In the '60s and '70s, America's music scene was marked by raucous excess, reflected in the tragic overdoses of young superstars such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. At the same time, the uplifting harmonies and sunny lyrics that propelled Karen Carpenter and her brother, Richard, to international fame belied a different sort of tragedy—the underconsumption that led to Karen's death at age thirty-two from the effects of an eating disorder.
In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Karen Tongson (whose Filipino musician parents named her after the pop icon) interweaves the story of the singer’s rise to fame with her own trans-Pacific journey between the Philippines—where imitations of American pop styles flourished—and Karen Carpenter’s home ground of Southern California. Tongson reveals why the Carpenters' chart-topping, seemingly whitewashed musical fantasies of "normal love" can now have profound significance for her—as well as for other people of color, LGBT+ communities, and anyone outside the mainstream culture usually associated with Karen Carpenter’s legacy. This hybrid of memoir and biography excavates the destructive perfectionism at the root of the Carpenters’ sound, while finding the beauty in the singer's all too brief life.
Karen Tongson is an associate professor of English, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is the 2019 recipient of the Lambda Literary Jeanne Córdova Award for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction; the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries; and the co-editor of the Postmillennial Pop book series at NYU Press. Her cultural commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, among others. Previously a panelist on MaximumFun.org's “Pop Rocket” podcast, she now cohosts the podcast “Waiting to X-hale.” Visit her website at www.karentongson.org.
[Tongson] packs nostalgic affection and astute critical thinking about Karen Carpenter, her namesake, into this slim volume.
~Los Angeles Times
Why Karen Carpenter Matters is about the kind of chart-topping suburban pop that lies at the core of white capitalist mythology—sunny and sentimental, meticulously calibrated for Nixon-era FM radio. But the book centers those at the margins of American society, revealing how the Carpenters’ music resonated with immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and people of color who craved the idyllic normalcy that the siblings embodied...In this exploration of her namesake’s legacy, [Tongson] deftly weaves memoir, history, and cultural criticism to highlight the dynamic relationship between artists and listeners—all the while avoiding the militant 'yasss girl' identity politics that have come to define modern fandom.
~Pitchfork, "Best Music Books of 2019"
Engrossing…An enthusiastic and persuasive Carpenters fan, Tongson is also a stellar critic with extensive knowledge of music and songcraft, here displayed with gusto in enthralling close reads…the music writing is superb—jaunty, eloquent, and illuminating.
Stunning…even if you're a fan of the Carpenters…I guarantee that you will explore new angles on the Carpenters with Why Karen Carpenter Matters.
~Dana Stevens, Slate Culture Gabfest
Tongson writes the book as part personal memoir part biography, weaving a story that reveals the intent and effects of the late musician's short life.
In owning and celebrating her own Carpenters fandom—as a queer Filipino-American woman—Tongson opens up new room for nuance on both the production and reception sides of popular music.
An offbeat, affectionate and provocative meditation about the many 'afterlives' of Karen Carpenter.
~Please Kill Me
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…[a] unique take on Carpenter's importance that illuminates the beautifully transcendent connection that an audience can have with an artist.
Provocative but affectionate.
~The Sunday Republican
There is much to ponder in this engaging volume…For those seeking an intriguing meditation on the complexities of culture and the deep impact and unifying influence of music and its performers.
There’s nostalgia and empathy you feel [in Why Karen Carpenter Matters] and you can’t help but play some of the Carpenters’ greatest hits in the background.
Tongson is an excellent biographer and an eye-opening music critic.
[Tongson] provides a tightly crafted narrative that's a respectful, reverential, and realistic representation of the [The Carpenter's] place in musical history…In what proves to be the driving thesis of the book, Tongson lets Karen be Karen.
~Bearded Gentlemen Music
Tongson weaves Carpenter's own—sometimes reluctant—rise to stardom with her own journey from the Philippines to Southern California, probing Carpenter's enduring legacy in the Philippines and in the US, while offering a brilliant reflection on the meaning of the Carpenters' music for her and other people of color, LGBT+ communities, and others outside the mainstream culture.
