Published Jul 08, 2019On the Carpenters' song "I Won't Last A Day Without You" — a typical soft-rock love ballad from the brother-sister duo — Karen Carpenter, in her exquisitely warm voice, sings, "It's nice to know that there's someone I can turn to who will always care. You're always there." For Karen Tongson, the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters, these words perfectly describe her heartfelt connection with Karen Carpenter.
In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Tongson draws from queer theory, music history and personal anecdotes to explore the importance of the singer and percussionist. This isn't an in-depth biography of Carpenter, nor does it get into the minutia of the Carpenters' career. Instead Tongson deftly connects her own stories with larger narratives about the Carpenters and Karen Carpenter, for an excellent part-memoir, part-examination of the singer and her legacy.
In less than 150 pages, Tongson recounts the Carpenters' rise to fame, the duo's dominance of '70s pop culture, and Carpenter's untimely death in 1983 as a result of anorexia nervosa. Carpenter is portrayed as a virtuosic drummer, first and foremost, and a reluctant lead singer with a spellbinding voice who was constrained by what others (her parents and her brother Richard especially) wanted.
Woven into Carpenter's story is Tongson's story. We follow Tongson, who was named after Carpenter, and her family as they migrate to Southern California from the Philippines in the 1980s. We read parts of a musical that Tongson wrote, based on Carpenter, and we learn about the continued popularity of the Carpenters in the Philippines. Growing up, Tongson, as a queer woman of colour, looked to Carpenter's songs as "conduct manuals for proper behaviours and acceptable passions." But she also feels kinship with Carpenter who, like her, struggled to conform to conventions.
In the chapter "Queer Horizon," Tongson speaks on behalf of Carpenter's queer fans and says, "what we have learned from Karen, what we share with Karen… is the experience of living, as anyone who's ever sought acceptance and love has, by trying desperately to get something right. That something will always remain, elusive even if we are good." It's a breathtaking moment in this unique take on Carpenter's importance that illuminates the beautifully transcendent connection that an audience can have with an artist. (University of Texas Press)