I always thought that there was something of the goth about Karen Carpenter. The mournfulness in her voice’s undertow seemed to give the lie to even the peppiest of her brother Richard’s arrangements, so that when she sang of loss she evoked rather the bleakest of desolation. It sounded as though she was both outside of love, and apart from it. She would never sing I’ll Be Your Mirror, but in a way, of course, she was.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson is a tale of two Karens, the one named after the other, and the ways in which the book’s author, a lesbian Filipina immigrant to the United States, came to see her reflection in a one-time tomboy drummer coaxed reluctantly out from behind the safety of her kit into the less forgiving spotlight at the centre of the stage.
Its subtext is the creativity that goes into the act of a fan’s devotion. The selective abstraction that brings points of identification into sharp focus, and turns a blind eye to other, less admirable qualities that fail to fit the desired picture.
The Carpenters, the second Karen tells us, are revered to this day in The Philippines, where a blind soundalike is feted, and their songs remain the staple of karaoke bars and cover bands. Nonetheless, uprooted from her native land to the same California that, years before, for the sake of their son’s ambitions, Harold and Agnes Carpenter had also transplanted their children, Tongson was quickly appraised of the duo’s lack of hipness.
Even in the flush of their first success, the siblings were the victims of rock snobbery, their fate sealed, perhaps, with the poisoned kiss of Richard Nixon’s approval, or, in spite of its almost Flowers In The Attic-like claustrophobia, the Waltons’ mountain wholesomeness of their image. It has invariably been the lot of pop to be pilloried for its perceived lack of authenticity, to be both misunderstood and underestimated.
It’s made painfully apparent that, of the two siblings, it was Karen who was made to bear the brunt of the public’s ambivalent scrutiny, she herself ruefully observing that “I was the only girl in the group, so they were looking at me”. Moreover, once she was prised away from her beloved drums, “there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to hide behind”. She was exposed. With nothing to cling to, perhaps, she held fast to what she could control – herself. Even her solo LP, recorded while her brother was otherwise occupied by detoxifying from quaaludes, was ignominiously shelved, damned by Richard for “stealing The Carpenters’ sound” and for having the temerity, for once, to use her own voice without his imprimatur.
Tongson sees beats of her own story in Carpenter’s desperate striving for some degree of a normalcy she was not made for, and there’s a sense of compassion and, maybe, anger in her delineation of the woman who was never once allowed to define herself, except in relation to her brother, her mother or disaster of a husband. Yet it’s arguably that pop unfashionability, that personal out of placeness, that lends The Carpenters (and Karen’s contralto in particular) their timelessness.
Like the exquisite yearning in a pop song, a biography is also a declaration of love, and this, at the last, is why Why Karen Carpenter Matters matters. The ‘lead sister’ who died before her time of what was then poorly understood as ‘the slimmer’s’ disease’, an illness which still has the highest mortality of any mental health diagnosis, has been the glass through which Tongson has been able to discern the shape of herself. In doing so, she has written a volume worthy of being held up to Superstar or Goodbye to Love. This is a book that others may see their own reflections in.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson is published by Faber and available to buy now.