Why Karen Carpenter Matters

For one brown, queer Filipino-American, Karen Carpenters’ music anchored her to her musical family’s past while helping chart her path in their adopted Southern California.

Karen Tongson | Why Karen Carpenter Matters | University of Texas Press | May 2019 | 20 minutes (4,070 words)

 

Maria Katindig-Dykes and her husband, Jimmie Dykes, had finished a six-month stint at the Hyatt Regency in Singapore and were about to wrap up a six-month residency at the Playboy Jazz Club at Silahis International Hotel in Manila when a telegram appeared under the door early one morning in our Manila suite. It was for Jimmie: MOTHER ILL. CALL HOME. It was sent by his older brother Lee.

My dad called home to find out that his mother, Marion Dykes — the woman who sternly scattered the kids taunting me on the lawn during my first visit to Riverside, California; the woman who plied me with my very first taste of stewed tomatoes — was dying of brain cancer. It was late January 1983, and we made our preparations to leave Manila, unsure of whether or not we would return right away, or ever. I remember turning to my mom on one of the first nights we were in Riverside and asking her in Tagalog if we were ever going back home. She said she didn’t know, and we both cried quietly so as not to interrupt the other more urgent processes of loss and mourning happening under the same roof.

By the time the woman I called Lola Marion died a few weeks later — Lola is a Tagalog honorific meaning “grandmother” — it became clear that we were in Riverside, California, to stay, at least for a little bit. My parents had never owned a home, and they now stood to inherit part of one. They eventually bought out my Uncle Lee for the whole thing: a three-bedroom midcentury ranch-style in a subdivision akin to the cookie-cutter domiciles in Back to the Future. I hadn’t really gone to school since the second grade, and I was about to turn ten. There were always vague discussions of settling down somewhere, of “getting established,” but we never knew where or when. The occasion of Lola Marion’s death seemed the opportune time to try to make good on some of these goals after a nomadic gig-to-gig, resort-to-resort, feast-or-famine existence across the Pacific Rim.

I didn’t realize that my affinity for the Carpenters was what they used to call “corny” until I landed in these Southern California suburbs a decade after the Carpenters’ heyday and a month after Karen died in Downey in 1983. We were in search of the kind of American prosperity epitomized by a perfectly edged lawn. Or maybe even the proverbial white picket fence. While the other kids in our Riverside, California, subdivision were all abuzz about the latest videos on MTV, my family and I were still very much of another place, out of step with both New Wave (what all the cool kids were listening to at the time) and the newness of most things in America. Despite not having any friends yet in this alien landscape of gleaming appliances and tidy tract homes with concrete driveways, I was thrilled about the prospect of settling down in a place where I could actually ride the bicycle we had carted around, disassembled, in a box to the hotels across southeast Asia where my parents had long-term musical engagements.

I didn’t realize that my affinity for the Carpenters was what they used to call “corny” until I landed in these Southern California suburbs a decade after the Carpenters’ heyday.

“Karen stayed so basic,” the Carpenters’ close friend Carol Curb remarked in a 2007 BBC documentary, Only Yesterday: The Carpenters’ Story: “She wanted the white picket fence. She just wanted to get married. Have children. Be cooking Thanksgiving dinners. And that was her real goal in life.” Not unlike my namesake, I was road weary and became increasingly insistent on some kind of normalcy. But also, like Karen, I fundamentally understood that these fantasies of suburban tranquility would always evade me, because I would never really be normal — not because of any gift, or burden, from my own talent, but because such exemplary normalcy is inherently impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, for someone as brown and queer as me, even if I didn’t understand that fully then.

The Carpenters’ song catalogue bears out these lessons. For each time we feel buoyant with the propitious notion that “We’ve Only Just Begun,” we are bound to struggle with the blues through “Rainy Days and Mondays.” For every moment we might feel on “Top of the World,” we are also compelled to question why we go on “Hurting Each Other.” All of these songs are jarringly different, at least emotionally, and are in close proximity to one another on the Carpenters’ most successful albums. And in between these highest highs and lowest lows are detours into the minutiae of other feelings: indifference, novelty, absurdity, benign self-reflection, and a deep nostalgia keyed to forgetting the present in favor of a seemingly simpler, more cherished past.

