Why Karen Carpenter Matters By Karen Tongson, 138 pgs.

Aug 05, 2019

Karen Carpenter was one half of the brother-and-sister ’70s soft-rock duo the Carpenters. Their best-known song is probably “Top of the World.” Carpenter herself is probably best-known for starving herself to death. Musicians with songs about her include Young Fresh Fellows, Sonic Youth, and Dave Alvin.

According to author Karen Tongson, the Carpenters are more than just “popular” in the Philippines:

Karen Carpenter matters to Filipinos and Filipino Americans like me, whose movements through the megalopolis of Manila, to and from the Philippines’ rural provinces, and eventually to distant places for overseas labor, are scored to Karen’s voice: one redolent of tears, even when she sings about unbridled joy.

Why Karen Carpenter Matters
weaves Carpenter’s life as an American musician (and, for a time, superstar) with Tongson’s life as the child of Filipino musicians. It also features music criticism and cultural criticism.

Tongson is an excellent biographer and an eye-opening music critic, though while I understand why she connected strongly with the Carpenters’ music, I came away unconvinced that she explained the Philippines’ connection to it. As an example of her task, she addresses journalists’ attempts to explain why so many Latinos love Morrissey, which love can probably be explained by Morrissey’s sounding like the cantantes his Latino fans grew up hearing (consider that the next time you hear “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”)—maybe Carpenter’s voice triggered a similar kind of memory?

In the chapter titled “Queer Horizon,” the word “Queer” refers to gender. Tongson explores the weird contemporaneous perception of Carpenter as a “tomboy”—no one I know would call her that—and it’s in this chapter that Tongson most closely examines Carpenter’s anorexia and death.

Why Karen Carpenter Matters is a short book, part of the University of Texas Press’ Music Matters series (reminiscent of the 33 1/3 series in which each book is devoted to a single album). –Jim Woster (University of Texas Press, UTexasPress.org)