Monday, January 7, 2013

Opening Splash: East Asia and the Carpenters

Opening Splash

             The title “Splashing Rocks” derives from a song by my favorite group, the Carpenters, and their unforgettable lead singer, Karen Carpenter.  The song was “Maybe It’s You” (R. Carpenter and J. Bettis), which was on their first hit album “Close to You,” and the lines in question are:

                         Couldn’t we stay, or must we go?
                        Couldn’t we stay and watch the splashing rocks we throw?

 The lines are especially poignant when one recalls that the angelic young lady who sung them died so early, at only 32 years old.  Sadly, she could not “stay” on this earth any longer, and she had “to go” so soon, due to the life-emaciating effects of anorexia nervosa.  But the incomparable music left behind by Karen and her brother Richard will provide enjoyment and edification as long as it can be heard.  It also provides considerable inspiration for this blog.

             I hope that some of these splashing posts will create brain ripples that some readers may find informative, appealing, or thought-provoking.  They will generally focus upon the writer’s eclectic areas of interest:  culture, policy and politics, law, and themes and developments related to East Asia, especially Japan and China.  Ensuing posts will show the linkage between these seemingly disparate subjects.

                                      Who Throws the Splashing Rocks?

                                                Smith During H.S. Basketball Days

             Splashing Rocks (hereafter “SR” for short) is the blog of G.C. Smith, whose motley history includes the following distinctions or infamies, depending upon one’s perspective:  High school basketball ace in the Philadelphia city leagues, circa 1962-63; Corporal and Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1964-68, where he received  the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and Navy Unit Commendation medal; steelworker in Coatesville, Pa.; B.A.(magna cum laude) from Penn State, and J.D. from Duke Law School, where he was Articles Editor of the Duke Law Journal; and a wildly varied legal career, where he litigated for both a prominent D.C./NYC law firm and a conservative public interest legal foundation, appeared in numerous TV and radio shows in debates with liberal adversaries, served as Counsel  to a Republican Senator and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and finally practiced constitutional law while serving as Senior Counsel at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.  In his more activist years, he published many columns in newspapers and articles/chapters in journals and books, mostly on law and political issues.

                    Holding Boxing Smoker Trophy with Platoon 297 grads, Parris Island, 1965
              In view of his profound incompatibility with the policies and politics of the incoming Obama Administration, Smith retired from the Department of Justice in 2008.  He is now primarily preoccupied with a relentless physical fitness program, bicycling, hiking, bird-viewing at the seashore and wetland areas (not  “bird watching”), various activities in Virginia Republican politics, absorbing the Nineteenth Century literary classics, traveling America with his wonderful wife, and lamenting the decline of Western Civilization.

                                   First Post:  East Asia and the Carpenters

             Some may find SR inordinately fond of the Carpenters (and similar cultural exemplars to be discussed in later posts), but there is good cause.  In the depraved and distorted culture that prevails in much of today’s America, sane and civilized persons need some form of cultural refuge.  In the musical world, few vocalists can equal the mellifluous, soothing, and intimate delivery of the legendary Miss Carpenter, and few groups provide a more refreshing and purifying escape from the raucous cacophony of contemporary rock and rap than the Carpenters.  Moreover, Karen is a refreshing and beautiful symbol of class, decency, modesty, and diligence – a shining image of excellence and innocence to turn to in dark times.  Judging from the sustained popularity of Carpenters videos on YouTube, SR is not alone in this admiration.

             But like the proverbial prophet who is not recognized in his own country, the Carpenters’ music has enjoyed far more enduring popularity abroad than in the United States. 

           Although the Carpenters were  indisputably the best-selling American musical group in their heyday of 1970-75, their popularity in the U.S. tailed off considerably thereafter (although they continued to top the Billboard Easy Listening, or Adult Contemporary, chart for several years more).  This decline was attributable both to mean-spirited critical attacks on their clean-cut suburban  image and style – the self-appointed cognoscenti considered them "too polite and too white" – as well as Karen’s debilitating anorexic condition.  It is highly probable, moreover, that the nasty critical attacks helped exacerbate Karen’s descent into anorexia.  Her response to unfair criticism was the pursuit of perfection, in both performance and appearance, and she perversely equated extreme slenderness with optimal good looks.

