Whiteness and promises
May 11, 2017 12:30 PM   Subscribe

How Karen Carpenter, the whitest singer of the '70s, became an icon in the Philippines, in an article by USC professor Karen Tongson, who was named after her and has a forthcoming book called Why Karen Carpenter Matters.

An excerpt:

When I first read Ray Coleman’s The Carpenters: The Untold Story, a number of years ago, I slash-fictionalized a more elaborate, amorous relationship between Karen and Frankie, based purely on the line “She admired the drumming of a young Frankie Chavez.” As a recovering SoCal suburban band geek myself, I knew all too well the hormonal frenzy in public-school music practice rooms, especially when drums and drummers were involved. And as a brown butch lesbian named Karen who worked through a whole hell of a lot of gender trouble in the quasi-militarized structure of marching band, with captains for every section (drums, color guard, and the horn line, of which I was the captain), I could identify with both sides of the slash. Sure, I was Karen, but I also wanted to be — I probably already was — Frankie.
posted by larrybob (41 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Definite +1 for the title
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:37 PM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


John Denver and the Carpenters were (and are) big in China, for reasons that aren't fully explored in that "slice of life" article from NPR.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:53 PM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


A Carpenters cargo cult?
posted by jim in austin at 1:46 PM on May 11, 2017


If you're using "white" to mean "musically untalented and lame", you're going to have a hard time hanging that on Karen Carpenter. Not really my bag, but there were many vastly more awful options in MOR pop on the radio in the 1970s.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:54 PM on May 11, 2017 [24 favorites]


When we went to see the Sentosa Spectacular in Singapore back in 2008 and they had musical numbers representing different cultures (Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino, Singaporean, Malaysian and White) the song for the White people was, I kid you not, "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain."
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:59 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as MOR went, the Carpenters had their moments.
posted by jonmc at 2:07 PM on May 11, 2017


Grumpybear, I remember watching an interview with Muhammad Ali where he was describing music from different cultures, Asia got a bad imitation of gongs and kotos, for Latin America he sang a snippet of "La Bamba" and the Caucasian race was represented by (no joke) him singing "Folsom Prison Blues."
posted by jonmc at 2:10 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Fascinating!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:25 PM on May 11, 2017


I get the feeling that the people commenting here mostly have never been to or lived in Asia. Which is why the "cargo cult" comment has gone unnoticed. We live in an interconnected world.

The Carpenters are still "big in Japan". The songs are taught in middle school English class. There is obviously some cultural imperialism going on, but Japanese culture is in no danger of disappearing. The main explanation is that the Carpenters songs are very accessible, and very easy to sing.

It should be noted that in many cultures outside of the US, singing together is not unusual at all. It's a wonderful way to connect with the people around you.
posted by My Dad at 2:25 PM on May 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


a forthcoming book called Why Karen Carpenter Matters.

Why forthcoming and now right now, 3 days before American Mother's Day when I am still without a gift?

This article, and its appreciation of the greatness that is Karen Carpenter, is great.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:33 PM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


John Denver and the Carpenters were (and are) big in China, for reasons that aren't fully explored in that "slice of life" article from NPR.

When I think of Karen Carpenter and John Denver in a single frame, what comes to mind is their relatively limited use of vibrato.
posted by jamjam at 2:45 PM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


Were it not for the Japanese love of the Carpenters, we might not have my favorite cover of all time.
posted by hanov3r at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


Karen Carpenter's incredible, velvety voice walks right up to the edge of your speakers and moves out to inhabit every inch of your brain with its rich, vibrato-free presence. Every crisp consonant stands out. Every vowel rolls off the roof of her mouth. Now that time has passed, the significance of her "whiteness", MOR-ness, or her brother's OCD production falls away, and we are left only with that soft jewel of a voice. And about 7 really great songs.

(BTW: My vote for the whitest voice of that era was Grace Slick, a woman who never adopted the fake African American accent of most other brand-fronting female singers of her era, and gained a certain timelessness as a result.)
posted by Modest House at 3:09 PM on May 11, 2017 [8 favorites]


…what comes to mind is their relatively limited use of vibrato.

…rich, vibrato-free presence.
I feel like you guys might be mis-rememberating.
posted by ArmandoAkimbo at 3:13 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


It should be noted that in many cultures outside of the US, singing together is not unusual at all. It's a wonderful way to connect with the people around you.

It used to be the same in the States. I have a lot of old song books that say they're for use in community singing. I don't know why it fell out of favor, but it's a shame.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:26 PM on May 11, 2017 [5 favorites]


rich, vibrato-free presence.

Oh god please don't tell me people are policing and putting personal baggage on vibratto now...
posted by saulgoodman at 4:00 PM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


A swell essay, with good insight into The Carpenters' cultural and psychological complexities. Their interesting MOR has contradictions woven under the bland surface, with their sometimes depressing lyrics, their hypnotic vocal drones, and their incongruous moments of heavy guitar shredding.
posted by ovvl at 4:01 PM on May 11, 2017


The song "yesterday once more" is hugely popular in china. I had never even heard it (as an american) when i first went there to teach in 2003, bit i was constantly asked by my 15 and 16 year old students if i knew the song- they ALL did. Now, that songs reminds me of china.

