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Monday, February 4, 2013

Karen Carpenter

Posted by on Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 8:03 PM

By the time she was 24, Karen Carpenter was already famous, having released more than a dozen hit records with her brother, Richard, including "Close to You," "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar" and "Top of the World." Less than 10 years later, she'd be gone, the victim of heart failure brought on by anorexia nervosa. Karen Carpenter died 30 years ago Monday at age 32, and her legacy as one-half of the singing duo The Carpenters is a source of some disagreement.

 

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1
No disagreement. She was wonderful.
Posted by SolM on February 4, 2013 at 8:12 PM · Report this
Pridge Wessea 2
What a voice. Such a waste.

Rest in peace Karen.
Posted by Pridge Wessea on February 4, 2013 at 8:12 PM · Report this
3
Thanks for the reminder, Dan. You've reminded me that when she died, in my way of thinking she was middle aged. I was a freshman in college. So, you have also reminded me that age is relative to where we are in the process. As was said of someone else who died young in a movie, "she will always be young, she will always be beautiful..." At least we get to remember Karen by listening to her voice.
Posted by TampaDink on February 4, 2013 at 8:18 PM · Report this
4
She inspired so much affection! Her and her brother's warm-glow schtick left me cold, but there's no mistaking how much she meant to people I care about. And they did choose great songwriters' work to record - the inimitable Paul WIlliams for this tune and "We've Only Just Begun", for example.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 4, 2013 at 8:43 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 5
I know there are many Slog readers who enjoy this music, and for that reason I feel hesitant to critique the musician's work on the anniversary of her death. Her death was indeed tragic, as all premature and preventable deaths are. I would not mock the dead by making light of the manner in which she passed.

Suffice it to say that I am of a slightly younger generation, and grew up associating the Carpenters anodyne pop hits with dentist offices, shopping mall muzak, and elevators. This is in no small part due to the frequency in which such establishments played this music in heavy rotation. What irritated me in my youth about them is the same thing that irritated me about Simply Red and Paul McCartney. How could somebody with an obvious talent waste it on such artless dreck? Perhaps the reason why music of this sort winds up as a dental favorite is because one hardly needs Novocaine to feel numb after being subjected to it.

It's also because alongside this nonsense so much better music was available and yet shunned by the generation of my older siblings. You could have had the Clash, for fuck's sake, but you passed it up for this????

In an ironic way, I look at the Carpenters and the older generation that adores them much as I look at the Wiggles and the generation that prefers them. I don't get it at all, but I do like seeing people made happy by something, even if its something that I personally find soporific. And the Carpenters did make my older siblings (whom I adore) very happy indeed. It is to that happiness I pay homage, and mourn the passing of the bard who inspired it.
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on February 4, 2013 at 8:46 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 6
I liked the Clash and The Carpenters. And X and the Ray Conniff Singers. The King Family and The Lennon Sisters and Sonic Youth and Mother Love Bone. It all has a time and a place.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay http://www.danlangdon.com on February 4, 2013 at 8:53 PM · Report this
Doctor Memory 7
Wrong video, Dan. Surely you meant this one.
Posted by Doctor Memory http://blahg.blank.org on February 4, 2013 at 8:58 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 8
I appreciate her much more now than I did then (then being the 70s). Her timbre is irresistible and irreplaceable. I suppose I didn't dig her all that much - after Close to You, Rainy Days and Mondays, and For All We Know - because of the Goody Two-Shoes thing. Little did I know.

I'll associate Close to You with my first big love at the ripe age of eighteen. It makes me recall how good he smelled (naturally good). Even still.
Posted by Bauhaus I on February 4, 2013 at 9:10 PM · Report this
stinkbug 9
@5: Any song, even cuts off Sandinista, can be turned into a muzak arrangement version. That doesn't mean the source material is bad. I'm curious if you heard the actual songs or just versions of them in dentist offices and elevators.

Posted by stinkbug on February 4, 2013 at 9:25 PM · Report this
Posted by David Thompson on February 4, 2013 at 9:32 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 11
9,

I did. My sister has an obsession that begins with REO Speedwagon and ends with the Carpenters. Throughout my youth I was subjected to this, and even worse material produced by ABC, Def Leppard and Air Supply.

