Boring and Horrifying Whiteness
By Tom Smucker
In 1973 Carpenters released Now & Then, one of the greatest pop music album explorations of whiteness in the last half century. Not so much because of the music – two hit singles, Sing and Yesterday Once More, packaged with a botched oldies medley and some arbitrary Hank Williams and Leon Russell – but because of the album cover. Part photograph/part painting, a hyper-realistic Southern California suburban street, no pedestrians, just a big red car driving by with the windows rolled up and the Carpenters inside. A portrait of rock stars in a Ferrari that also functions as a representation of Average Joe and Jane pulling into their driveway. Here it is: social isolation in community, the mobile domesticity of the inside of a car, and the secret consequence that Karen Carpenter’s once-in-a-generation voice sometimes suggests, sometimes obscures, and sometimes reveals: a complicated inner life as well.
Even without her death from anorexia – a disease of under-consumption, not a disease of excess, or over-consumption – like the aesthetically (and commercially) correct deaths of Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Elvis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, and in their way, all the assassinated rappers – the Carpenters were all about the relationship between control and subjectivity. Brother Richard’s production and orchestration were elaborate yet tasteful and precise – no Wagnerian Wall of Sound – this was Phil Spector filtered through Brian Wilson filtered through the Beatles filtered through Bacharach and David. Sister Karen’s singing was Pat Boone filtered through Mama Cass, filtered through . . . well, this is where Karen becomes unique. Her diction and phrasing were precise, but her vowels and her lower vocal range were enormous, the female equivalent of Brian and Carl Wilson’s expressive Beach Boys falsettos.
This was ‘70s music. It reworked, perhaps refined and contained, but did not reject the ‘60s. Its statement: maybe Phil Spector and Mama Cass went too far. Karen’s voice supplied the ambivalent maybe.
Control and precision – generally assigned as “white” values — and elaborate production that implies a kind of affluence, locate the Carpenters soft rock of the 1970s in the suburban world abstracted in the Now & Then album cover. Karen’s voice itself suggests a kind of affluence – it’s rich – but there’s a real drama in the struggle of that voice to come to terms with its own implications. Sometimes Richard’s production holds her voice in a context that allows the exploration of a vast, and in some ways, narcissistically indulgent well of loneliness. Sometimes the tepid country rock or reworked oldies or failed jazz smother that voice with the control of inappropriate expectations. Karen’s vocals glue together the failures and successes to make this music signify a world where people grapple with an inner life, even when they fail, a world that demands and frustrates subjectivity.
On the surface there’s nothing here that borrows from the masscult bohemia of rock, or from mainstream Romantic ideas about artists. On the surface the guiding principle is pleasant. It doesn’t appropriate the guilt or self-pity of country music, as much pop rock from Los Angeles did at the time. And there’s no apparent appropriation from black pop. This is white music from the suburbs, when the suburbs were white. It’s as comfortable and weird as a nice (maybe too-nice) suburban living room.
Although it is worth wondering what Karen Carpenter would have done in the current era of contemporary pop jazz vocalists like Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, and the current Rod Stewart, Carpenters music is music from the rock era. Soft rock is rock. Yesterday Once More recollects the music of the Brill Building and Jan and Dean, not the pre-rock pop of American Songbook standards, or the improvisational wit of vocal jazz..
A guilty pleasure? Low on prestige when it was first released, their music’s gotten easier and easier to appreciate with the passage of time. There’s the pure surface pleasure of Richard’s impeccable production and Karen’s voice. Then below the surface there’s the story of Karen’s struggle that can be re-imagined to fit the norms of rock (and feminism) – Karen as the victim of expectations and matching counterpoint to the story of Janis Joplin. Below that might lie the guilty pleasure of our longing for control. The guilty pleasure of identifying with music that sort of wants to but fails to break free. And below that – and here is where I would stake a claim for the validity of guilt while affirming the pleasure – the pleasures of a homogenized world that was white because it excluded people who weren’t.
Around the same time as Now & Then, in the early 1970s, Lawrence Welk was struggling to regain his position on television. Dropped in the spring of 1971 by ABC because his demographic skewed too old, Welk went on tour playing stadiums with his entourage to build momentum for what would become a successful return to nationwide TV via syndication, and then after dying, continued on PBS on videotape while pieces of his musical family, as it’s called, performed and continue to perform live in Branson, Missouri, middle America’s wholesome alternative to Las Vegas.
But in reality, his days as a cultural power were doomed by a shift in the world he inhabited, a shift that the music of the Carpenters examined and exemplified. Because Karen Carpenter sang as someone who no longer had a musical family, but drove alone with her brother in their car, like everybody else.
Welk was never a popular recording star, he was a popular live dance band leader in the upper Midwest, and then for about 10 years in Chicago, after which he moved on to Los Angeles, where he developed the most popular show on local television, and then advanced on to the national networks. He was never a great musician but he learned how to assemble and sustain an audience. Like the Carpenters, Welk’s music is considered very white, and it is also about control. But the control is social, not psychological. He was the musical embodiment of the great internal migration of white people out of the middle of the country in the middle of the last century who gathered in Los Angeles; he exemplified their ascendancy to power as a national cultural force, and their understanding of that ascendancy. The Carpenters were Welk’s children, so to speak, who grew up in the post-war, suburbanized world this migration helped create.
