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Why Karen Carpenter Matters

Why Karen Carpenter Matters

An exploration of Karen Carpenter's enduring ability to transcend cultural differences, bridging not only American suburbia and the author's native Philippines but also diverse communities and fan cultures worldwide.

Series: Music Matters

June 2019
Active (available)
152 pages | 5 x 7 |

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.

  • Preface
  • 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
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes

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's “Pop Rocket” podcast, she now cohosts the podcast “Waiting to X-hale.” Visit her website at


“[Tongson] packs nostalgic affection and astute critical thinking about Karen Carpenter, her namesake, into this slim volume.”
Los Angeles Times

“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.”
The Current

“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.”
Library Journal

“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.”
Asian Journal

“Tongson is an excellent biographer and an eye-opening music critic.”

“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. ”
Maggie Nelson

“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