That's to to say that my early childhood was total agony, and my sister did and still does appreciate Prince to a high degree, and my brother did and does like The Who.

That said, i do find this sort of music to be excruciatingly bad. Another sister of mine shares my sentiments, her having been the angel that introduced me to Jethro Tull and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, recordings used to drown out my mother's adoration of Peter Galway, Kitaro and Stephen Halpern and my other siblings desire to induce fatal slumber in me at an early age. MTV wasn't helping either, and it wasn't really until The Dead Kennedys came flying to the rescue that I began to realize that music didn't suck.
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on February 4, 2013 at 9:40 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 12
err.."not to say", not "to to say". I really do need a copy editor. Either that or I should try blogging while sober.
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on February 4, 2013 at 9:50 PM · Report this
14
Karen Carpenter had the purest, clearest voice of any female singer of popular music that I've heard, with Patsy Cline a close second. I'm pretty ignorant of Broadway so I can't speak for their singers, but Karen's voice was absolutely perfect. As for the songs and their arrangements, they were ideal for her style - sweet, warm, and hooky, just wonderful. I'm a straight guy who digs the grunge, speed metal, and classic punk, as well as old school gangsta, but I won't deny the Carpenters.
Posted by floater on February 4, 2013 at 9:58 PM · Report this
nocutename 15
@14: Yup.
I loved her when I was in elementary school; was contemptuous of her by high school. Sometime in adulthood I heard her again and couldn't believe how good she was. Her tone, her phrasing, her depth, and the emotion come together perfectly. The songs, sappy as they might be, suit her talents well, and they get into your head and stay for days.

I like the Clash as well as anyone who first heard them as an angry 17-year-old in a room with outgrown beanbag chairs, and flower-power wallpaper my mom had picked out can. But Karen Carpenter expresses a different side of the human--or perhaps the adolescent girl's--experience: she captures yearning like no one else ever has.

The sad thing is I can't see that she'd be able to be a hit today. She wasn't slick enough, sexy enough, tough enough. Her music--and her look--is from a different era, a time when women weren't supposed to project girl power, or sexy attitude, or badass-ness. She's warm and sweet. I can't think of a single female singer of the past 15 years that those adjectives could apply to.
Posted by nocutename on February 4, 2013 at 10:10 PM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 16
I had thought that Karen Carpenter was one of the first stars to die from anorexia nervosa, but it also took the life of the amazing dancer Vera Ellen in the 50's - who played the sister to Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas.
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on February 4, 2013 at 10:34 PM · Report this
ballard dude 17
I grew up with my mom listening to the carpenters... hated it then, but now... well, her voice is just heartbreaking. Listening now, it's the schmatlzy (sp?) arrangements that just bug me. I'd love to hear a stripped down, small band version of their music. Her voice deserves better.
Posted by ballard dude on February 4, 2013 at 11:11 PM · Report this
seandr 18
To me, Karen Carpenter is listening to "On Top of the World" on the 8-track in our shitty yellow 70's station wagon while me and my sis jumped around in the back seat.

Fond memories.
Posted by seandr on February 4, 2013 at 11:13 PM · Report this
laterite 19
Sorry, what exactly is the disagreement re: Karen carpenter's legacy? The article didn't really specify.
Posted by laterite on February 4, 2013 at 11:25 PM · Report this
20
@14: then you've never heard the young Emmylou Harris.
Posted by rxxxx45 on February 4, 2013 at 11:43 PM · Report this
21
@15 Yeah, she was a product of a different time, maybe even the last of her breed. I mean, Donna Summer and disco were right there alongside her and the 80's were about to break. And it's good that we have women singers/ performers projecting strength, but that sad yearning is also part of the human experience, for both men and women, as real and universal as the defiant badassness. It's so heartbreaking (that word again) to listen to all those tender love songs knowing that she never found that lasting love she hoped for, like all of us.