Under Welk’s accommodating baton the ethnicities, or maybe genres, were gathered in: there was the Irish Tenor, the accordion playing Polka guy, the tap dancing black guy, the Mexican singer, the Dixieland instrumentalist, the country singer – but there was no music from the rock era. Welk’s music was less white than the Carpenters’ – Welk called Nat King Cole his favorite singer and devoted a tribute show to him, and referenced Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong — but it was music about mainstream social cohesion. A white task for sure in a social structure where whites dominate. Hence the touches that were reassuring to his audience and appeared incomprehensible to those with a different idea about the function of music: the matching Day-Glo suit coats for the band, the identical, buttoned to the neck dresses when the ladies sang ensemble. This was an extended musical family, and Welk knew how to project that visually on TV.
Then there was the overly familiar repertoire with the simplified arrangements. Again, these were intentional signifiers of cohesion that appeared to outsiders as mistakes, or examples of lack of taste. While to insiders they were reassuring reminders of already familiar music, and in their own way a response to the problem of repetition in the age of mechanical reproduction, solved differently by bebop, disco, punk, and hip hop. The simplification aided the process of amalgamation, and acknowledged the song’s status as a memory.
And so to rock era music consumers, Welk appeared to have no inner life, and could and can feel incomprehensible, sleazy, hypocritical, zombie-like – in my experience more horrifying to rock fans than scaremongers like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, NWA . . . but that’s because his music wasn’t about an inner life. His music was about helping his audience define their social boundaries.
That didn’t mean Welk had no inner life, or couldn’t recognize good jazz; it just wasn’t what he was trying to achieve, or at the end of the day, decided was important. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography, Wunnerful, Wunnerful!. Welk is newly married, and trying, but not succeeding, to make it in Chicago.
“. . . . I didn’t want Fern to know how worried I was, so one night I decided to throw caution to the winds and take her out. “Come on,” I said. “Louis Armstrong is playing in town. Let’s get all dressed up and go hear him.”
“All right, she said, “Who’s he?”
That should have been enough to stop me right then. Instead, I explained to her very carefully just who he was, and then I got out enough money to pay for our tickets and we set out. I might as well have saved the cash. Fern was just mystified by the whole evening. Armstrong was playing in a smoky basement club with low ceilings and recessed lights. The room was filled, on this particular night anyway, with an enthusiastic crowd of eager Dixieland jazz lovers. I was in seventh heaven listening to his artistry on the trumpet and I could hardly sit still. “Isn’t this wonderful?” I shouted to Fern above the storm of applause at the end of one number. She just smiled, a little uncertainly, and shrugged her shoulders.
All at once I realized that what seemed like the greatest music to me was just a lot of noise to her. I realized also what kind of life I had put her into – one she would never have chosen for herself, but one she was determined to understand for my sake. More than ever I wanted to succeed so I could give her the things she really wanted. But toward the end of those dismal days in Chicago I could barely give her enough to eat. Finally I decided we’d better get back to Yankton. I talked it over with the boys.
“What do you think?” I asked. “We’ve always been able to earn a living there. I’m sure I can pick up a few dates with Tom Archer too.”
Leo nodded. “Yeah, I think so, too. We’re well-known around there. It should be a lot easier . . .”
If Welk has an analogous figure for the generations that came after him it might have to be the wedding and bar mitzvah d.j. who plays doo-wop, Frank Sinatra, Hava Nigella, the Tarantella, some Motown, the Village People, a mambo, some hip hop, and some Garth Brooks, with the exact combination depending on the audience. Yet there is not and never will be a “New Lawrence Welk”.
Because we expect music, even very white music, to describe or at least refer to an individual inner life. And that makes an all encompassing monoculture impossible. Every wedding and every bar mitzvah is a little different. People prefer the original artists expressing their original subjectivity. The DJ exhibits his expertise by his selection of original recordings. Even attempts to create a rock canon do not produce one artist who can play it all. That’s why it is very very hard to make Lawrence Welk a guilty pleasure, or a so-bad-it’s-good reverse hip reference point. If you flip the aesthetics inside out to find a hidden treasure there’s nothing on the inside. It doesn’t matter what the DJ is feeling.
Below a certain age, an attachment to Lawrence Welk usually rests on something like the phrase “I used to watch it with my Grandmother.” That’s not a guilty pleasure, that’s a suspension of aesthetics for valid reasons of sentiment. And what would the guilty pleasure be? A yearning for a monoculture, for greater social control? His musical family as the front line of the Christian Right? Or maybe cultural imposers like the Maoists of the Cultural Revolution? Or nostalgia for the post World War II consensus shattered by the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Rock and Roll?
In spite of Welk’s reputation as a strict moralist, he doesn’t work as a musical tool for post 9/11 macho psychic belt-tightening. He was a dance band leader who played Champagne Music. Dancing and booze – OK for Catholics, off-limits but intriguing for many Protestants in the Upper Midwest back then. In other words, when this guy was coming up he was in the business of selling fun.
