken, and the album had cost $400k of her own money to produce. It wasn't released until 1996, 13 years after her death.
But no matter how different Richard might be than I perceive him: humble instead of proud, nurturing instead of controlling, selfless instead of self-obsessed, I can't help but joke with my family when any of his singing is featured on its own in a Carpenters song. "Stop, stop! Just let Karen sing!" I mean, for Pete's sake, he released an album in 1998 called Richard Carpenter: Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor. Is he good at those things? Yes. But the need to list them together feels like a desperate cry for recognition. And notice he didn't put 'singer' in that list, and yet his solo singing is featured on waaaay too many Carpenters tracks (sometimes almost exclusively!). I mean, sure his voice is very white bread and not wholly unpleasant, but when it's the first voice you hear after Karen, it sounds even less compelling (which should be impossible). Also in 2003 an album was released of just Carpenters songs written by Richard, cunningly titled Carpenters Perform Carpenter, I'm sure with Richard's blessing (if not persistence and complete control). Check out this album cover:
Yeah... Was that really OK'd by Richard and the label? If so, for the LOVE OF GOD. They couldn't have just found a Carpenters photo with Richard at the foreground, or sitting at the piano? Like this or this or this? Or at the very least make the Carpenters photo bigger than the one of Richard GIANT FACE? I digress.
Now if God had made John Denver Karen's musical partner, I would have been in total love with both of them singing:
But to be fair, from Superstar and other sources, it's hard to place all blame on Richard, when it seems their manipulative and controlling mother was a major factor in the singer's personal struggles. The 1989 made-for-TV-movie The Karen Carpenter Story (also on YouTube) was executive produced by Richard, and according to the actors who played the siblings, he daily rewrote or removed scenes and tried to make the portrayal of his mother Agnes appear less villainous. Both actors reported that the final movie is a white-washed, watered down version of Karen's life, and misses important aspects of her story. Creepy stories from the set include Richard wanting Cynthia Gibb (Karen) to lose enough weight to wear Karen's real clothes! Apparently he made the filming process a nightmare.
But even with Richard's involvement trying to 'soften' the truth about Karen's life, it's still painfully obvious in the movie that Agnes preferred her son to her daughter, and that he did nothing to discourage it (though maybe he kept his less-than-flattering features in the film out of guilt?). In his 1996 article journalist Rob Hoerburger summed up Karen's relationship with these two family members:
"If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman's struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world--her voice and her mother's love--were exclusively the property of her brother Richard. At least she could control the size of her own body."Something that I was surprised to learn about Karen when I was young was that her first love was playing the drums. I think it shocked me because I never pictured 60s/70s songstresses playing drums, much less dainty looking ones like Karen. I myself tried to take up the drums in 6th grade through to junior high, but I never got the knack of it, despite classes and private lessons. Here's the drum set my parents got me (they're awesome) that I would practice on:
I also relate to Karen in my own self-image struggles--albeit much less severe and not under public scrutiny--with disordered eating and disordered thinking about food, particularly in my youth. Through independence, decent therapy, and lots of feminist role models in my life and in books, I've had the opportunity to maintain a healthier view of food and my relation to it in a way Karen never could. But it's still a sensitive and important issue to me, so much so that I am almost irrationally sensitive to comments about women's weight and eating choices, be it assigning moral virtue to certain food groups (i.e. "vegetables are good" and "dessert is bad") or even the trends of juice fasts and cutting out entire ingredients like sugar. I still have to regularly check in with myself to make sure I'm not relating my clothing size or weight to my self-worth as a woman and a person.
Karen was very sensitive to reviews of the Carpenters concerts where the writers might call her 'chubby.' She was very concerned that her weight was linked to how well she could do in the music industry. This reminds me of a great blurb I saw last week on tumblr:
One of the most insightful things I've ever read about eating disorders and body esteem was a comment on my blog...The writer was saying that most people think girls want to be skinny because of Hollywood and Vogue. This girl wanted to be skinny because she wanted to be a protagonist.
She didn't expose herself to mainstream fashion magazines or TV; she was interested in art films and books and indie music. But no matter how alternative the movie, the protagonist was almost always skinny. And wanting to be a protagonist means wanting to be someone, as most people do. Apparently, your story is only worth hearing, you're only someone, if you're skinny--it's like, the blueprint of a human. Once that's down, you're allowed to be interesting and protaganist-y as you want! Apparently.Karen had low self esteem to begin with thanks to all of her mother's attention going to Richard, and then she was brought into an industry dominated by less-than curvaceous women like Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cher, Diana Ross, Joan Baez, Stevie Nicks, (all of whom I adore) the list goes on.
