I never cared about Karen Carpenter, not really. Sure, I've driven through the Missouri Ozarks with my older sister, both of us singing along to “Top of the World” and dreaming of life in California (though neither of us would ever move to California). But I was born too late; in 1984, the Carpenters were no longer “cool,” and pop music itself had undergone a grittier transformation under the tutelage of Prince, Madonna, and Janet Jackson. In fact, Karen Carpenter was already dead, of heart failure related to her anorexia nervosa, a year before my birth. If we heard the Carpenters, it was because one of our parents had left “Close to You,” “A Song for You,” or “Now & Then” in the tape deck of the station wagon my sister borrowed to pick me up from preschool.
But part of the magic of Karen Tongson's new book, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, is that it makes me stop and reconsider an often-mis-mythologized artist who not only changed the soundscape of American and international pop music, but who also should matter to scholars like me, scholars interested in sound studies, feminist and queer theory, and affective listening. As JD Samson offers in a back-cover blurb, Why Karen Carpenter Matters “is an intersectional conversation between Tongson as an artist and Tongson as an academic, both created and performed by the author.” Tongson's superlative hybrid study critiques our misconception of the Carpenters, and especially Karen herself, as the epitome of normalcy. That is, white, middle-class American teens making good in the suburbs of Southern California. The Beach Boys or the Monkees, the Carpenters are not, if only one listens a bit more carefully. Tongson urges us to think more deeply because “simply put, there's something totally queer about the Carpenters, beyond the mere fact of Karen's tomboyish youth or penchant for percussion” (14–15). And what is that queerness innate in the siblings, and in particular to this important book, in Karen Carpenter herself?
The easily available feminist or queer reading would offer that Karen's queerness lies in her second-class citizenry to her brother, Richard. And it's an easy case to make, Tongson makes clear, quoting an interview with Karen's boyfriend, Terry Ellis, the founder of Chrysalis Records: “At a very early age, Karen was told that her job in life was to support Richard. That continued all the way up through their careers until they became huge stars and beyond” (79). But Karen Carpenter offers something more substantial, something queerer, beyond relegation, for the queer listener. Drawing on the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, to whom the book is dedicated, Tongson explains Karen's truest queer appeal: “What we have learned from Karen, what we share with Karen (beyond the drumming, roughhousing, and sometimes dysphoric relationship to our own bodies) is the experience of living, as anyone who's ever sought acceptance and love has, by trying desperately to get something right … Even if, for just a moment, we can see beyond the horizon” (93). Karen Carpenter's queer horizons reached across class divides in this country, to be sure, but also across transnational borders and identities. Karen Carpenter matters, Tongson thoughtfully teaches us, because “through Karen, [we] came to understand that soft rock might not signal a weakness or vulnerability, but instead announce a strength: the audacity to sound out of place and out of time, like someone who isn't made for this world” (124). Karen Carpenter, via Karen Tongson, helps us build these other, perhaps better, worlds.
Carpenter's voice crossed borders in this world, to be sure, into the lounges and karaoke bars of the Philippines, Tongson's birth home. “A good portion of this book is devoted to … questions about music, lives, and engaging personalities,” Tongson explains:
and exploring why Karen Carpenter matters to me. You see, my Filipino musician parents named me after Karen Carpenter in 1973. Karen is my namesake, and her voice and music are coordinates in the musical mapping of my family's journeys across the Pacific, between big cities like Manila and the sprawl of Southern California, and between old-fashioned notions of romance and the queer desires that come to the surface despite the Carpenters' milquetoast musical fantasies about “normal” love. (xii-xiii)
In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Tongson masters what too few academics and memoirists are able to accomplish: her book is an exemplary study in how critical theory affects our everyday lives, and how our everyday lives and histories in turn effect the critical theory we write and deploy. If only more writers on both sides of the aisle would read this book and revise their own outlooks accordingly.
Towards the end of her study, Tongson admits that “rescripting Karen's afterlife is a game in which quite a few of us have indulged. I'm guilty of doing some of it here in this book” (116). And indeed, that is a dangerous game to play with the star who has met her tragic end, be it Karen Carpenter, Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, or countless others. But Tongson's book, despite her own worry, doesn't rescript Karen's life for some sanitized end. Instead, it lyrically re-examines the songstress's career and persona to find the queer afterlives for her Othered fans, for folx already pushed to the margins and looking for a musical center through which they might find a hopeful horizon. As Tongson, as a young Filipino queer in the sun-washed suburbs of Southern California, concludes of her own obsession with Karen, “Like my namesake, I felt lost in the eternal sunshine of Southern California, adrift … in disoriented souls. Both of us were longing without knowing exactly what for” (74).
We write, Tongson makes so beautifully clear, about any number of texts—Karen Carpenter, Jane Austen, Kurt Cobain—to become closer to the texts that, especially as queers, have saved our lives. Or as the Carpenters crooned in their first chart-topper, “Just like me, they long to be close to you.” I'm glad Karen Tongson allowed us to be closer to her, and to her namesake Karen Carpenter, in this book that so perfectly melds the world of critical and memoir writing.