“Why Karen Carpenter Matters” by Karen Tongson— Death at an Early Age

Tongson, Karen. “Why Karen Carpenter Matters”,  (Music Matters), University of Texas Press, 2019.

Death at an Early Age

Amos Lassen

In the ’60s and ’70s, uplifting harmonies and cheery lyrics propelled Karen Carpenter and her brother, Richard, to international  but it also brought us  a different kind of tragedy and Karen’s death at age thirty-two as a result of an eating disorder.

In “Why Karen Carpenter Matters” Karen Tongson interweaves the story of the singer’s rise to fame with her own trans-Pacific journey between the Philippines (where imitations of American pop styles were everywhere) and Karen Carpenter’s home ground of Southern California. Tongson shows why the Carpenters’ musical fantasies of “normal love” can now have profound significance for her—as well as for other people of color, LGBT+ communities, and anyone outside of mainstream culture usually associated with the Carpenter’s legacy. This book is a hybrid of memoir and biography that examines “the destructive perfectionism at the root of the Carpenters’ sound” while finding the beauty of the singer’s short life.

The book centers those at the margins of American society and reveals how the Carpenters’ music resonated with immigrants, LGBTQ people and people of color who wanted the idyllic normalcy that the Carpenters represented.  Tongson brings together memoir, history, and cultural criticism to show the dynamic relationship between artists and listeners.

Tongson shares her extensive knowledge of music and songcraft and the music writing is wonderful. I was not a fan of the Carpenters and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Tongson’s story shows the intent and effects of the Karen Carpenter’s short life. Tongson as a queer Filipino-American woman has something to say about the production and reception sides of popular music.

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