Most of what I learned very early in my life about love, desire, and the way things are supposed to be came from pop songs and television. I suppose this is true of nearly everyone raised by American pop culture, in whatever part of the world they happen to have encountered it for the first time. For me this mediated relationship to something called “America” felt particularly acute as we bounced between cultures and ways of living, either communally or in a nuclear family unit. The vestiges of empire were redolent in all of the places we lived for any length of time before we landed in Southern California, another contested ground of occupation and imperial conflict buried beneath gleaming stucco monuments to convenience.

For example, I struck up a flirtation with the British Empire in 1982, a year before we arrived in a sunny landscape of missions repurposed as inns and Mexican drive-throughs. I became a precocious eight-year-old Anglophile during my parents’ six-month residency in the island nation of Singapore, the place where I was first exposed to British accents, Union Jacks, the Beatles, and Falklands Crisis–era Thatcherism. A former trading post of the British East India Company from the early nineteenth century onward, Singapore remained under British rule until it was occupied by another aspiring empire, Japan, in World War II. The island city-state eventually gained its sovereignty in 1965, twenty years after the British had resumed control of its territories after the war.

It turns out that when she was a child, my mom also lived in Singapore during its embryonic nationhood in the mid-1960s, while my grandfather had a yearlong musical engagement of his own in the Lion City. I’m convinced my mother’s crush on the dreamy, accented Davy Jones of the Monkees had everything to do with her own postcolonial fling with Anglophilia and Union Jacks before she cozied up to the Carpenters and eventually had me.

But also, like Karen, I fundamentally understood that these fantasies of suburban tranquility would always evade me, because I would never really be normal.

In 1982 my parents had a plum nightly gig at a 1920s and ’30s deco-themed supper club called Nutmeg’s at the Hyatt Regency, where they were tasked with playing only jazz standards. For this gig they had to attire themselves in variations on black and white, like they were bringing old movies to life. They occasionally sent a sitter for me through hotel housekeeping, often gruff older women of Chinese heritage who would have none of my monkeying around. When it was established that I couldn’t get into too much trouble alone in a hotel room beyond the occasional room service indulgence, I spent most evenings without supervision reading C. S. Lewis books, or watching American miniseries starring Sam Elliott on TV. When my parents finished performing for the night, we’d have a late dinner at the restaurant in the lobby before reclining in the room together and watching the black-and-white Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes movies that were broadcast on Singaporean TV well after midnight.

Richard Carpenter shared my family’s late-night television habits. Some of the most quintessential songs in the Carpenters’ oeuvre were inspired by Richard’s own winddown routine of watching TV in the wee hours after gigs or marathon recording sessions. By now every Carpenters fan, and most pop music aficionados, know that “We’ve Only Just Begun” was originally just a one-minute jingle written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams for a Crocker

Bank commercial, titled “Wedding.” Richard caught the schmaltzy, vaguely cinematic ad, with its solar flare piercing through Vaseline lenses, on TV one night after a late studio session. He recognized Paul Williams’s voice on the track, so he called him immediately. The rest, as they say, is history.

It makes perfect sense that “We’ve Only Just Begun,” essentially an ad for how to mortgage one’s way into the American dream, became the Carpenters’ follow-up single to “Close to You.” First comes love, then comes marriage, as they say. Karen’s phrasing — unfurling the notion that “we’ve only just begun to live” in a single breath — is remarkable. The slightest fry in her voice after her first exhalation stretches all the way to “live” and recurs when she finally lands on “promises” in the next phrase, as if she’s fatigued from the exertion required by such breathless beginnings. Her phrasing was more natural than breaking up the first line into two, which is what Paul Williams did in the jingle. Karen’s style of vocal delivery, with those organic cracks of emotion (or maybe it was simply exhaustion?), offers a sense of why so many singers, musicians, producers, fans, and casual listeners interpret her voice as sad and melancholic. One of Karen’s biggest fans, k. d. lang, whose own vocal style was influenced profoundly by her idol, admired Karen because “she sang real simple, with no tricks.” Paul Williams, the song’s lyricist, had another take: “She had the sound of a bride when she sang [‘We’ve Only Just Begun’], so it’s innocent and sensual at the same time.”