In Tongson's pressing book, Karen does not belong to Richard or her parents or white middle-class suburbia, but to Filipino and queer bodies giving new life to Karen's voice. Tongson's contribution offers a way forward for personal writing in music criticism, asking who music belongs to and suggesting that certain appropriations can be quite liberative.
Tongson explores some unexpected avenues of the Carpenters' story, showing through her personal experience how Karen and Richard can speak to a multicultural and queer audience…It is a powerful metaphor about the need to be honest about who you truly are.
Highminded without feeling academic, Why Karen Carpenter Matters is filled with sentences that have a music of their own…Tongson's take on a misunderstood artist will resonate with readers who have never even heard of Karen Carpenter.
[A] strikingly inventive book…provocative in all the best ways…With [Why Karen Carpenter Matters], Tongson reminds us of how thrilling it can be to recontextualize a cultural actor who is so familiar to us that it has become hard to see (or, in this case, hear) her in ways that transcend cliché.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters casts a renewed light on how to understand celebrities and the enduring prominence and relevance of their artistic legacies beyond Euro-American contexts...Interweaving memoir with social history, musical analysis, and queer and cultural theory, this revelatory read meditates on the allure of Carpenter and her beguiling lyrics within Tongson’s own private life as a middle-class, queer, and immigrant Filipino in the US...The human will to affirm creativity, agency, and connectedness is the insight that Why Karen Carpenter Matters ultimately keys its readers into, now and once again.
This is a formidable, deeply personal, yet accessible work of cultural criticism that puts a famous woman in a new perspective, contextualises the culture and industry that helped construct her, and complicates normative assumptions about who inherits and extends her legacy. Listen closely.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters offers a rich history of Karen Carpenter's life and legacy...Tongson's project productively queers the history of Karen Carpenter...Through Tongson's vivid detail and strong narratives throughout the book, I closed the back cover feeling close to both her and Karen Carpenter. I saw my own narrative of queerness and gender performance reflected in Carpenter's life.
~QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking
Karen Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters dives into the lived complexities of fundamental queer concepts such as 'disidentification' and 'cruel optimism' by illuminating from within the queer alliance between the author and her namesake, Karen Carpenter. In addition to teaching the reader about Carpenters’ and Filipino culture and history, Tongson serves up a number of astute observations about fantasy, projection, longing, normalcy, and aberrance.
A tale of two Karens, Why Karen Carpenter Matters is a story of displacement in which Karen Tongson brilliantly reveals how those of us who live outside the narrow confines of white, cisgender, capitalist America found a home—and a voice—in the aural landscape of a seemingly quintessential white-bread, suburban American pop star—Karen Carpenter.
~Mx Justin Vivian Bond, author of Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels
An unforgettable medley that’s part memoir, part pop culture and music criticism, part experimental narrative, and part biography of—and homage to—the legendary singer. I’m putting it on my altar of Carpenters memorabilia.
~R. Zamora Linmark, author of Rolling the R's and The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart
This is a text to be admired; it is intricate, ambitious and persuasive. Tongson revels in the complexity of her subject, showing how popular music artists nurture their fans to transcend cultural and political divides. It is a humbling experience to be granted access to the dialogue Tongson initiates with Karen, and it is one that reaches beyond the personal to reflect upon the centrality of popular music artists in the formation of individual and collective identities.
~Popular Music History
[Why Karen Carpenter Matters] expands on the sphere of Carpenter’s influence, centering the queer and other marginalized people who found truth in her work. It’s a touching detail in this memoir-biography hybrid that the author was named after the singer.
~Book Riot, "10 Terrific Nonfiction Books About Music"
1. Whiteness and Promises 2. For All We Know 3. Long Beach State of Mind 4. Goodbye to Love 5. Queer Horizon 6. Made in America: Karen Carpenters of the Philippines 7. Now
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