In which I face the facts (i.e., the cold-hearted cynic I am inside)
This title cleverly references not only a number from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, but also the one-time husband of Karen Carpenter, Tom Burris. He serves no other purpose in this post. It came as absolute and very recent news to me that she had ever been married. Who the hell tries to marry Karen Carpenter, anyway? She is a FREE SPIRIT.
*CW: eating disorders*
Okay, kids, I’ve been listening to and reading about the Carpenters quite a bit, and I have to talk to someone about it. And get some things off my chest. Having been raised in an ardently pro-Carpenters household, I just sort of accepted them as inherently ‘good’ and never came to grips (until now) with how, in all honesty, they perplex and frustrate me.
Before I remotely criticize them, I must disclaim that no one can make me feel more guilty for said forthcoming criticism than I make myself feel, on account of the tragedy surrounding Karen. The story of her illness and death upsets me deeply, not least because I’ve known people who struggle with similar disorders and because these disorders still garner much less visibility than they should. (And this is forty years later!) I won’t even go into the fact that it was a careless remark by an early critic which gave her the notion that her appearance was lacking. She deserved so much better. I think the circumstances that killed her were the last and most egregious demonstration of how no one truly listened to her or considered her needs—starting in her childhood when the family up and moved cross-country to help her brother chase fame and fortune. She learned to roll with the punches, to the point of being rolled over by others, and to literally make herself as small as possible. By the time the people who could have done something started to pay attention, she was used to denying that anything was wrong, and it was too late. It’s heartbreaking. And how must it have been for the millions of girls (like my mom) who grew up idolizing this woman, wanting to be her? What must they have taken away from the sequence of events? What damage still reverberates?
All this to say that Karen, with her singing and drumming, is the only part of the whole Carpenters experience that I unequivocally like. That and Richard’s piano, I guess. The layering of voices doesn’t do much for me—in fact, I wish Richard would shut up altogether, because his sister is interpreting. (Aside: she apparently referred to herself as a “drummer who sang.” ExCUSE ME???????)
As for the songs themselves…well, I enjoy about two-thirds of every Carpenters song. There is always some bothersome element to spoil it. (Who does this Cecilia think she is, Lester Bangs?? Hang on, hang on, let me talk.) Take “Hurting Each Other”: beautiful, yes, and pretty immaculate up until the final verse. “Can’t we stop hurting each other?” This is what creative writers call telling instead of showing, the classic rookie mistake. Entirely unnecessary, too, when the rest of the lyric paints a clear picture of a couple who are having a rough go of it. Ending it after the second verse might feel like a premature cutoff, but as is it goes on too long for its own good, diluting its own message.
Or “Rainy Days and Mondays.” They always get you down? Really? How original! Again, the fault lies with the lyricist; convince me that Saturdays depress you and you’ll have my respect, or at the very least my ear. Lovely melody, though, and of course Karen can sell it.
Or “Top of the World.” Actually, there’s very little that’s redeemable about this one. The lyric is out of touch with any kind of reality, and Richard’s arrangement doesn’t help. For the best rendition of this song, see here: it’s got a much-needed harder edge.
(Those of you who haven’t cancelled me, thank you for sticking by, I know I’m making it increasingly difficult.)
Or “Goodbye to Love.” Again, big fan of the verse structure, but not of the coda with the fuzz-guitar solo. Am I the only one who can’t reconcile that bit with the rest of the track? It strikes me as a bizarre departure from the torch-song tone hitherto established. And given that it’s the closing section, you have to work to remember what came before. Not one of your more brilliant moments, Dick.
Or “Superstar.” For God’s sake, girl, your first mistake was getting involved with a guitarist. You must realize what loose cannons that lot have historically been. Going on (and, once more, the blame falls to the songwriters), the first verse is fine and then the second…disintegrates. “Loneliness is such a sad affair.” REALLY. WHO’DA THUNK. After which “again” is rhymed with itself. Twice. Perhaps the lyricist wandered off mid-composition? (They should have recorded the other “Superstar,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Wouldn’t that have been something?)
Or “Sing.” Here’s the kicker, because, you know what, I kind of really like this song. That statement alone will cost me all my credibility, especially among my kin, but hear me out. It stems largely from a crushing relief at having finally pinpointed it after probably a decade of being plagued by those la-la-la-la-la’s. I withered away, wondering “what is this melody??” until chancing upon it one day with the identifying information I sought. Also, I do love the horns—undeniably great orchestration. I know full well it’s dumb, but you gotta be dumb now and then, right?
Insert jibe about my being dumb all the time. Moving on.
I don’t quibble with “It’s Going to Take Some Time.” Solid song, solidly arranged. Not that I should be surprised, as I just found out Carole King wrote it. Ooh, and I am fond of “For All We Know”; I sang it in high school choir, the performance of which was unexpectedly heartfelt (remind me to tell you that story later). Both far from the most saccharine offenders.
Speaking of saccharine, “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Huh. I wish I could remember the person who said that every Burt Bacharach melody sounds like the second oboe part. You need only hear this one to understand the accuracy of that evaluation. I’m no devotee of Bacharach either—but that’s another post.
Anyway, you get the gist. I tend toward the belief (as my dad does with Queen—by the way, happy birthday to Freddie!) that they were too good for most of the material they recorded. From my outside perspective, their repertoire reflected and enabled their general infantilization, which seems an insult to their musicianship. I have no idea where their artistic vision ended and the press coverage began; even so, these two were objectively not allowed to grow up, and it infuriates me particularly that Karen was kept in a schoolgirl box. It could have been the whole sibling-duo thing, I suppose, but this ultra-conservative, sexless image wasn’t doing them any favors. Can you imagine if that sultry contralto voice had had some even slightly suggestive material to sing? Something along the lines of “Big Spender,” for example? Every warm-blooded man in America would have exploded. And we women could’ve used that.
But the ‘70s were before my time. Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I’m way off the mark.
Now, to end on a constructive note after alienating my entire readership, a sampling of tunes they (and specifically Karen) could easily have recorded:
- “It’s Lonely at the Top” (writer: Randy Newman)
- “The Girl from Ipanema” (writers: Tom Jobim/Vinícius de Moraes/Norman Gimbel; they actually did record an instrumental take back in their Richard Carpenter Trio days, and what a missed opportunity that they didn’t feature Karen on a vocal)
- “Time of the Season” (writer: Rod Argent; let’s hear their twist on some British Invasion artists and not just the Beatles!)
- “Something” (writer: George Harrison; okay, you want the Beatles, here’s a Beatles track for you—though I can’t knock their take on “Ticket to Ride”)
- An album of Great American Songbook standards (I’m talking Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day”…)
- “Video Killed the Radio Star” (writers: Trevor Horn/Geoff Downes/Bruce Woolley; think about it, this is basically a Carpenters song already, and it’s a quality song! Have you listened to it? I’ll grant it its own post someday)
and, an anachronistic addition,
- “Pompeii” (writer: Dan Smith; those drums—Karen could’ve gone ham!)
When Richard ultimately joins his sister up there, I hope it’s him at a grand piano and her alternating between a microphone and a drum kit, playing an acoustic gig for all eternity. I’ll be sure to tune in on the scratchy transistor radio they give me at the gates of hell.
Image: you probably have seen this one, and I cannot find the source, so just take my word that I was not present for this photograph