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Sounding like a bride when she sang “We’ve Only Just Begun” was the closest Karen would come to achieving that “basic” desire her old friend Carol Curb insisted she harbored for a white picket fence, marriage, and kids. Karen made a stab at it a decade later, when she was briefly married to, of all people, a property developer named Tom Burris from 1980 to 1981. Burris ended up fulfilling Karen and her family’s worst nightmares, sucking her dry of vast sums of money for the sake of a “flash” lifestyle instead of the simple dreams fostered by that old Crocker Bank ad; a dream that was sold and spread throughout the world by the Carpenters’ iconic hit anticipating so much of life ahead and room to grow. “We’ve Only Just Begun,” in short, was a wedding song — the wedding song — for a generation and more.

On the other end of the romantic spectrum, “Goodbye to Love” — the first Carpenters’ hit cowritten by Richard and John Bettis—also owes its existence to Richard’s nocturnal viewing habits. He was watching an old Bing Crosby film on TV called Rhythm on the River (1940), in which Crosby and Mary Martin play a pair of musical ghostwriters for a pompous, more successful but creatively blocked scribe played by Basil Rathbone. As Richard explains in the BBC documentary Only Yesterday, “Rathbone’s most famous song is called ‘Goodbye to Love.’ You never hear it, they just refer to it.” The title inspired Richard to write the first unmistakable bars, with a minor turn at the end of the phrase and the opening lyrics, “I’ll say goodbye to love; no one ever cared if I should live or die.” Unable to make more progress with the words, Richard ultimately turned to Bettis, his old Long Beach choir pal and anti- Guder co-conspirator, for help with the rest.

Most of what I learned very early in my life about love, desire, and the way things are supposed to be came from pop songs and television.

Given its origins as a spectral song title in a movie from the 1940s, which was set partly in the 1930s, “Goodbye to Love” could have easily ended up becoming a Carpenters period piece, something on the novelty end of their catalogue. Instead, it is arguably one of their most innovative — if not the most innovative — original song in their oeuvre. Some critics and musicians, including Richard himself and the Carpenters’ longtime guitarist, Tony Peluso, argue that “Goodbye to Love” is the first true specimen of that subgenre beloved by karaoke enthusiasts — the power ballad — because it was the first middle-of-the-road pop ballad to feature a distorted rock guitar solo.

At the time of the release of “Goodbye to Love” in 1972, the phrase soft rock hadn’t quite cemented its status as a radio format, though the term was bandied about as a contrast to “hard rock” as early as 1969. In that era soft rock described mellow, acoustically oriented pop in the singer-songwriter idiom and a mix of easy listening that the recording industry  categorized as “adult contemporary” based on its chart popularity with a more mature audience than the teens of both genders whose rebelliousness and libidinous energies fueled rock and roll’s rise. Bread, Carole King, and James Taylor were among adult contemporary’s luminaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though the Carpenters eventually came to dominate the format during their heyday in the early to mid-1970s, along with perennials like Barbra Streisand and, eventually, Barry Manilow.

Even though soft rock was in many respects a backdated term that arose to differentiate a wider range of melodic pop from the brusque intensity of hard rock (and is thus not considered a genre of its own), the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” crystallized the style in 1972 and portended the ubiquity of the power ballad on soft rock radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Andy Zax, a producer and music historian, described soft rock as “more a construct than a genre” in a recent social media discussion. He added: “Certainly, there are examples of ballads with fuzz prior to ‘Goodbye to Love’ on records by people like the Association et al., but I think ‘Goodbye to Love’ codifies a particular set of sounds, and it makes sense to use it as a starting point.” Though bands like Bread and the Association incorporated rock guitar elements with strings and even choral arrangements on some of their pop ballads like “Make It with You,” and “The Time It Is Today,” none of their guitar solos shredded quite like Tony Peluso’s in “Goodbye to Love.”

On nearly every Carpenters documentary, and in most of the biographies and music criticism about Karen and the band, Richard makes a powerful bid for “Goodbye to Love” as a watershed moment in the genealogy of soft rock for its unexpectedly stark contrast in style. As the Carpenters’ guitarist, Peluso created the memorable, distorted intrusion upon the smoothness of Karen’s voice and its typically tranquil musical settings; he makes the bold claim that his solo “changed all” that the Carpenters — and soft rock — represented up until that point. It was Richard who requested the contrasting element of “fuzz guitar,” the fly in the ointment of their otherwise familiar, tender approach to pop laced with oboes and solo piano.

