"Karen Carpenter's white-bread image and sad fate — she died of anorexia in 1983 — have overshadowed her chocolate-and-cream alto voice. But other performers know the score: Elton John called her "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime," and Madonna has said she is "completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility." Impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate, Carpenter's performances were a new kind of torch singing, built on understatement and tiny details of inflection that made even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes. Still, she's a guilty pleasure for many. "Karen Carpenter had a great sound," John Fogerty once told Rolling Stone, "but if you've got three guys out on the ballfield and one of them started humming [a Carpenters song], the other two guys would pants him." Rolling Stone

For those of us who came of age in the Seventies and early Eighties, her sound is still amongst the most recognizable on earth. Over thirty years have passed since her death from anorexia, but Karen Carpenter's voice remains an indelible part of the soundtrack of our lives. And John Fogerty was right, she was a guilty pleasure back then and missed dearly now.

Thanks to a highly rated 1989 TV story of her life, there has been a narrative arc in our minds of her life and her death. In his 2011 book on Karen, Little Girl Blue, author Randy Schmidt did much to correct the historical narrative that turned her passing into the punchline of tasteless jokes and her life into a vessel for whatever cause crosses the beholder's mind. Between those lines, lies the fact that her brother Richard has worked mightily to control whatever truth hit the public domain. The convergence of these factors has conspired to obscure how great of a talent we enjoyed and lost. And to perhaps forget how tragic her loss actually was. 

She was not a Streisand or a Dion, in the sense of wishing to dominate a song. She was a microphone singer. Karen Carpenter was never guilty of vocal excess. It was always real, and she always seemed informed of the realities of life. Frost once wrote of being "well acquainted with the night." and even when she was too young to have experienced much of what she sang of, Karen's voice was informed by an understanding of real life. Even when the material was upbeat, she seemed aware that times could also be dark.  

The greatest artists have the knack of forging that special connection. that holds you in the belief that the artist is singing about their lives and yours. It becomes a conversation, then an intimate dialogue that is defined by the beholder's hopes and fears. They become our companions, some for the rest of our lives. They become the familiar people we have known through the newsreels of our lives. The ones who are truly indelible, are merchants of hope and the message that says in our moments of dark, we will always see the dawn.  Of the handful of those having this sort of talent. their scarce and precious talent is often taken from us way too soon. It's what makes my heart ache whenever I read Randy Schmidt's take on Karen, hear her work, or contemplate how we needed to hear even a musical voice that was undefined by cynicism. 

It's ironic, that The Karen Carpenter Story (the movie produced by her brother), meant to be a sanitized version of their family life, would star Louise "Nurse Ratched" Fletcher as mother Agnes, an actress whose portrayed her as one who made every word drip with passive-aggressive spite. It made an accidentally compelling portrait of what happens when a family dynamic evolves in a manner that marginalizes one of its members. How that translated into her anorexia has been the subject of decades of speculation.  What is not speculative, is how wounded inside that daily realization must have made her. How else to explain a person with all those gifts embarking on a process that made her literally disappear physically?

We occasionally forget in today's culture, that there are real people behind the headlines on "E". And in the case of an abrupt passing or tragedy, the tasteless jokes do inevitably follow.  A generation was guilty of the odd Karen Carpenter joke in college days, and many remember what Bette Midler said about her jokes at  Karen's expense.  The "Divine Miss M" felt guilty for adding to the ugliness in the world.  Of course, back in those days her comments made were about the conservative Nixonian values and image of the Carpenters, rather than what ultimately came to pass years later.  But it is so true, that our humor at someone else's expense, truly does add to the level of pain that exist in our world, even if they are famous.

Rediscovering Karen Carpenter's voice and story after all these years has meant trying to come to terms with her death. Hearing her work and realizing she had every gift but length of years, and a sense of truly being loved feels as if some outside force is excavating hearts out of bodies.  Like the many others who passed too young, there is nothing to do but remember her, and make certain others remember her as well.  Not as a poster child for eating disorders, or family dysfunction, or a member of the pantheon of those consumed by fame. But as a good and decent person, who opened a window to a world of hope and the possibilities of love, in a time when we needed to be reminded of those things. We still do.  




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