I’m in a choir (Do people still use the term “choir queer”? People sure said it a lot when I was in middle school, at least they did to me!). And one of the songs we’re practicing these days is a medley of Carpenters songs. It’s pretty cool, if you don’t mind my saying so, but our sound is very different than the originals. To put it simply, we sound happy, poppy in fact. And I think that’s the way the song’s melodies were meant to sound. Of course, that was before Karen Carpenter wrapped them up in that voice of hers.
I think it’s a bit too simplistic to say that Karen Carpenter’s voice sounds sad. Because there is the hint of hope in the midst that actually adds to the sadness somehow. Karen’s voice is that of a young woman who is being dumped, but instead of breaking down right then and there, squares her shoulders and says to her now-ex-boyfriend, “I completely understand. I’ll be okay,” knowing full well that she damn won’t be. Her voice is the sound of a weak smile that knows it won’t last.
I attended elementary school in Cypress, California (in the O.C., if you will), close to the huge, sprawling Forest Lawn Mortuary, where Karen Carpenter must have been buried (or her ashes kept). I say this because I remember a wall that was basically dedicated to her, with a huge painting of her that pretty much took up the whole wall.
One day, I was there with my father (I can’t remember why), and we noticed an elderly couple standing in front of the wall, obviously trying to contain their emotions. My father guessed that they were Karen’s relatives (quite possibly her parents). And he walked us over to them and softly said, “We really loved her music,” at which point the gentleman started crying and walked away.
What my father said wasn’t really true at that time. I was a child of the 80’s through and through, digging Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Corey Hart, and other ‘cool’ singers. I’m not sure if I even knew what the Carpenters looked like at that time, and even if I did, I seriously doubt I would’ve been impressed with a brother-sister duo that looked like a walking advertisement for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. My only Carpenters-related moment came when I watched Parenthood, in which a distraught Rick Moranis walks into his estranged wife’s classroom (she’s a teacher) and starts singing “Close To You” to get her back.
It was many years later, when I, older, somewhat wiser, and well, sadder, that I went back in time and discovered the Carpenters (A probable impetus was my own estrangement with my father, which lasted ten years due to factors beyond our control). And I think you need to have suffered battle scars before you can look under the song’s simple structures and see the inevitable heartbreak within. “We’ve Only Just Begun” is a good example. There’s no doubt in the song that Karen’s undeniably in love. And she’s happy that she’s in love. But there’s also a sense that she knows the walls are closing in. She knows that their love has just begun, but she also knows that it can’t last. So she sings to lull herself into sleep, so she won’t know when it falls apart.
In the end, as we all know, it all did fall apart for Karen. But with a click of the “play” button, she is back, this time lulling us into comfort, asking me to believe in a love now long gone. And so I do.