 But while the Carpenters popularity declined at home, it prospered in the two leading foreign markets, the UK and Japan.  Their remarkably beautiful 1975 album, Horizon, for example, reached No. 1 in both of those countries, while it stalled at only No. 13 in the U.S.  Even more telling has been the Carpenter’s persistent extreme popularity in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia (especially China) following Karen’s death in 1983.

Carpenters music had already established a strong foothold in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, and (oddly) Malaysia, in the early 70’s, with numerous chart-topping hits in each of those markets.  In 1974, the Carpenters’ highly anticipated arrival at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for their sold-out Japan concert tour was greeted by a mob scene of fans, reporters, and cameramen reminiscent of the Beatles’ arrival scenes in the U.S.  

                                    Carpenters in their kimonos, Tokyo, 1974

 But it was in 1995 that the Carpenters’ sales in Japan reached extraordinary levels.  After several Carpenters songs were used as the musical centerpiece of a hit television series about Japanese teenagers (Miseinen), they released a compilation album called 22 Hits of the Carpenters (called Seishun no Kagayaki in Japan).  It became the largest-selling foreign-artist album in Japanese history, until supplanted several years later by Mariah Carey.  As recently as 2009, another Carpenters retro album (40/40) reached No. 3 on Japan’s overall charts, and No. 1 on the foreign albums chart.  The Carpenters also reigned as the all-time top-selling foreign singles artists in Japan – followed by the Bee Gees, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beatles -- until supplanted in July 2012 by the South Korean K-pop group, Tohoshinki.  Ever since Karen Carpenter posed prettily in a gift kimono for the Japanese photographers in 1974, and then completely charmed audiences at the Budokan by singing portions of the hit record Sing in flawless Japanese with a chorus of cherubic little Japanese girls, the Carpenters have maintained a very special popularity in Japan that endures to this day.

         Perhaps even more remarkable has been the Carpenters’ extreme popularity in, of all places, the People’s Republic of China.  Towards the end of the 1970’s, the xenophobia of Mao’s Cultural Revolution had been supplanted by more pragmatic policies, and a slight crack was left open in the Great Wall for the entry of the less abrasive forms of Western music.  A Newsweek article published in 1998 related a Chinese journalist named Yu Lei’s explanation of the Carpenters prominent early role in this liberating development.  After explaining how one of his teachers had recorded an American song off the shortwave radio and then surreptitiously played it for his students, the story continued:

 But what struck Yu the most was the sweetness of the melody,
             the purity of the singer’s voice.  The singer was Karen Carpenter,
            who shortly became one of the first Western performers 
            sanctioned in China.  Years later, . . . Yu can still hear the sweet 
            strains of revolution.  Karen Carpenter, he declares, “was the 
            beginning of the opening of China.”

Leland and Esaki-Smith, The Rebirth of Shanghai, Newsweek (1998).

            As evidenced by countless Internet stories and blogs, the Carpenters’ (and especially Karen’s) popularity in China has remained astonishingly strong, from the infancy of China’s cultural awakening to the present.  In particular, their 1973 hit Yesterday Once More has acquired iconic popularity in China, and is played and heard everywhere from karaoke bars to hotel lounges to school recitals.  Even writers who are personally skeptical about the Carpenters acknowledge this special fondness.  As once such blogger declared in 2009:  “If there is something about mainland China which I never expected before, and absolutely amazes me now, it is the connection the citizens have with the music of the Carpenters. . . .  [I] encounter evidence almost every day that mainland Chinese have a special place in their minds and in their hearts for Richard and Karen Carpenter.”  A.E. Perkins, China and the Carpenters, Internet Blog (Oct. 15, 2009). 

