The Carpenters’ Morbid Undercurrent

I used to think myself unique for being a millennial and liking the Carpenters. It was like somehow having older right-wing parents (my father was almost too old to qualify as a Boomer, my mother just three years younger), and harboring the cultural references I was hip to as a result (South Pacific, The Brothers Four, Victor Borge, anyone?), was like MY version of being punk.

And so, among the peculiar selection of vinyl I grew up with that included progressive-but-not-openly-threatening folk music like PP & M and John Denver, was The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun.

Once I started doing karaoke seriously and on the regular in 2014, I soon found I was good at singing Carpenters’ songs. I even considered (far less seriously) forming a Carpenters cover band. Recently I found out through a local publication that a girl considerably younger than myself has beaten me to it, having prepared a “Carpenters’ Songbook” performance here in town. So, as is usually the case, I was not as unique as I’d thought.

Of late the Carpenters have seemed to crop up a lot in my chosen media. There’s the PBS documentary that has been airing during pledge drives in recent years, which I credit with my overdue appreciation of Karen as a drummer and Richard’s choice to potentially alienate their audience by allowing a rock guitar solo in “Goodbye to Love”. Then there was the appearance in my feed of a VICE article about the duo’s aspirational appeal to some queer people. As a result I got to re-examining my own relationship with them. An attempt to look up information on the made-for-TV movie I’d seen in the late 80s (which haunted me at the time but now would probably strike me as the typical sensational, reductive biopic) brought me across a biopic of a different color: Todd Haynes’ Superstar.

Being that I’ve stanned Velvet Goldmine since college, enjoyed Carol within the past year, and long admired Haynes’ out-of-box thinking even when it failed to touch me personally, I was immediately interested. Not to mention that, like most people, especially being the trash connoisseur that I am, I tend to be drawn in by the illicitness of things that I gather are controversial and hard to come by. I won’t attempt to fully review Superstar right here, as in my opinion Joel Blackledge’s 2017 review (https://vaguevisages.com/2017/07/21/musical-necropic-todd-haynes-superstar-karen-carpenter-story/) says everything about it that needs to be said with clarity and eloquence. But what I will mention is how the grainy, dim, hallucinatory claustrophobia of this Haynes debut, which, judging from reviews, came as a revelation to many – for me simply cut to the core of the vague impressions I’d had about the Carpenters since childhood.

I don’t know how commonly people remember nightmares that are more than 25 years old. But I once had a nightmare about the album cover pictured above. The camera of my dream panned over to that album cover, and it was distorted somehow. I don’t remember exactly how, but I’m left with an impression that it was somehow grayer, thinner, the faces masklike: spectres of death.

Of course my knowledge of Karen’s end, even if I was a little kid and obtained that knowledge from a tropey flick, colored my impression of their music. But I’ve got to think it’s more than that. It’s popular to write the music itself off as watery, inoffensive mediocrity – the lowest-common-denominator type of stuff crafted to appease the dominant paradigm – but as a fan of very dark music I always liked them un-ironically, and there must be a reason for that. Maybe I sensed the undercurrent all this time, in lyrics like “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down” – a pop-simple understatement which nevertheless states depression as a fact and offers no sort of feel-good reprieve, and in the intensely human, gnawing longing with which Karen sang otherwise average lines.

I’m going to end with the gorgeous serendipity of the fact that, as I typed that last paragraph, the internet radio station filling my headphones gave me this relevant beauty by San Fermin. I can say that, right here right now, in real time, is my first time ever hearing this song. It is quite possible that this sums up everything I am trying to say in this entry.

San Fermin – The Hunger

This hunger that I can’t describe
This hunger but I don’t know why
Another night, another try
I’m starving like I’m gonna die

I’m staring through an empty suit
Like why’d I wear these fucking shoes
I’m weaving through these endless nights
I don’t know why, I don’t know why

I don’t know why

And eventually I’ll fall for
Another disappointment
When did it get like this
When I was such a nice kid

Keep it to yourself tonight
And try to look alive
You’re a star, you’re a find
You’re a pretty little lie
So get your head on right
Imagine that it’s like
When you were younger
The hunger

So feed me all your Valentines
Your chocolates and your cheesy lines
Another winy oenophile
Well fill me in another time

I guess it’s fine

And eventually I’ll fall for
Another disappointment
When did it get like this
When I was such a nice kid

Keep it to yourself tonight
And try to look alive
You’re a star, you’re a find
You’re a pretty little lie
So get your head on right
Imagine that it’s like
When you were younger
The hunger

Always the lonely
Always the lonely ones
Always the lonely ones go
Always the lonely
Always the lonely ones
Always the lonely ones know


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