Also, it's been theorized that because parts of the song sound Chinese (sha la lala, woah...), this was one of the reasons that particular song became so huge in China. It makes sense to me.
posted by bearette at 4:15 PM on May 11, 2017


John Denver and the Carpenters were (and are) big in China.

Slightly off topic, but for Christmas I got my seven year old daughter a copy of "Whisper of the Heart" because she loves "The Cat Returns" so much and this film introduced the character. We both loved it, and I sat back and marveled at the charming existence of an anime film in which a John Denver song is a major plot point.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:32 PM on May 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


The article was interesting, but kind of under-delivers on its title. The excerpt goes into what Carpenter represents to her, but doesn't really talk much about what it is about Carpenter that helped her become a lasting icon in the Philippines while she's still seen as very much of certain era in the US. Though it did succeed in making me curious about that.
posted by Diablevert at 4:44 PM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]



Oh god please don't tell me people are policing and putting personal baggage on vibratto now...


People's comments here about vibrato did not seem like that to me, but yes, no doubt, in the world, there are people fighting the fight against every sung note being reflexively slathered in vibrato. But that is only a skirmish, compared to the War on Melisma.
posted by thelonius at 5:02 PM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


the song for the White people was, I kid you not, "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain."

it wasn't this version was it?

(mommy, what's a funkadelic?)
posted by pyramid termite at 5:09 PM on May 11, 2017


Regarding the use of the idea "cargo cult."
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:14 PM on May 11, 2017


Great essay! There's a lot in there.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:21 PM on May 11, 2017


Ugh, I took to long to edit the cargo cult comment. Let's not go there.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:23 PM on May 11, 2017


their incongruous moments of heavy guitar shredding

The Carpenters don't get enough credit for this. They invented the powerballad. "Goodbye to Love" came out more than a year before Styx's "Lady," and was lite-pop's Dylan Goes Electric. They got hate mail from Lawrence Welk fans for using a fuzz pedal.

They also don't get enough credit for being depressing as fuck outside of the forced smiles of "Top of the World" et al. A lot is said about Karen's anorexia, but it's Richard's depression that's in all those songs (to say nothing of the Quaalude addiction that almost killed him). The Carpenters' songs are all so lush and sweet-sounding that, if you're paying any attention to the lyrics at all, you're expecting that part in the sad ones where everything turns out okay, but that part is almost never there. "Goodbye to Love" is exactly what it says on the tin, "Superstar" is a groupie's lament, "Yesterday Once More" emphasizes the algia in nostalgia, "Close to You" might as well be "I Want the One I Can't Have," etc., etc., etc.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:24 PM on May 11, 2017 [13 favorites]


If you're using "white" to mean "musically untalented and lame", you're going to have a hard time hanging that on Karen Carpenter. Not really my bag, but there were many vastly more awful options in MOR pop on the radio in the 1970s.

I think "white" (as in "Whitest Singer of the 70s") was refering to a very relaxed, measured, pleasant, style of music/singing - I don't think the author was saying her singing was bad, I think she was saying that Karen Carpenter was the absolute best at singing in that style.
posted by 23skidoo at 5:52 PM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


The whitest singer of the seventies was, of course, Jon Anderson.
posted by jonmc at 5:54 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Karen Carpenter could drum like this, which takes her out of the running for "whitest" anything.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:58 PM on May 11, 2017 [8 favorites]


Edgar Winter would like a word with you.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:24 PM on May 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


They also don't get enough credit for being depressing as fuck outside of the forced smiles of "Top of the World" et al.

Two words: "This Masquerade." (Written by Leon Russell, but still.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:39 PM on May 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


Also, too: you want to talk about a white singer with zero vibrato, try Chet Baker.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:43 PM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


Her voice was like a cello, warm and rich and her use of vibrato was as perfectly calibrated as a cellist's use of the same feature. Some notes were sung straight-tone, but then she added just enough vibrato exactly where it was needed to warm the sound and perfectly round it out. Then she would add that little catch or glottal effect every now and then, which I have yet to see done to similar effect in anyone. It's unclear to me how much of this was purposeful, or if it was just how she sang. But it was unmatched.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:48 PM on May 11, 2017 [12 favorites]


It should be noted that in many cultures outside of the US, singing together is not unusual at all. It's a wonderful way to connect with the people around you.
Or inside the United States among people who go to church regularly...
posted by Hatashran at 8:36 PM on May 11, 2017


Just imagine how George Jones feels when you call Karen Carpenter the whitest singer of the 70s.

