Sometimes it’s not about the quality of the music. Sometimes it’s about the context. And the power of the voice.
Before dying tragically in 1983, a month shy of her 33rd birthday, Karen Carpenter was part of a duo, The Carpenters, that achieved success in the 1970’s. Karen and her brother Richard sang rather cloying love songs. But syrupy as they were, their songs happened to be popular when, in my early teens, I began going to dancing parties. And Karen’s voice was unique. And magnificent.
Whenever Karen’s voice came on at a party it meant: slow dance. So it was time to quickly find the girl you wanted to hold close, and take her out on the dance floor. My first experiences holding a girl close with Karen Carpenter’s voice in the background were never to be forgotten. Little did Karen know that she would provide the sweet soundtrack to unforgettable experiences, countless fantasies and wonderful memories.
I lived in Colombia at the time, but traveled to the U.S. often on family vacations. To me, the United States was nothing short of paradise, and I knew that somehow, someday I would live there (happily it only took a few years). In addition to being my de facto slow dance background, for some reason Karen Carpenter’s voice became the visceral representation of the United States. I’m not sure exactly why it was her specific voice that became that, since I listened to all sorts of U.S. music during those years in Colombia, but it did. Damn the radio network, to me, hers was the Voice of America. As far as I was concerned, if the Statue of Liberty would suddenly burst into song, she would sound like Karen Carpenter.
So, Karen, wherever you are, you and your brother’s songs were sappy. But that didn’t matter to the 12 year-old me. And it doesn’t matter to the 52 year-old me either. When I was feeling some pretty special things at 12, you were right there with me. To this day your voice uniquely evokes those feelings. And no one can ever take that away from you.
If I had been born in 1951, perhaps it would have been Judy Craig. Or Leslie Gore. If I had been born in 1971, maybe it would have been Bonnie Tyler, or Irene Cara. But I was born in 1961. So it was you, Karen Carpenter. And still is. Forever you.