As for the sexiness part, women singers and actors are required to sell their talents with a heaping side of sexiness, more so than men, if they want to go mainstream. True then as now. This pressure on body image must have been even more ironically cruel considering that she was anorexic. So sad.

And here's some warm and sweet from the last fifteen years: Rose Melberg, a dear favorite. But while the songs Karen sang fell mostly on the optimistic side, Rose's songs (which she writes) tend to look back in sadness. Something else about Rose, she's nowhere young enough or sexy enough. Of course, only twenty people have heard of her. (Though, to be fair, she has purposely kept a very low profile.)
Posted by floater on February 4, 2013 at 11:51 PM · Report this
22
@20 That's true. I haven't. I couldn't name a single song of hers.
Posted by floater on February 4, 2013 at 11:54 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 23
Ballard dude @17: here ya go:

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/karen…
Posted by mr. herriman on February 5, 2013 at 3:07 AM · Report this
sheiler 24
Ella Fitzgerald was a friend and fan of Karen Carpenter's. Richard comes across as a total douchebag, whenever I see him or hear him being interviewed. I secretly wonder if Karen was a lesbo and couldn't deal with it and so....
Posted by sheiler http://sheilerama.com on February 5, 2013 at 4:11 AM · Report this
passionate_jus 25
On a different note, SLOG Tip:

LIVE Streaming of the British House of Commons as they debate marriage equality:

http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player…

The Guardian's live blog:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/…
Posted by passionate_jus on February 5, 2013 at 5:44 AM · Report this
26
Is Anorexia down? like, less common than when I grew up (the 80s/90s) when you heard about it all the time?

Or did we finally realize that the issue isn't magazines with thin girls, it's that people develop severe control issues and that's just one of many ways to act it out?
Posted by fetish on February 5, 2013 at 5:51 AM · Report this
Estey 27
Carpenters Vs. Clash - why a dichotomy? I could totally hear The Carpenters doing a smooth cover of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" slightly slowed faux girl group style ... or imagine her vocals on "Straight To Hell"? That would be chilling. And Joe marbling out a "This Is England" punk-blues take on "Hurting Each Other," or the band banging out "Sing" as an encore.
Posted by Estey on February 5, 2013 at 5:57 AM · Report this
Anti-m 28
@23 beat me to it. I had always been medium on the Carpenters until someone turned me on to those pared-down tracks, which are ridiculously lovely. Well, those, and that Sonic Youth cover of Superstar, which is also fantastic.
Posted by Anti-m on February 5, 2013 at 6:56 AM · Report this
29
@17 - find a collection called If I Were A Carpenter. It's alternative and rock versions of Carpenters songs. Sonic Youth doing Superstar is fantastic. Others I can do without, including Shonen Knife's Top of the World. But mostly, it's a really terrific set that highlights the songs while leaving the shmaltzy arrangements behind.

I think Karen Carpenter must have been a lovely, but very sad person. The intereviews I've seen with her brother since her death, however, lead me to think he's kind of a dick which is unfortunate.
Posted by daphne24 http://www.ohiosmart.org on February 5, 2013 at 7:01 AM · Report this
--MC 30
"You know, Richard is the star here. Karen's just the singer."
-- the Carpenter parents, to a musical arranger at a recording session
Posted by --MC on February 5, 2013 at 7:08 AM · Report this
--MC 31
And while I'm logged in, #5, don't be so parochial. We HAD the Clash, don't you remember? They were on Epic. Hardly an indie label. And which would you rather listen to now, something as dark and nuanced as Karen singing "Superstar" or the coke-addled whooshy noises that comprise sides five and six of "Sandinista"?
Posted by --MC on February 5, 2013 at 7:12 AM · Report this
samanthaf63 32
Hey, one of their hits, "Superstar", was written by Leon Russell and seems to be about a groupie ("Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before the second show.") Song was subsequently covered by Sonic Youth on "If I Were a Carpenter" cd. Well worth checking out. Maybe not so squeaky clean after all, despite the fact that their biggest hits (Close to You, For All We Know) are still wedding staples.
Posted by samanthaf63 on February 5, 2013 at 7:24 AM · Report this
Catherwood 33
And what about "Goodbye to Love", which remains for me one of the saddest songs ever? All those beautiful chromatic triplets, and back before autotune she was hitting them bang on. I really do miss singers who can actually, you know, sing, without a computer fixing it all up for them.
Posted by Catherwood on February 5, 2013 at 7:45 AM · Report this
Rotten666 34
Sandinista sucks. So bad.
Posted by Rotten666 on February 5, 2013 at 7:54 AM · Report this
stonato 35
I was lucky enough to end up at two Carpenters concerts in the very early 70's. They were awesome, as the kids say now. What really awed me was that Karen could play the drums very well and when she sang at the same time, I immediately fell deeply in love. A guilty love that lasted years.