‘Goodbye to Love’ always struck me as the quintessential Carpenters song for this reason, with its yearning fashioned from genres of the past, yet striving to make its mark on a future — on their now.

Karen was the one who had made the phone call to Peluso, asking him to play guitar for the track. Peluso was in “disbelief” when she rang, and as he recalls, “I played something that was very soft and easy, I tried to stay out of the way. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Richard said: ‘No, no, no, not like that. Play the melody for five bars and then burn it up! Soar off into the stratosphere. Go for it!’ He wanted an aggressive, sawtooth guitar solo in the middle of this Doris Day easy-listening-style record. I thought, ‘He can’t be serious.’” Richard was.

Peluso continues, “Inadvertently, Richard had broken new ground. No one had ever really mixed the elements of rock ’n’ roll and easy listening. Totally crazy. I take a tiny bit of credit for being there and playing it, but it was Richard’s great idea. From then on, it became very commonplace for a big power ballad to have a raging guitar solo.” While Peluso’s bold claim to firstness might be debatable, what’s clear is that “Goodbye to Love” elicited a double take of the Carpenters and their music from that moment on, disturbing some of their older fans who were concerned they’d gone over to the dark side. (Their follow-up single, “Top of the World,” swiftly quieted these concerns.)

Karen cold opens “Goodbye to Love” with just her voice before the piano accompaniment joins her. As each layer of instrumentation introduces itself in the opening verse — that signature oboe swooping in from above, escorted by a few more anodyne woodwind familiars — Karen has effectively established the vocal pose of a languid and jaded chanteuse. A torch singer of this ilk would be at home crooning in the 1930s-era music scene depicted by Rhythm on the River, the source of the song’s inspiration, or even headlining at Nutmeg’s, the supper club where my mom sang in Singapore.

Were it not for the persistence of a pretty typical pop ballad drumbeat beneath the ostentatious harp flourishes and romantic strings, “Goodbye to Love” could be construed as a successful period piece, recreating the mood of ’30s-era torch balladry. That is, until minute 1:24, when the gooey harmonies fade to make way for Peluso’s fuzz guitar solo. It’s relatively innocuous at first, at least to a contemporary ear reared on Heart, Journey, Survivor, and the countless others who made hard guitars weep with soft sentiments. Peluso’s solo begins by echoing the melody without very much shredding until about five bars in, when he starts to take some liberties. Just as swiftly, Karen’s voice completes the verse, returning with the gentle response to Peluso’s distorted instrumental call, forging an incongruous duet. Beauty meets the Beast. A voice evocative of the past crosses paths with a machine careening into the future (a “mystery to us all”) — or at least insisting on an alternate present.

Influence and innovation perpetually tug against one another in the Carpenters’ music, warring to achieve timelessness, artistry.

“Goodbye to Love” always struck me as the quintessential Carpenters song for this reason, with its yearning fashioned from genres of the past, yet striving to make its mark on a future — on their now. Square and serene as their music is often perceived to be, it endures precisely because of the tumult at its heart, as the gnarled, saw-toothed guitar of “Goodbye to Love” explicitly sounds out for us. Influence and innovation perpetually tug against one another in the Carpenters’ music, warring to achieve timelessness, artistry. Karen and Richard bore strong attachments to music from the past but hoped to transpose those influences from the old records in their parents’ basement, and the old movies on late-night television, into something contemporary, something that would affirm their inventiveness in perpetuity. “Goodbye to Love” became the Carpenters’ first bona fide original hit—their first top-ten single that wasn’t an arrangement of someone else’s song. It reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1972.

It was the first song to call me back to the Carpenters over a decade later, when I too was caught between the past and the mystery of my future. My musical tastes were still developing, sourced entirely from influence and not yet stoked by the siren call of contemporaneity or sharpened by the edge of innovation. The first concert my parents took me to in the United States was Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass at the Claremont Colleges in the fall of 1983. I enjoyed it but knew enough not to let the family jazz tradition subsume me, when what I wanted was some connection to pop, to the kids my age who were playing the Journey Escape Atari game, which had something to do with a band with the same name (so I gathered).

