Karen Carpenter would have been sixty today. I don't have particularly strong feelings about this fact, though I do, inexplicably, have strong feelings about her music, especially the ten top five singles she and her brother Richard released between 1970 ("We've Only Just Begun," which went to number two) and 1974 (a chart-topping cover of "Please Mr. Postman"). I heard them the way everyone heard them, on the radio, all the time. I was very small, on account of being very young, and so much of the music I heard was chaotic, exciting, and challenging: the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, the Who. The Carpenters, for me, were always a kind of oasis from energy and significance: Karen Carpenter's vocals were indisputably pretty (you could even say beautiful), but they seemed scrubbed of any emotional content. In contrast with her drumming, which could be improvisational and idiosyncratic (check out "Another Song," from the 1970 LP Close to You, and then feel free to write your own comparison of the Carpenters and White Stripes), her vocals were pristine, crystalline, perfectly meaningless. They were a thing that could not be imperfected on account of not really being there. The best example of this is "Crescent Noon," also from Close to You. "Crescent Noon," which isn't a clever play on words so much as a nonsensical phrase that appears to be a typographical error, is a kind of folk song that Richard Carpenter and his songwriting partner/lyricist John Bettis created to express their sadness at the passage of the seasons. It's in a minor key, which helps to set the mood, and the lyrics are gloomy, if insistently rhymed:
Green September burned to October brown
Bare November led to December's frozen ground
The seasons stumble 'round
Our drifting lives are bound to a falling crescent noon
The next song, "Mr. Guder," could not be more different on its face -- it's a sarcastic kiss-off in which Richard Carpenter and John Bettis tweak a former boss for being a company man -- and yet Karen's vocals have the same blank face. I don't think I heard either of these songs in the mid-seventies, because they weren't hits. But even the hits, catchy as they were, never seemed lived in. (I admired the songcraft greatly, and believed for a while that the duo took their name not because it was their actual name but from the fact that they built songs rather than felt them.) This was the fault of -- or, depending on your perspective, should have been credited to -- Karen's vocals; they are not so much empty as they are full of hollowness, placid in unsettling ways. There is sadness, but is it because the songs contain sadness or because they sadden me with what they do not contain? This is not to deny their beauty so much as to try to explain it.
The Carpenters got huge, of course, and then as music shifted toward disco and late-seventies arena rock, they fell out of favor. One of the group's last solid hits was a cover of Klaatu's trance-inducing UFO anthem "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." Karen was a superstar, of course, and dated celebrities like Tony Danza and Steve Martin. The Michael Jackson hit "She's Out of My Life" was written by Tom Bahler about Carpenter after she broke up with him. Then, in the late seventies, the band took a hiatus when Richard dealt with a drug dependency to Quaaludes. During that time, Phil Ramone was going around town trying to keep female vocalists contemporary by pairing them with slick modern arrangements and handpicked chart-ready songs. He did it to Phoebe Snow on Rock Away, which came out in 1980, and he did it to Carpenter at right around the same time. The results, which were intended for a solo album, displeased A&M; Records chairman Herb Alpert, who paid a kill fee for the record. In 1996, it was finally released, and while it proved that Alpert's instincts were correct, it also proved that Carpenter's voice had lost none of its characterless character over the years. "My Body Keeps Changing My Mind," a bit of boudoir disco, is supposed to be seductive, and it is, if you like unoccupied spaces. Karen's cover of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" is equally emblematic of her gift, in that it doesn't sound regretful or passive-aggressive or foolish-fond. Rather, it doesn't sound anything. The duo reunited for another record, Made In America, after which Carpenter's anorexia accelerated rapidly and she died from heart failure in February 1983.