Looking at this video today, she looks like many women. She did not have any particular hook. Her voice was unique and she had positive energy and presence (like Mama Cass) and a shmaltzy shtick (Richard) that easily drew you in, especially if your defenses were diminished by chemicals. If you could discover the algorithm , google would pay you a fortune for it.

Due largely to the number of "We've Only Just Begun/Close To You" failed marriages I attended back when, the Carpenters haven't crossed my mind for 30 years (except during that scene in Tommy Boy- "Don't you remember...") but I'm going to send Richard some royalties via ITunes because i can't find my albums anymore.

Thanks for the memory trip.
Posted by stonato on February 5, 2013 at 7:59 AM · Report this
leek 36
Re Vera-Ellen, while she may indeed have had anorexia, she died of cancer. In 1981.
Posted by leek on February 5, 2013 at 8:22 AM · Report this
--MC 37
And nobody has mentioned their most outrageous cover, "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft".
Posted by --MC on February 5, 2013 at 8:23 AM · Report this
--MC 38
Oh! and #35 mentions Mama Cass .. there's another woman who's taken a bag from historical memory, her and the alleged ham sandwich. Yet this crassness elides the brilliance of her work with the Ms&Ps plus the genius of her first solo album, which included songs by Stephen Stills and Leonard Cohen, and which was produced by the guy who engineered the Firesign Theatre's most mindblowing work, Cyrus Faryar. If you can find it (I had to get it on Japanese import CD), it's worth finding.
Posted by --MC on February 5, 2013 at 8:25 AM · Report this
39
Tacoma, understand that music was different in the '70s - we had it all. Novelty songs, a lot of great girl singers of all types, straight-ahead rock and roll, etc. Many of us embraced it all.

I love that Dan picked this song because basically, she's talking about depression, not the "blues" as it was called back then. Karen never ran from exploring all parts of relationships.

(I also love that her instrument of choice was the drums.)

I totally agree that Karen had a pure voice like no other. (Sort of like Miss Vicki Carr, right, Dan?)

Schmaltzy, over-produced? Sure. But there is no denying her talent or the heartache of those songs. Loved her back in the day, love her now.
Posted by westello on February 5, 2013 at 8:33 AM · Report this
40
Apart from her wonderful voice, I would hope the way she died will serve as a warning for other young women (and men) who are struggling with similar eating disorders.
Posted by Patricia Kayden on February 5, 2013 at 8:58 AM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 41
@36. Thanks for posting that.
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on February 5, 2013 at 9:14 AM · Report this
saxfanatic 42
@23: God, that's beautiful. "Superstar" is heartbreaking.

@27: Emm Gryner doesn't have Karen Carpenter's voice but her wonderful interpretation of "Straight to Hell" makes it very easy to imagine what Karen Carpenter might have done with it.
Posted by saxfanatic on February 5, 2013 at 9:33 AM · Report this
43
#9 -- hard to believe that Sandinista is woven into this Carpenter thread, but remember there's already some elevator music on it -- Hitsville UK!

And I'm surprised no one's thrown this in, but here's the best sad, spooky tribute to Karen Carpenter I know (I mean the song more than the video):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reSOp1dom…
Posted by sophist2 on February 5, 2013 at 10:12 AM · Report this
Fnarf 44
@39, Karen's voice was honeyed and warm, not brassy and stagey like Vicki Carr's (that is not a criticism). There really isn't anyone in the canon who sang like Karen Carpenter - not Lulu, not Sandie Shaw, not Dionne, not Dusty, not Sandy Denny, not even Anne Murray.