Karen sang and played drums. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journey’s “Open Arms” was always on the radio — at least the radios I overheard in our neighborhood — and the soft, tinkling piano and big feelings intensified by growling guitars reassured me I could handle the now, especially because it so closely resembled my then and there: my family’s carport in Manila where everyone who was playing mahjong with my grandmother would sing along and mildly rock out to Tony Peluso’s solo on “Goodbye to Love.”

By 1984 I discovered that the Parade magazine that always came with the Sunday paper boasted a special offer, a gateway to musical proficiency even a broke immigrant child without an allowance could afford: the Columbia House record club would send me ten albums for just a penny! I promptly taped Mr. Lincoln’s copper visage to the business reply mail card to order Journey’s Escape and Air Supply’s Greatest Hits with the new bonus song, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” (They were all the rage when we lived in Singapore, and I knew almost all of their songs, so it seemed like a safe bet.) Even though I knew it would constitute two selections instead of just one, thus winnowing my other potential pathways to musical popularity with my peers, I also made sure to nab a copy of the Carpenters’ double-album collection of hits, Yesterday Once More. “Goodbye to Love” was the last track on side one, just after their cover of “Ticket to Ride,” which I’d never heard before.

I invited the January brothers, Ricky and Randy, two ginger-haired boys from next door, roughly around my age, to come over and listen to my new records as soon as I got them in the mail. After scarfing Escape nose to tail and pumping power fists in unison to its closer, “Open Arms,” I was certain the next appropriate item on our listening agenda would be the Carpenters’ classic “Goodbye to Love.” Given that I was a total tomboy like Karen — I played soccer with the Januarys on our adjoining lawns — and given that we were collectively too innocent and dorky to find power ballads tingly and romantic, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind that I was setting up a playlist of what could otherwise be characterized as “slow-dance songs.”

I dropped the needle on “Goodbye to Love.” Both Ricky and the slightly younger, maybe even more susceptible Randy immediately hated it. My concerted efforts at making myself seem somehow less foreign and strange were unraveling with each bar, with each embellishment of overdubbed choral backing vocals. It felt out of time and out of place, reminding me without a doubt that so was I. They laughed, groaned, and called it a day, and though they didn’t use the word corny, I knew that’s what they were thinking. That was one of the few words I’d heard before to describe such excesses of sentiment, like the schlock and awe of Peluso’s rugged guitar getting mixxy with Karen’s plaintive if also always placid voice. Cheesy hadn’t yet achieved its ubiquity to account for the same shame-inducing attachment to things that seemed incongruous with their moment.

My concerted efforts at making myself seem somehow less foreign and strange were unraveling with each bar, with each embellishment of overdubbed choral backing vocals.

Corny is a word that retains its saliency in everyday usage in the Philippines, even though it has long been phased out of the American vernacular. The fact that I kept using it, then, if primarily to punish myself for my failed efforts at assimilation by touting my affection for decades-old soft rock, says something about how out of synch I truly was when I first landed in SoCal’s neatly planned subdivisions where newer meant better.

To be corny is to be “mawkishly old-fashioned; tiresomely simple and sentimental,” and this definition describes my attachment to the Carpenters with searing precision. Even though Karen was supposed to be my gateway to a whole new world, albeit a world obsessed with yesterdays once more, she actually ended up being the anchor to my old one: to the Philippines, where corny still means something. And even if the Carpenters were perceived to be the whitest of musical acts — even by the ginger-headed January brothers — and engineered in the most white bread of contexts, nothing felt more Filipino to me in those first lonely years fresh off the boat than the sound of Karen’s voice.

Decades later, the lead singer of Four Non Blondes and smash hit composer, Linda Perry, reflected, “I feel that there was something bigger . . . We will probably never know what was going on, because [Karen’s] voice had too much soul, too much heartbreak, too much pain in it to be just an insecurity.” Like my namesake, I felt lost in the eternal sunshine of Southern California, adrift in something bigger than the insecurity its prevailing message of joy and the good life inspired in disoriented souls. Both of us were longing without knowing exactly what for.

***

Karen Tongson is a Filipino-American cultural critic, writer, and queer studies scholar. The author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, her writing and cultural commentary have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, BuzzFeed Reader, NPR, The Washington Post, and Public Books, and she is a panelist on the “Pop Rocket” podcast.

Excerpted from Why Karen Carpenter Matters, by Karen Tongson. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Tongson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of University of Texas Press and Karen Tongson. 

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath