Remembering Karen Carpenter on Her 70th

Karen Carpenter, the velvet-voiced girl-next-door lead "sister" of the duo the Carpenters, was born March 2, 1950 — meaning today would have been her 70th birthday.

Tragically, she struggled her whole life with disordered eating, succumbing to a heart attack at just 32 in 1983, a side effect of her anorexia nervosa.

Often pegged as "white-bread" (as she ruefully noted in her final, 1981 interview), some of her music was far more layered and interesting. For example, she longed to branch out, even recording a sexy, more mature, disco album with Phil Ramone in 1979 — but it was shelved. Example from the album's posthumous release:

True, nobody did squeaky-clean pop like Karen and her brother Richard ("We don't squeak, but we're clean," she asserted, also in 1981), but a song like "Superstar," for one, certainly transcends categorization.

The superstar duo released 33 singles during her lifetime, including a dozen Top 10 hits. My personal Top 15, culled only from their official singles:

#15 "Solitaire" (1975, #17)

One of their most mournful tracks, this is the ultimate self-pity wallow when you feel like every road that takes you, takes you down.

#14 "Sing" (1973, #3)

The Carpenters were nothing if not the antithesis of musical snobs. They had a smash by covering this kids' tune from Sesame Street. Ebullient, it captures Karen's child-like joy.

#13 "Touch Me When We're Dancing" (1981, #16)

The group's last big hit (#16) during Karen's lifetime, this creamy-smooth AC hit feels like an extended stretch in the morning after a night of what their lyrics would have delicately referred to as lovemaking.

#12 "Goodbye to Love" (1972, #7)

I love how this song so cheerfully recounts the singer's inability to find love. Instead of feeling morose, it's so chipper, not resigned so much as accepting. The lyrics are suicidal, but the delivery triumphant.

#11 "Only Yesterday" (1975, #4)

God, the first note Karen sings on this one is so deep! It just always grabs me and takes me along on this oddly paced, hippie-vibing, upbeat ditty.

#10 "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)" (1977, #32)

True, this is a higher ranking for this one than most fans would grant it, but I remember hearing it in 1977 in my cousin's car and thinking it was the most bomb-out, unhinged sci-fi thing ever, then being shocked it was by this square group. Karen's vocals as an alien are chilling, then reassuring, in equal, note-perfect measure. I don't do drugs, but I do listen to this song a lot.

#9 "For All We Know" (1971, #3)

An early hit, this one is a triumph in romantic storytelling, and is a gripping example of Karen's hypnotic phrasing. Her "we know" is just soul-searing.

#8 "We've Only Just Begun" (1970, #2)

How fitting that this hopeful number would be the duo's second real hit. Love how the tempo increases and it becomes a wall of sound between the loping verses.

#7 "Top of the World" (1973, #1)

Of all their positivity pop, "Top of the World" is the most irrepressible. So sweet to hear Karen — who vocally, is at the top of her game as a Miss Lonelyhearts — sounding genuinely gassed, trilling her joy. (In the accompanying lip-synched video, she seems to almost be making fun of the countrified song's saccharine quality. I'll take it.)

#6 "There's a Kind of Hush" (1976, #12)

I absolutely love this song in a "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" way, and its original incarnations — by the New Vaudeville Band and Herman's Hermits — were very much in that vein, something you could hear in a cabaret show or as the theme song to a frisky film frolic. But Karen's take — on a track that feels country, but whose vocal is haunting and more urban — renders the song a much bigger sweep. It feels like it's being sung from the perspective of a wiser, broader presence, making it a summary of the '70s. (It needs a proper remix — something like this.)

#5 "Yesterday Once More" (1973, #2)

This single ingeniously seems to explain a major aspect of the appeal of the Carpenters' music, which was made up of many cover versions and throwbacks to '60s sounds. Here, they explicitly acknowledge those old songs, the tunes that were the (Carole) Kings of their sonic world.

#4 "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (1970, #1)

The duo's first hit rocketed to #1, kicking off the '70s and their stellar careers. Burt Bacharach and Hal David's work had been recorded before, unsuccessfully, but Karen gave it the spin it needed; it is a rare singer who can sing something like this without sounding needy or, defensively, snarky. She is dazzlingly charming here, at the peak of her powers.

#3 "Rainy Days and Mondays" (1971, #2)

Perhaps the official song of depression ("what I've got/they used to call the blues"), this one is a gut-punch every time I hear it. Hearing Karen reference herself as a "lonely clown" is just so vulnerable. Beautiful writing by Paul Williams.

#2 "Hurting Each Other" (1972, #2)

Girl-group nirvana, and all the voices are one girl. Karen turns this into an anthem of heartbreak, and a plea for mutual respect. It's about a toxic relationship before anyone knew there was such a thing.

#1 "Superstar" (1971, #2)

Arguably the Carpenters' most iconic classic, this haunting track (written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell from an idea by Rita Coolidge) came to the Carpenters' attention when Bette Midler sang it on The Tonight Show. (Not the last time Midler sang it.) It's a groupie singing to her idol, so the song had to be minorly sanitized ("can't wait to sleep with you again" became "be with you"), but far from becoming homogenized, Karen's version is far more visceral than any other. It works as a model of any obsessive or just unequal relationship, and Karen's intense vulnerability vocally is just wow-inducing even today. It has been covered umpteen times, but nobody has — or ever will — come close.

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