Many people consider the Carpenters much too cheesy-wholesome-saccharine to be appreciated or taken seriously, and it's no secret that I like a lot of artists given that kind of label. But there's something about Karen's voice and Richard's song choices that have embody a deep melancholy and pathos that, say, The Beach Boys' music lacks for me. Is it because I know about the tragedy of Karen's life? That for all we know (sorry, fellow Carpenters fans) she never truly fell in love (her short-lived marriage to a real-estate agent was doomed from the start in his keeping Karen from knowing he had a vasectomy and that he was in financial trouble) or felt loved the way she needed from those closest to her? Or is it just because she's an alto? I like to think all of the above.
Take the first song on Close To You: "We've Only Just Begun" (co-written by the amazing Paul Williams). It's about starting out on an exciting new journey with a new lover--yay!--but even when the tempo picks up I want to crawl into the fetal position. Is it because she never really got share horizons or found a place to grow with someone she loved? YES. So much of life ahead? No, because her life was cut so short! It's like any love song she sings feels full of her wishing and hoping to be happy and us as the listeners knowing this sweet angelic-voiced woman never found her bliss, or was even able to come into her own out from underneath the possessive thumb of her family.
For instance, Karen is perfectly smooth in her renditions of soft pop rock with the seamless harmonization Richard arranged. But on songs like their cover of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" I would have loved to hear Karen singing it with a bit more grit and emotion. It's a heart-breaking song, but Richard clearly removed its claws, making it come off as happy-go-lucky as can be. Listen to The Carpenters version, and then compare with the seminal recording by Rod Stewart. One of these songs has the mood of a muzak recording, and the other of someone trapped in a one-way relationship, but desperate to hang on hope that it's worth saving.
So I think there's an inherent melancholy in Karen's voice, but even in a song about actually being sad, it's been arranged to keep real emotion out of it. Like, it's pretty, but lifeless--at least to me. Now, for some reason their cover of "Help!" is not as problematic for me. And that's saying something because I generally can't stand Beatles covers. Somehow The Carpenters version tries to do something different with the song but keeps the spirit intact. It would have been fun to see Karen and Ringo play on this song together. (Also to Richard's credit, his organ solo is really great on this track.)
At the end of Side A we reach the title track, probably the Carpenters best known song. And it's fucking amazing. It's a Burt Bacharach (I love his duet version with Babs), so I never had a chance NOT to like it. Plus, this is the ultimate crush song. It captures that time when another person feels like a dream come true--too wonderful to be real. But it's still so sad! The opening and ending piano notes, and the feeling that Karen wants to be close to that person but we don't know if that person picks her over "all the girls in town." It's a heartache we know so well, and Karen is right there with us. Like, did you click on that link of Barbra singing it? You should have! Her voice is clear and bright and glorious, but it doesn't feel like a young girl with a crush, not like Karen.
Side B starts with "Baby, It's You"--a Burt Bacharach song best known (to me at least) by its Beatles' version. Do I like The Carpenters version as well? No. But it's slowed down to a mournful ballad that's very nice. Next up is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (Bacharach again, originally for the musical Promises, Promises) made most famous by Dionne Warwick, whose version is on most every mix I make. I also need to shout out to Elvis Costello's cover with Bacharach in the second Austin Powers Movie. Fortunately the Carpenters version is a bit sassy and cheeky and playful, which I did not expect. Apparently Dionne Warwick and Karen were very good friends.
Is This Better Than Fleetwood Mac?: I think song for song, no, but I'm so pleased that The Carpenters are ranked this close to #1, even if it's their only showing on the list. So since we won't be seeing them again, here are other Carpenters songs that make me want to stay in and drink a bottle of wine mixed with tears:
- "For All We Know" (aaahhh another song about new love that feels so damn sad)
- "Merry Christmas, Darling" (Don't get me started on the greatness and horribleness that lives on The Christmas Collection, side by side.)
- "Superstar" (which I always think is titled "Don't You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me Baby" which is just ridiculous--so many verbs! This version is always relevant as well.)
- "Rainy Days and Mondays" (Neither of these kind of days actually get me down, but thinking about them getting Karen down make me feel down.)
RIP, Karen. You are missed.