At work I have plenty of time to listen to music. Although I usually let my iPod decide the next song, occasionally I get musical yearnings. This week I was seized by the desire to listen to all the Carpenters songs in my music library.
Ah, the Carpenters. There has been something of a critical redemption for them in the last decade or so, but for years they were shorthand for the clean-cut, all-American, white, Christian, and terminally unhip. And let’s be honest, they were clean-cut, all-American, white, Christian, and terminally unhip. Given that the majority of the Carpenters career was the 1970’s, they were very much not a part of the zeitgeist. Rather they were a throwback to the conformity of the 1950’s. Richard Nixon liked them (allegedly); therefore the Carpenters were unpopular with the rock n’ roll loving youth, their rock rebel icons, and the rock critics who proclaimed themselves the gatekeepers of cool. Which is not to say the Carpenters were unpopular or unloved. Quite the contrary; they are one of the best-selling musical groups of all time. They are many good things–influential, iconic, beloved throughout the world. Hell, they were even innovative in their own way. But “cool” they were not.
What made the Carpenters special was Karen Carpenter’s voice. She had a contralto unlike any ever heard to that point. It was deep, clear, flawless, had a very dark timbre, and was astoundingly beautiful. But prose cannot do her voice justice. That’s because the stunning emotional impact of her voice has to be heard. Regardless of the song, Karen always sounded sad, or more accurately melancholy. Even in the most cheerful of lyrics, the listener can detect world-weariness, as though Karen knew the happiness would not last. The sad songs were absolutely heart-rending.
Very few singers do sad consistently well because it is so easy to veer into parody. Dusty and Billie are the only two others who I can think off-hand, but Karen was unlike either of them. Whereas Dusty and Billie seem to fall apart during the course of the song, Karen was something of an absent genius. You hear the pain and sorrow, but she keeps you at a distance. (This is actually the flip side of the accusation often thrown at Ella Fitzgerald–her blanket refusal to tap into sadness or depression even when singing sad songs was also–unfairly–seen as being distant.)
That distance was amplified by Richard Carpenter’s production. Karen was the heart, soul, and glue of the duo, but only Richard could properly showcase her. His arrangements are spectacular, and the way that he looped her voice is near-miraculous: a symphony orchestra of Karens singing in either perfect unison or perfect harmony.
Everyone has their favorite Carpenters song; I have a few myself. The one that I believe to be their greatest however, is “Superstar”, a song whose lyrics are completely at odds with Richard and Karen’s clean-cut image. Allegedly written about Eric Clapton, “Superstar” is a groupie’s tale about a rock n’ roll star who slept with her and promised to come back but never did (and never will.) The song’s narrator knows she was used, yet she nevertheless holds out hope for his return.
The original version of the song was actually called “Groupie (Superstar)”, and there is an explicit line about sex: “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again.” Every version before the Carpenters used those lyrics, but the Carpenters could not. Instead “sleep” was changed to “be”. This is not a big lyrical change per se, but it is more suited to Karen’s naturally innocent voice and image. It also changes the song’s story for the better.
When earlier singers sang “Superstar,” there was a tendency to go over the top (kind of like groupies themselves), but Karen underplays the emotion. She is not just some groupie; she is an innocent kid who fell in love with the superstar, lost her virginity to him, and desperately believes that he will be back. She doesn’t just want to sleep with him, she wants to be with him. This time it’s the listener and not the singer who knows that he won’t be back and that her heart will be broken. The effect is devastating.
Don’t believe me? Listen to it again.
Not coincidentally, “Superstar” is the name of the controversial (and banned) Todd Haynes movie about the life of Karen Carpenter as portrayed by Barbie dolls.
Sadly Karen died because of complications due to anorexia nervosa. If there is a heaven, one would imagine that all the angels sing like Karen Carpenter.
Music I listened to while writing this post: Adele “Someone Like You”; Carpenters “All You Get From Love is a Love Song”, “Bless the Beasts and the Children”, “Let Me Be the One”, “Close to You”, “Superstar”, “Can’t Smile Without You”, “Those Good Old Dreams”, “For All We Know”.