Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
Why are we so fascinated by the sad life and even sadder death of Karen Carpenter? What is it about her story that resonates so strongly? I suppose a lot of it has to do with the timelessness of her music. As long as there are elevators, or easy-listening stations, or lovers, the music of the Carpenters will endure. Karen and Richard Carpenter’s early 1970s hit parade will be with us forever, along with the equally perfect pop of contemporaries Abba and the Bee Gees.
Then there is the not insubstantial matter of Karen Carpenter’s voice, an instrument as achingly sad and pure and wise as any in popular music, at once the voice of experience and naiveté. With a voice that was shattering in its hushed intimacy, she gleaned every last bit of melancholy and emotion from the words she delivered so inimitably.
Even now, more than three decades after her death, it’s hard to get a fix on Karen Carpenter. She remains a fascinating aggregation of contradictions. She was an old soul who effortlessly conveyed sophisticated and profound emotions while barely out of her teens as well as en emotionally stunted woman-child who loved Disney and stuffed animals and lived with her parents till the age of 26, even after becoming an international pop star.
Carpenter was a brash, good-humored tomboy who was seemingly never happier than when seated comfortably behind a drum set, bashing the shit out of her kit with the enthusiasm of her hero, Buddy Rich. But she was also a girly girl who died in no small part as a result of conforming to society’s conception of femininity, which puts an enormous premium on thinness at the expense of health.
Randy L. Schmidt’s Little Girl Blue is a workmanlike but compelling biography of Carpenter, the preeminent martyr of easy listening, the Joan Of Arc of soft rock. It suggests that part of our unending fascination with Karen includes the unintentional role she played in raising awareness of anorexia. When she shocked the world by dying at 32, Carpenter became the face of anorexia, then and now. She will always be synonymous with the disease and it with her. It is an enormous component of her profoundly mixed, complicated legacy.
This is not Superstar, Todd Haynes’ notorious stop-motion biopic of Carpenter’s life, using dolls, which became one of the most legendary unreleased/unreleasable movies ever. (Richard, not surprisingly, refused to let the avant-garde filmmaker use his and Karen’s music in the film.) The author of Little Girl Blue is not trying to transform Carpenter’s life into deeply personal art or use it to comment scathingly on sexism and conformity. Instead, he tries to tell Karen’s story cleanly, plainly, and compellingly, and he succeeds.
I suspect we are also endlessly fascinated by Karen Carpenter because she’s such an anomaly. When pop icons die young, it’s generally a result of delirious excess, of an abundance of everything: sex, drugs, food, liquor, and all-around bad behavior. With Karen Carpenter, the opposite was true: she perished from a terrible, fatal absence not just of food and body mass and pounds but also less tangible qualities, like a mother’s love or a loving partner’s support.
Agnes Carpenter, Karen and Richard’s strong-willed and hateful mother (among her many other winning qualities, she was very demonstratively not a fan of African-Americans or Jews), emerges as the primary heavy in Little Girl Blue, but she’s hardly alone in aggressively making Karen’s life something of a crucible. The prologue opens with Agnes telling Barry Morrow, who will go on to write a television movie about the Carpenters (as well as a little movie called Rain Man), “I want you to know that I did not kill my daughter.”
That’s a statement I can only imagine coming from someone with a rightfully guilty conscience. Did Agnes kill Karen? Of course not, but she played a huge role in fostering the kind of self-hatred and deep-seated psychological problems that contributed to Karen’s early death. From the very beginning, Agnes made it clear that in her mind there was one great musical genius in the family, and that was Karen’s older brother Richard, who was establishing himself as a piano protege while his spunky younger sister was still in high school.
Agnes flagrantly favored Richard over Karen. In her mind, he was the one destined for fortune and fame, and it was poor form for Karen to dazzle the world with that magnificent voice of hers when she should be using her formidable talent to better express the musical ideas of her sainted older brother.
Agnes was the product of an earlier era, and she raised Richard and Karen to be the very image of wholesome WASP respectability. At a time when rock ’n’ roll got shaggy and hairy and acid-addled and electric, Richard and Karen Carpenter were the kind of young people Richard Nixon could get behind, and they visited the White House during his time there multiple times. They were inveterately square, about as hip as Pat Boone jitter-bugging with the Andrews Sisters in a red, white, and blue tuxedo.
