Karen Carpenter: Pop Music’s Persephone
With her dispassionately passionate vocals, Carpenter belonged more to the underworld than this one. An astrological close read.
“There was a very loving, happy part to her, but then there was a darkness.”
MY MOM ALWAYS REPEATED the same phrase whenever we heard a Carpenters song on the radio: “She has the voice of an angel.”
Well, yes and no.
Within pop music’s pantheon, Karen Carpenter was the equivalent of the sci-fi disaster film When Worlds Collide—a gorgeous, hurting voice framed by meticulous arrangements that sometimes crescendoed into kitsch. Hers was an abundance of aural riches—a chest-centered contralto—filled with space and deprivation.
Paul McCartney claimed Carpenter was “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” And yet…as novelist Mary Gaitskill revealed: ‘‘Starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it.”
Although a person will openly announce his fandom of Aretha, Ella, or Adele—he probably listens to Karen Carpenter at home—alone—while marveling at her effect. And this segregation relates little to the ‘uncool’ label that dogged the Carpenters throughout their career. After performing at the White House in 1973, a Watergate-entangled Richard Nixon crowned them “Young America at its best.”
Karen’s sonic veneer soothed as much as it aroused—something indeterminate—preternaturally erotic and excessively intimate—shimmered up from her depths. And so you kinda wanted to experience her discreetly—because her influence was that deep-seated, mysterious, and dark.
Out of high school, I once dropped acid and played the Carpenter’s Horizon LP on repeat, certain that the short Debussy-like impressions that opened and closed the album contained messages I needed to decipher.
But it was years later, when I read musicologist Mitchell Morris’ book The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s, that Karen’s secret was revealed. Morris was the first musical pundit I’d ever studied who analyzed Carpenter within a psychoanalytic framework. Specifically, he detailed what happens to our brains when we hear a Karen Carpenter vocal.