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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

May 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 Manila—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

Karen Tongson
Los Angeles, California

Tongson is associate professor of English, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is also 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, the Washington Post, and other publications, and she is a panelist on's “Pop Rocket” podcast. Visit her website at


“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.”

“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

"Karen Tongson is a genius. Inspired by the queer significance of Karen Carpenter, this book is an intersectional conversation between Tongson as an artist and Tongson as an academic, both created and performed by the author."
JD  Samson

“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 & 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