In concert and in publicity photos, Karen and Richard were the toothy, smiling, wholesome kids everyone wishes they had, but the reality was much darker and much sadder. Richard seethed with jealousy over the attention and validation his sister received, and eventually became addicted to quaaludes. Karen’s loneliness, meanwhile, never abated, no matter how successful she became. In many ways, the incredible success and validation she received in so many facets of her life almost made it worse. Karen was the living embodiment of the old cliché that it’s lonely at the top.
The Carpenters were so normal that they were freakish, so all-American that they almost seemed to be pod people from outer space. But, of course, the Carpenters weren’t really normal. The illusion of normality was in itself something of a magic trick, a masterful bit of professional and PR sleight of hand.
The Carpenters’ fashion sensibility could be charitably described as “awkward Mormon prom.” Their aesthetic would be tragically unhip and weird even if the duo singing the love songs weren’t brother and sister. There was nothing sexual about Richard and Karen’s relationship (although it could be argued it bordered on emotionally incestuous), although it’s worth noting that Richard Carpenter eventually married his first cousin, who he started dating while she was 18. I’m not saying there’s anything creepy or wrong about an international millionaire rock star in his 30s dating a semi-close relative who is looking forward to things like graduating high school, but… Heck, yeah, it is kind of creepy and speaks to a weird sense of intimacy within the Carpenter family that looks more than a little gothic and sinister from the outside.
The Carpenters were easy to mock, and widely ridiculed, but there was an artistry to their arrangements, and, more than anything, a powerful, mournful melancholy to Karen’s singing that made them hard to dismiss. The duo’s early hits were pure pop perfection. But underneath was a despairing sadness that seemed to reflect—indirectly but compellingly—the very real pain Karen was experiencing in her personal life.
In Little Girl Blue Carpenter emerges as a spirited young woman who struggled her whole life to escape a series of prisons of the professional, familial, physical, and psychological variety, only to discover that the white knight she thinks will save her from her family and herself just makes everything much worse.
In addition to her ferocious professional ambition, Carpenter wanted very much to be a mother and wife. She eventually found a spouse who appeared to be the kind of wealthy, responsible mensch she could start a family with, only to discover that her wealthy husband was actually more of a penniless gold-digger sort. He was also, alas, someone who’d gotten a vasectomy specifically to prevent him from having children, something he somehow neglected to tell Carpenter until just before they were scheduled to be married.
It somehow gets worse. Carpenter tried to pull out of the wedding, only to be sternly informed by her appearances-obsessed mother that she had no real choice in the matter, she was getting married no matter what. When an affection-starved Carpenter comes on to her husband he coldly informs her that he has no interest in a woman he considers a bag of bones.
In another poignantly doomed attempt for Carpenter to create a life for herself outside of the suffocating presence of her mother and brother, she finally pulls the trigger and pursues a solo album produced by red-hot producer Phil Ramone and featuring much of Billy Joel’s band. It’s an opportunity for Carpenter to establish herself as her own artist, and not just the scion of a popular musical family.
Carpenter radiated excitement over the album but, in a characteristic turn of events, a jealous and intensely competitive Richard derided the album as shit. Karen’s bosses at A&M—for whom she continues to make an enormous amount of money even today—decided that the first solo album by one of the greatest voices in all of music was unreleasable and shelved it. It eventually received a posthumous release.
As Carpenter’s anorexia approached a brutal endgame, she reached out for help with a controversial doctor heralded as one of the world’s top experts in anorexia. But it turns out that the good doctor wasn’t actually a real one, and that his theory that his anorexic patients needed to become wholly dependent on him before they could be cured is closer to criminal quackery than solid science or medicine.
Reading Little Girl Blue, it’s tempting to want to go back in time and try to save Carpenter from the myriad factors destroying her from the inside out. She’s incredibly strong, funny, vibrant, and unforgettable, and also destroyed both by the ravages of fame and a poisonous family dynamic that might have made her life hell even if she had never breathed into a microphone. There are many different kinds of prisons. The ones we’re born into by a cruel trick of biology might just be the worst.
Little Girl Blue attains a dark momentum as Carpenter’s problems grow bigger and bigger until they become fatal. Carpenter’s life was tragic, but the transcendently dark and ebulliently light music she made with a brother she worshipped, but who never stopped resenting her popularity, remains a triumph. Karen Carpenter died much too young, before she had an opportunity to come of age and distance herself from her family the way most young people do when they hit their late teens. Yet, in death, this misunderstood and mistreated icon’s ghostly and exquisitely human voice will never be silenced. It rings out for perpetuity, forever pushing toward that curious threshold where agony becomes ecstasy, and bottomless pain becomes a strange form of joy.