What does that mean anyway? And why shouldn't people in the Philipines be capable of appreciating quality from another culture as they see fit?
posted by windowbr8r at 9:17 PM on May 11, 2017


She ate a shrimp salad for dinner with her parents at Bob’s Big Boy and picked up a couple of tacos to go from a local joint next door, so she could snack on them while indulging in the made-for-TV spectacle of a manscaped, micro-kimono-clad Richard Chamberlain in Shogun. Everyone thought she was on the mend, the very picture of SoCal suburbanity in repose, eating tacos and watching the tube all night, before what was supposed to be another sunshiny day in an endless season — nay, a lifetime — of sunniness.

Strange that there is no mention of the anorexia she suffered from, and which contributed to her death, especially since it was the first time many people had heard of the disease. I realize that's not the subject of the article, but if you're going to open it with a casual sounding rundown of her last meal it seems like an glaring ommision. (Despite the cryptic "on the mend" reference.)
posted by Room 641-A at 1:07 AM on May 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


If you want a very vibrato-heavy version of the Carpenters (well, something like vibrato, anyway) Tim Byrne is your man.
posted by robself at 2:43 AM on May 12, 2017


Seriously, Karen was absolutely NOT vibrato-free. She wasn't gigantically variating in pitch with her vibrato, rather it seems to be a vibrato of vocal intensity instead of pitch, which is kind of interesting.

I've said this on the Blue before, but Karen's voice is one of the very few things that cut entirely through my emotional defenses. I am utterly helpless before it. And I love it. And I wish we had more from her across a longer life.

If you really want to get into the "b-sides" of The Carpenters, they recorded basically an entire album of b-sides, Passage. It's the album from which Calling Occupants Of Interplanteray Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day) became a rather bizarre hit. It's sort of the anti-Carpenters album in a lot of ways. I think it's amazing, and I listen to it often. It really showcases Richard's arranging skills in great ways. But if you want the one outstanding track from it, and an excellent example of how Karen does vibrato that doesn't vary in pitch, I'd recommend the last track from side one, On The Balcony Of The Casa Rosada/Don't Cry For Me Argentina.
posted by hippybear at 3:11 AM on May 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


John Denver and the Carpenters were (and are) big in China, for reasons that aren't fully explored in that "slice of life" article from NPR.

I can testify that John Denver is much more popular in China than he is in the U.S. My wife & I have a close friend of Chinese and Polish ancestry who is a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English classes in China. She told us that, whenever she needed to teach the lyrics of a song in English, the one English-language song that everybody in her class could be counted on to know was John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Years later, after I heard my friend's anecdote, I was eating lunch with some international students from China. I asked them if what my friend told me was true about how John Denver was really popular in China. One of the guys I was sitting with immediately lit up with his face aglow, saying "Annie's Song, Annie's Song." He then asked me how John Denver was doing in my country & unfortunately, I had to inform him that John Denver had died several years before.

Anyhow, it doesn't seem that hard to explain why John Denver is popular in China. He was one of the first Western performers to do a tour in China, and supply has a way of creating its own demand, especially in places starved for entertainment. There's an article, "Country Roads" to Globalization: Sociological Models for Understanding American Popular Music in China that does a good job of explaining the phenomenon. The English-language artists who are most popular in China (at least at the time the article was written) were Celine Dion, John Denver, and The Carpenters.

I believe the explanation for the Chinese public's favoritism to M.O.R. pop is that, when listening to lyrics in a foreign language, they preferred lyrics that were easy to understand and enunciated clearly with vocals that sounded "clean" and "bright." (Or, as some in this thread have already put it, the Chinese preferred music that sounded "white.") Thus, the M.O.R. pop of the Carpenters is going to be more popular than Mick Jagger's slurred words or Bob Dylan's nasality. I believe there was also an argument that "Take Me Home Country Roads" was popular among Chinese people in cities who had migrated in from the country, which meant that there was an appetite for American "country" music, but generally the more blander exponents of that genre. In other words, John Denver & 1980s era Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (not the early "Jolene" stuff).

Regardless, it's not some exotic "cargo cult" mystery. There are all kinds of music that catch on in places far from where it was originally created. When I was in Chile once, I saw teenagers everywhere wearing Ramones T-shirts. I only later learned that was because the Ramones toured extensively in huge venues in Latin America long after they were written off as has-beens or a punk nostalgia act in the U.S.
posted by jonp72 at 5:32 PM on May 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


I will never be ashamed of loving John Denver. He's like one of those pure, clear English tenors.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:08 PM on May 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Back in 1971 I hung out with a guitar player from Japan. He claimed (to my then-horror) that Johnny Cash was the greatest American songwriter. Further, that pretty much everyone in Japan would probably tell me the same. Now, I never really got past the notion that I was being infra-digged, but in the intervening years ... when you focus on all three words, Greatest, American, Songwriter, it has traction. Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, a lot of non-US influences. Who else? Cole Porter? Dylan, influential as all hell, but lots of dross, I think.
posted by Chitownfats at 4:30 AM on May 14, 2017


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