All this business about whether she was schmaltzy or not misses the point. The rock 'n' roll revolution is long past; the argument about who's heavy and who's not, who's cool and who's not, is about as relevant as the fashions of the Plantagenets. It's all just pop music. And Karen was terrific (and those contemporary rock gods all had feet of clay). I'll take "Rainy Days and Mondays" over anything off "Sandinista" any old day. If only the Clash had had songwriters as good as Paul Williams and the great Roger Nichols!

Was Karen Carpenter trapped in an MOR world? Yes. So was America. That doesn't diminish her achievement, and in fact kind of sets it off in a way. In the soft rock canon, Karen has a seat near the top, and no one will ever take it from her.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on February 5, 2013 at 10:50 AM · Report this
saxfanatic 45
Fnarf: I never really thought about it before but I suppose Anne Murray's voice is the closest in tone to Karen Carpenter's. Her instrument is very similar but Karen Carpenter always infused even the sunniest of songs with an ache that's rarely encountered elsewhere.
Posted by saxfanatic on February 5, 2013 at 12:11 PM · Report this
very bad homo 46
I was raised on The Carpenters. No matter how much I got into punk and loud aggressive music in my teens (and beyond), I never stopped appreciating those cheesy 70s songs and her amazing voice. She's just comforting to me.
Posted by very bad homo on February 5, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
DAVIDinKENAI 47
@38: You realize that if Mama Cass had given Karen Carpenter half her sandwich, they might both be alive today?
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on February 5, 2013 at 12:21 PM · Report this
DAVIDinKENAI 48
But on a more thoughtful note: in the decades since, there have been times when I find myself listening to Carpenters' songs, think OMG! - why?, and realize that I'm feeling sort of depressed or in that emotional turmoil/angst of a romantic breakup or being rejected.

Is that because Karen Carpenter conveyed those emotions so well? Or because that's what my teenage years in the 1970's were like and, for me, the music fits the mood?
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on February 5, 2013 at 12:24 PM · Report this
Fnarf 49
@47, you are a bad, bad man. I will be too when I steal this joke!
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on February 5, 2013 at 2:04 PM · Report this
Pridge Wessea 50
@23 - Wow, that's incredible.
Posted by Pridge Wessea on February 5, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Report this
nocutename 51
@DAVIDinDENAI: first of all, you made me spit water on my screen @47--that was the best thing I've read in weeks.

As for your musings @48, I think it might be a combo of both, but she definitely wore her heart in her voice.
Posted by nocutename on February 5, 2013 at 3:58 PM · Report this
nocutename 52
Whoops. I typed a "D" when I wanted a "K." But you know who I meant.
Posted by nocutename on February 5, 2013 at 3:59 PM · Report this
Sea Otter 53
It's funny that no one ever mentions that she was also an exceptionally brilliant drummer. Buddy Rich even respected her.
Posted by Sea Otter on February 5, 2013 at 6:34 PM · Report this
NotSean 54
@53. Not an exceptionally brilliant drummer.

A solid, competent drummer. Sure.
There is a youtube video of her performing a cheesy variety-show feature of her drumming skills. She had plenty good chops. No light-weight there ( pun sorta intended ).

Brilliant? Nah.

If Buddy Rich - a genuine master and drumming monster - said something nice about her drumming, he was surely being polite ( which is probably the most remarkable part of that story. )
Posted by NotSean on February 5, 2013 at 7:57 PM · Report this
Posted by gttrgst on February 5, 2013 at 8:51 PM · Report this
DAVIDinKENAI 56
@51, nocutename: It's okay. I knew who you meant and sometimes, David is in Denial. To paraphrase a joke, "Denial ain't just a misspelled river in Alaska."
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on February 6, 2013 at 12:16 PM · Report this
ballard dude 57
@ 23, wow! thanks!
Posted by ballard dude on February 16, 2013 at 4:54 PM · Report this

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