Why Karen Carpenter Matters


On the Carpenters’ song “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” — a typical soft-rock love ballad from the brother-sister duo — Karen Carpenter, in her exquisitel­y warm voice, sings, “It’s nice to know that there’s someone I can turn to who will always care. You’re always there.” For Karen Tongson, these words perfectly describe her heartfelt connection with the singer. In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Tongson draws from queer theory, music history and personal anecdotes to explore the importance of the singer and percussion­ist; she deftly connects her own stories with larger narratives for an excellent part-memoir, part-examinatio­n of the singer and her legacy. In less than 150 pages, Tongson recounts the Carpenters’ rise to fame, dominance of ’70s pop culture, and Carpenter’s untimely death in 1983 as a result of anorexia nervosa. Carpenter is portrayed as a virtuosic drummer and reluctant lead singer with a spellbindi­ng voice who was constraine­d by what others (her parents and her brother Richard specially) wanted.

Woven in is Karen Tongson’s story; she was named after Carpenter, and her family migrated to Southern California from the Philippine­s in the ’80s. Growing up, Tongson, as a queer woman of colour, looked to Carpenter’s songs as “conduct manuals for proper behaviours and acceptable passions.” In the chapter “Queer Horizon,” Tongson writes: “what we have learned from Karen, what we share with Karen… is the experience of living, as anyone who’s ever sought acceptance and love has, by trying desperatel­y to get something right. That something will always remain elusive even if we are good.” It’s a breathtaki­ng moment that illuminate­s the transcende­nt connection that an audience can have with an artist. (University of Texas Press)

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