My Ultimate Guilty Pleasure: Karen Carpenter's Golden Voice

As part two of a three part series originally posted here in February 2008 I wrote about my all time top ten guilty pleasures with a statement that my number one choice would be receiving its own separate post. I'm bringing it back today - inspired by a tweet I stumbled upon by "Morning Joe" Scarborough that you can see below. The original article and links to the other posts in this series follow immediately after the tweet.

One of the Twentieth Century’s most beautiful female singing voices belonged to the late, golden-voiced, balladeer Karen Carpenter. She was the more famous half of The Carpenters, the brother and sister duo who had a huge string of hit singles from the late 60s through the mid-70s.

Many of us know the sad story of the devastating eating disorder that took Karen's life in February 1983 but this essay is not about anything the supermarket tabloids consider important. It's only about her music.

Let me start out by saying that I was not a fan of the Carpenters when they hit the big time. I was a teenager when "Close To You" made the siblings stars. The unfortunate timing of their initial stardom subjected them to even more ridicule than artists of their ilk normally received. Syrupy love ballads and kids songs sung by young adults with squeaky clean images were not held in high esteem by teenage boys in 1970 and I made fun of them every chance I could. It was the summer after Woodstock and Karen and Richard were almost the anti-Christ to fans of rock n' roll. Even the All Music Guide, the famous online music review site with a very open mind, wrote the following about their 1973 follow-up album to the previous year's excellent A Song For You, "Whatever the reason, from the moment of the release of Now & Then, anyone under 30 buying a Carpenters album would have good reason to go to a neighborhood where no one knew them to make the purchase, and hide it from their friends."

The Carpenters image grated on their detractors just as much as their music did. Two early and abysmal cover versions of Beatles songs, "Ticket To Ride" and "Help," and their giant hit single "Sing," a song from Sesame Street, cemented their reputation.

Karen was not just a singer. Many people still don't know that she was a highly skilled drummer who played on many of her own records. Modern Drummer magazine even praised her work. However, as her career progressed she played the drums less and less to concentrate on her vocals.

Did Carpenter waste her natural gift? When she sang more intelligent music, much of it from A Song For You, the answer is no. Then she was absolutely sensational. Listen to that album's title cut, and "Masquerade," from Now & Then, and you wonder what she could have accomplished if she had chosen to be a jazz singer. Listen to the duo's more hip songs, most notably "Goodbye To Love" from A Song For You, where elements of rock n' roll actually wandered into the arrangement, and "Superstar," a song from an earlier album about a groupie who falls in love with a rock star, and you know for sure that singing children's songs should be left for people like Raffi and Sharon, Lois, and Bram.

I love Karen Carpenter's voice. I always have, yet music lovers the world over were short-changed because she didn't use it to produce work that would have rewarded her with the respect her natural talent should have demanded.


  1. Although our top ten lists have not intersected much these last few years, you have hit on a topic on which we can totally agree. I like everything on your guilty pleasures list and I could not agree more with your ultimate choice of the Carpenters, for the reason of Karen Carpenter's voice.

    My only issue with these two great posts, which you may well address in part three, is that many of the artists on your list are so well accepted that you don't need to feel so guilty. In my view, the only artists on your list that you might legitimately still feel guilty about liking would be Wacko Jacko and Celine Dion, and if I made a similar list today, "My Heart Will Go On" would definitely be included, but that's story for another day. I think if your criteria is music that you felt guilty about liking at the time it came out, then all of your list might qualify.

    The Monkees' appeal is spanning the generations. My daughter who is out of college now, once wrote a scholarly paper about the Monkees and even now she and her bf not only love the music but enjoy watch ing the old Monkees TV shows on DVD.

    Even Karen Carpenter's voice has become so universally acknowledged for it's beauty that it offsets the fact that some of their hits were innocuous. Many of their songs were written by our greatest popular songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Gerry Goffin & Carol King, they even covered some of the hipper songs of the time written by Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie.

    I've loved Karen Carpenter's voice from the first moment I heard "Close to You" on my car radio at age 16. For my part, I got over the guilty aspect of enjoying this music some years ago. Beyond all the obvious tragic aspects of a person dying so young is the immeasurable loss to the world of the work that she would have done and the songs that she would have sung during the rest of her career had it not been cut short. Thanks for this topic, I will consider it a challenge to write and post my own list. You go Charlie!

  2. Damn! You've beaten me to it! I had just finished a draft post of my own 'GP' part1 when I had a look at this post and lo and behold you have also chosen Karen Carpenter!

    Oh Well, I'll probably post mine anyway but what can I say - I agree - but in a slightly different way.

  3. When I was growing up I hated the Carpenters. They were all over the radio to the point of oversaturation and their music put me to sleep.

    Today, I have a different view. Karen Carpenter is like the female James Taylor: a warm, unforced, comforting voice that reminds me of a simpler, more carefree period of my life.

    Also, it's upon closer listening that I realized what a superb arranger Richard Carpenter was. Those songs got a real lift from his precise arrangements and those backing harmonies were often Beach Boys good.

    I don't know if the Carpenters are a guilty pleasure or not. I still can't listen to them all day, but there's unquestionably a lot of virtue in their music that makes them stand out from your run-of-the-mill Muzak.


  4. In my judgment, Karen Carpenter was one of the great voices of her time. With all respect to Charlie, enjoying her music is like enjoying fine wine, it is a sign of sophistication and should not be considered a guilty pleasure.

    As mentioned in the article, her drumming abilities were praised; but what is significant to me is that popular singers who are also musicians are often the best singers. Sammy Davis Junior comes to mind. Dinah Washington, a jazz and blues great and a personal favorite, had musical training as well. I am sure there are others. Their styles are different but their singing, like Karen Carpenter, is notable for its understated rhythm, subtlety and musical nuance.

    Karen Carpenter didn't get the props she deserved during her lifetime because she wasn't considered "hip" or "cool" by the wanna-be-cool kids who bought records and dominated the music-buying public at that time. However the stuff and nonsense about image and lifestyle fades over time, but the music and voice remain, at least in recordings.

    It needs to be added here that usually the reputation that a rock or pop performer has as cool or hip is largely the function of the ability of a publicist or the performer herself to fool a gullible media and public. Rarely does the image a performer project in public have anything to do with who they are in real life.

    Listening today, the music of Karen Carpenter sounds fantastic. Her songs seem very emotional and moving, though her style is elegant and restrained. In some ways, she reminds me of a seventies pop equivalent of jazz great Billie Holiday, carrying waves of emotion on simple notes and cord changes, without having to over-dramatize the lyric as so many rock and pop singers do.

    I agree with some criticism that Karen Carpenter sometimes sang inferior material and, if poorly produced, could sound bland at times. However, I will defend her by saying there are few if any pop singers who sing consistently good material. Record companies want hits. Musicians want to put food on the table. At some point, all popular singers succumb to the demand to produce what is perceived to be in demand at the moment and what fits their image. If you want a female singer who sings consistently good material, you will have to listen to someone like Ella Fitzgerald who usually stuck with America's greatest songwriters like Johnny Mercer and Cole porter. And even Ella had to sing some pretty cheesy novelty tunes early in her career.

    To understand Karen Carpenter's beauty and subtle power, I recommend her rendition of the jazz standard Little Girl Blue, a Rodgers and Hart composition. Especially moving to me as I grow older is a tune she sang called Leave Yesterday Behind.

    Thanks Charlie for posting this article.


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