I used to go to this restaurant in Oly where they always played this Pandora station that relied entirely on easy listening hits from the ’70s and Christian music. At first it irked me, but I was addicted to their Singapore noodles, and somehow the two things got mixed up in my mind and I got so I kind of enjoyed my ire. One day, the station played the Carpenters song “Yesterday Once More” and I burst into tears.
I can’t even explain how it triggered me, but it felt like reading “Black Beauty,” watching “Brian’s Song” and the day I missed qualifying for J.O.s by 1/10thof a second all rolled into one…only mixed up with some extreme pleasure, i.e. aural BDSM or something. I immediately went home and downloaded “The Singles” and played it in the privacy of my car over and over again.
A few months later, I was cruising a private site on FB and one of my favorite artists, Lloyd Cole, posted a note about his own love of the Carpenters, and the comments thread on his remark reflected that same confusing emotion I was having. People couldn’t really articulate their love of them, that pleasurable mix of shame, nostalgia and appreciation.
The Carpenters music is many things: the apex of whiteness and the nadir of self pity. It is sad and schmaltzy and perfectly executed. There are things in it that are so sickeningly shallow, like, extended flute solos, choral flights, strings, arpeggios, and children singing ‘la la la,’ that it almost makes one ashamed to be human, and other things that are so incredibly deeply felt that they exonerate the rest of it. Karen’s voice, our hind-sighted knowledge of her pain, and, simply put, the sheer musicality of it…these things are all sublime.
I suppose it is the juxtaposition of these two conflicting things that make the Carpenters music so resonant for me. Hearing their songs creates uncomfortable little bursts in my heart.
However. It’s always a lot easier to write about music you hate than to talk about music you like, and why you like it, nor do I think a writer can convince someone to enjoy music they already have an opinion on. Either the Carpenters grab you where you live, or they don’t. I don’t think the Carpenters are essential listening, per se, but — unlike the Beatles — they are uncoverable, and that’s saying something. No female singer in the world could match Karen’s purity, and all those male-sung versions by bands like Redd Kross, American Music Club, and Grant Lee Buffalo (collected on the 1994 “If I Were A Carpenter” LP) merely takes away their nuanced depths, leaving something quite — well, the kindest applicable word is pitchy — in its place.
Some of it has worse qualities as well. Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” is so misguided, pretentious, and lacking in empathy, that it has become the popular meme in Brazil meant to designate ‘poop.’ No doubt Sonic Youth thought they were somehow celebrating her role as a tragic heroine, but something about their version devalues Karen Carpenter as a human being and an artist, and that must be why it makes me (and a bunch of Brazilians) uncomfortable.
It’s possible, also, that my love of the Carpenters is tied to nostalgia. “The Singles” includes the songs that totally suffused my childhood AM radio listening self, so it reminds me of things like the Sonny and Cher show and Carol Burnett, gunne sax dresses, Dorothy Hamill haircuts, and those wedge heeled shoes I always wanted my mom to buy me (but that she wouldn’t). Pant suits. Lip gloss. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford…all that pre-Prop 13 California stuff, when there was seemingly no such thing as homelessness and (bad segue) I spent all summer long in my bathing suit.
(Presumably it reminds Lloyd Cole of something similar, only more English. I love that he loves her, because I love his music so much as well, and yet the two things — Carpenters and Lloyd Cole songs — are so very different. Have you ever heard of the hypodermic needle theory of the media? It’s the idea that mass media injects its ideas into you: that watching violence makes you violent, and so on. That Lloyd Cole writes what he does with the influences he has is proof that there is absolutely nothing that the media can do to poison you. You can watch racist and sexist movies for your entire childhood and still end up a social justice warrior. You can watch Fox & Friends and not believe a word of it. You can listen to schmaltz and write “Rattlesnakes,” and that sure redeems the schmaltz.
That said, I do have some reservations over some of their choices. The best case in point is their version of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” to which I say faugh. That’s a travesty if ever there was one, all quavery slow and drawn out sadness shoved into a song that really just wants to bop. Consider the original and then consider this and you’ll have a meltdown, it’s so wrong headed. When I looked into the histoire du Carpenters, I discovered this was their first single, and its success cemented their contract with A & M. Like almost every one of their songs, it was a cover of a song that was relatively new, only four years old. So it’s exactly as if someone came out with a new, radically re-envisioned, version of, I don’t know, “Get Lucky” by daft punk (a big hit in 2013), and then remixed to appeal to old ladies. And check this out: one of their next hits, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” was originally a jingle for Crocker National Bank. Richard heard it on TV and thought it could be a hit. It’s no wonder some people had contempt for the band at the time, but it shows that the cliché, “she could sing the phone book and make it sound good’ is true for Karen Carpenter. Oh there’s a lot to hate about them. But there’s a lot to love as well.
The Carpenters music is really made for the ipod era, since their records are just compilations of singles anyway, and Best Of albums aren’t ruined by the shuffle component on your ipod. And there’s so much to love on the Carpenters singles LP. A song I’ve rediscovered recently is “Goodbye To Love,” which just kills me (it’s by Leon Russell, by the way). I’m a sucker for “Rainy Days and Mondays” and for “I Won’t Last A Day.” Then there’s the sublime “Sing,” — from Sesame Street! — which fits alongside a shortlist of ditties about the greatness of music as a genre — ABBA’s “Thank You For The Music,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs,” Gloria Estevan’s “Turn The Beat Around,” — whatever you think of it, you have to respect that theme, especially in the day and age when music and art are being devalued and eliminated from school curricula. I can’t imagine anyone writing a song about how great STEM subjects are. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, for those not near an educational facility today: the four subjects all students are encouraged to master.) “Sing” is simple and silly, but in a Shel Silverstein kind of way:
Underneath my outside face
There’s a face that none can see
A little less smiley
A little less sure
But a whole lot more like me.*
It’s so much easier to appreciate that sentiment, and the sound that goes along with it, at my age and from this distance, and the same is true for the line, “don’t worry that it’s not good enough/for anyone else to hear.” If my brain is full up with snippets of lyrics, each one of which is fading with every passing year, then I hope that’s the one that lingers as I gradually lose my mind.
*”Underface” by Shel Silverstein.
Originally published at foolsrushinredux.blogspot.com on January 19, 2018.