Another western skeptic was so astonished by the Carpenters’ widespread popularity in China that he asked Kaiser Kuo, a hip Chinese-American musician and reporter with special expertise on the Chinese music scene, for his insights on this inexplicable phenomenom.  Rather than endorse the skeptic’s scorn for the Carpenters’ music, Mr. Kuo confirmed that not only did the Carpenters continue to exceed even the Beatles in general popularity in China, but that even Kuo’s hip friends who like heavy metal and hip-hop also love and appreciate the Carpenters “and can’t imagine that they’re a sort of a joke to most young Westerners.”  Kuo added that “people in China uniformly love Karen’s deep, sultry voice.”   Justin Mitchell, Every sha-la-la-la Still Grinds, Weekend Standard (China’s Business Newspaper), Nov. 6-7, 2004.

 The Carpenters’ appeal in China has remained so powerful that a British-based tribute act (subtly named the Karpenters) that earnestly mimics the duo’s sound and appearance were able to draw packed audiences at high ticket prices to their shows in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing in 2009 and 2010.  According to an Internet report, this Carpenters Tribute act drew larger crowds than even the late U.S. super-diva Whitney Houston when she appeared at the same venue in Hong Kong.  Tribute Act are big Stars in China, Internet report (March 1, 2010).

Although more difficult to document, it appears that the Carpenters’ intense and enduring popularity extends as well to other countries in East Asia, such as Thailand and the Philippines.  In 2002, for example, five popular Thai divas released a tribute album called simply “We Love Carpenters.”  In the Philippines, pop star Claire de la Fuente received a notable career boost when she was dubbed “the Karen Carpenter of the Philippines.”

So where does all this tend?  What explains the sustained popularity of a sibling musical duo from Downey, California, in countries half the world away with cultures that could hardly be more alien to that of Southern California’s in the 1970’s?  Many factors are involved – for one thing, the Japanese music market has long had a particular predilection for winsome young female singers in the same mold as Karen Carpenter in her youthful prime – but one thing seems critical:  it is the universal and timeless appeal of simply beautiful songs and melodies, gracefully and sincerely rendered by a mellifluous, pitch-perfect voice.  The prism of fads, cultural prejudice, and political correctness that distorts the contemporary American music market is “lost in translation” in these East Asian countries.  They hear only the sound of beautiful and engaging music, and are spared the grating intercession of the feckless critics and cultural arbiters who have relegated the Carpenters and other musical treasures of the same genre to relative oblivion on the current American music scene.
Next up (before moving on to less aesthetic topics):  the Splasher's views on the continued unjust omission of the Carpenters from the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the deeper meanings behind that gross cultural miscarriage.


  1. Hi G.C., just writing to confirm your insightful comments about the popularity of The Carpenters in East Asia.

    The other day I was in a cab here in Hong Kong where I’ve been living for the last 22 years), when the driver put on The Carpenter’s Yesterday Once More. He could see me in the back mouthing the words and after the song finished he repeated it, only at a louder volume. We both nodded our heads along to the music, basking in Karen Carpenter’s lovely voice.

    I don’t know what it is about The Carpenters that resonates so well with Asian people, but from Hong Kong to Bangkok and so many points in between their music continues to live on.

    On a side note, I was among those so-called cognoscenti when The Carpenters were first popular although I did consider them to be a “guilty pleasure”. I’ve matured considerably in my outlook since then and no longer feel the guilt – just the pleasure.

  2. Thanks, Des. It's interesting, your cab experience in HK mirrors many similar experiences in China and HK that I've seen reported on the Internet. And I've noted they've occurred in quite a variety of provinces in China,not just the big cities. I think the Carpeners persistent appeal in E. Asia -- it started in Japan -- goes to the fact that simply beautiful music crosses language and cultural barriers,plus the shear beauty of Karen's unique voice.

  3. Ticket to ride, one of my favorites, I even re wrote the lyrics as a tribute. Some day it'll be on you tube...................

  4. Interesting article. I knew the Carpenters were popular in Japan but I didn't know their influence in East Asia was that far. Amazing to say the least.