And that was central to the idea of the in-migration to Los Angeles, even if the migration only happened in people’s living rooms when they watched TV – the idea of post-war fun. Growing up in this suburbanized world meant growing up in a society that was both more centralized and more autonomous and also more committed to the pursuit of pleasure than the world that was left behind.
Welk brought along the left behind worlds of Yankton and Omaha and Chicago so his audience could affirm all that while affirming their greater cohesion. The Carpenters and their fans grew up in a new world, the world of a new generation in Yankton and Omaha and Chicago as well.
With the Carpenters the issue of control went from the social to the personal, from maintaining the norms of the musical family, to a lonely inner battle, retrospectively intensified by Karen’s death from anorexia. Is this a white dynamic? Control and precision are white issues, when blacks are assigned subjectivity. Maybe that’s why Welk could only have one black guy on his show, and a tap dancer at that. More than one might overload the musical family with more subjectivity than could be controlled. But let’s not ignore the physical reality: the failures and retrenchments of the post Civil Rights era and the new segregation created by white flight. Southern California leading up to and after Watts.
And so what about Karen’s singing? Is there some way that in it’s reaching to understand itself it’s partaking in the long history of racial borrowing and racial masking in American music? The answer is almost yes, and we will never know. She died too young.
If there is any tragedy hidden in the music of Lawrence Welk, it’s that he couldn’t or wouldn’t expand his musical family fast enough to encompass the changing reality of Southern California, and so metaphorically at least, he had to flee with the great white inland migration to Branson, Missouri. Was that also a flight from the world that the Carpenters struggled to contain?
Delivered at EMP Pop Conference, Seattle, Washington 2008
The Carpenters: Forbidden Fruit
The Carpenters were one of those groups I thought I shouldn’t like but kept thinking sounded good when I heard them on the radio. Being the person I am, I both set up and felt compelled to break strictures against enjoying them, driven to taste the forbidden fruits of middle-class culture.
The posters for their Now and Then album on the subway walls enticed me, with the Matisse-like super-real album cover. Karen and Richard are frozen in a moment in time, driving an air-conditioned sports car down a Southern California suburban street. Nothing is happening but the moment is so perfect, so normal, that it’s luminous. Like those opening scenes in a monster movie that are so average you know something weird is about to happen.
And so I rehearsed how and where I would attempt my Carpenters’ record purchase. Trying to overcome my worst case of consumer stage fright since I first bought rubbers years ago. What would the man behind the counter say when I walked up with my Carpenters record? Would he yell out something embarrassing to his buddy at the other end of the store?
But A&M Records saved me. They put me on their freebies list just long enough to send me Now and Then in the mail. In a plain brown envelope. I didn’t know what it was when I opened it, honest. For all I knew, it could have been something good, like Phil Ochs. Or Herb Alpert. And once it was opened I had to take it home and play it, right?
What a record!
Karen Carpenter has a voice in the great tradition of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and other white middle-class women. Somehow expressive and full of allusion in its basic mournful/depressed inexpressiveness. Both presenting the surface of middle-class life and suggesting its deepest hidden feelings. Like the cover of Now and Then.
Karen’s is the ultimate for me. Both more bland (or smooth) and more resonant than any other. And, woven into Richard’s fabulous Beach Boys-Beatles-Bacharach inspired arrangements and productions, musically intelligent and a joy to listen to.
When I went to see them at the Westchester Premier Theatre last Monday I was both excited and apprehensive. I half expected a blinding suburban epiphany. But I also thought, because of their prowess in the studio, that they might be exceptionally lame as a live group.
I shouldn’t have worried. For all the Carpenters’ overdubbing and studio intelligence, Karen’s voice is still a natural marvel. As fantastic as her recordings from the moment she opened her mouth.
And although their live sound could never match the intricacies of their studio work, it was still polished and flawless. Karen, Richard, and the band flubbed less than five notes all night. The essence of “tight.”
But their live stage presence was nothing like what I expected. I guess I thought visually and physically they would be as tight and polished as their sound. Or at least some kind of ultimate suburban symbol. Like a singing Tricia Nixon maybe. But both Carpenters are angular and almost artless on stage. Looking normal the way you and I look normal. Just regular folks who are really into their music.
Unfortunately, tight live music runs the risk of not involving the audience, and for this reason I most enjoyed the “sloppier” oldies medley that closed the show. My friend Ray, who likes jazz more than me, was more impressed by Karen’s flawless run through a long Bacharach medley. And I’ll have to admit she looked most at home singing this stuff.
Their new album is supposed to be out in a month. In the meantime I highly recommend their greatest hits package — The Singles. Unlike most other compilations of this type it really flows and holds together on its own–aided by some slick additional studio work from Richard. Buying it in person once I already owned Now and Then was almost effortless, too, as it turned out.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice, 1974My
For a more recent, broader, deeper take on Karen Carpenter, check out Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongsen. My review from 1974 was included in the updated Yesterday Once More, The Carpenters Reader by Randy Schmidt.