Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Too Polite and Too White

                In a period when our economy and politics teeter on the brink of disaster, the recently announced selection of new entrants to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may seem a trivial matter.  But the persistent and perverse exclusion of the most popular American recording group of the 1970’s from consideration for that honor actually speaks volumes about the dubious state of American culture.

             That group was the hyper-talented brother-sister duo known as the Carpenters.  Richard Carpenter was a piano and keyboard prodigy who possessed an extraordinary talent for musical composition and arrangement.  Karen was the lead vocalist, and her warm and mellifluous voice has come to be recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest pop contraltos.  She was also the first and foremost female drummer to achieve prominence in the known music world.

            Starting with two enduring classics in 1970 – “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” – the Carpenters’ unique sound of multi-layered harmonies achieved stunning worldwide popularity despite its deviation from the era’s prevailing ethos of hard and acid rock.  During the decade of the 70’s, they topped all American recording artists as hit-makers on the Billboard Hot 100, exceeded only by a trio of legendary non-Americans:  Elton John, Paul McCartney, and the Beegees.  During their prime years of 1970-75, moreover, their recording popularity was surpassed by no artist or group in the world.  They sold-out to packed arenas on four continents, ranging from London’s Royal Albert Hall to Tokyo’s Budokan.   


                                       Richard and Karen Carpenter between sets in the TV studio

            But the Carpenters’ recording success in America sharply diminished after 1975 for several disturbing reasons.  Their fluid, melodic sound, which smacked of romantic innocence, was sharply out of touch with the raunchy and raucous tenor of the times.  Even worse, they were polite, clean-cut, and modest, and they lacked any “attitude” other than forthright friendliness.  The critics and cultural cognoscenti pounced ruthlessly on these glaring deviations, and were even more appalled when the Carpenters gracefully performed for President Nixon at a White House state dinner just as Watergate was gaining momentum.  The earthy singer Bette Midler, who enjoyed savaging the prim and ladylike Karen in her satiric routines, even taunted her for being too “white.”

            The stinging criticism, coupled with a grueling touring schedule, eventually took an emotional and physical toll, especially on Karen.  Puzzled and frustrated, she sought refuge in an obsessive quest for perfection in performance and appearance.  Equating extreme slenderness with beauty, she descended into severe anorexia, which gradually diminished the Carpenters’ capacity to perform and eventually led to her stunning death in 1983 at the age of 32.

            The curiously divergent treatment of the Carpenters in the U.S. and abroad, starting around 1975 and especially after Karen’s death, is highly revealing. It helps explain the obstinate exclusion of the Carpenters from America’s R&R Hall of Fame, even while they are still revered internationally as legends by millions in diverse foreign countries.

            In the U.S., the critics’ relentless mockery of the duo for the allegedly bland and “vanilla” qualities of their music and their personalities gradually assumed the status of an accepted canard.  It is well documented that even fans who loved the Carpenters were often ashamed to admit it for fear of being deemed “uncool.”  Eventually, the Carpenters’ status on the American music scene assumed an eerie resemblance to that of disfavored officials who were declared “nonpersons,” and then disappeared, in the former Soviet Union.  It reached the ridiculous point that even many radio stations that feature “oldies” from the 70’s studiously refrained from playing the most popular and best-selling American recording group of that very era.

            But fortunately the fads and prejudices that have suppressed  the Carpenters’ gorgeous music at home have somehow been “lost in translation” abroad. 

For example, while their superb album “Horizon” stalled at no. 13 on the U.S. charts in 1975, it reached No. 1 in both the UK and Japan.  After Karen’s death, moreover, the Carpenters’ recordings achieved stunning levels of popularity not only in those top two foreign markets, but especially throughout East Asia and, most remarkably, in the People’s Republic of China.  In 1990, a Carpenters compilation album held the No. 1 spot on the British charts for nine weeks and hit 5-times Platinum in sales.  In 1995, Carpenters songs formed the centerpiece of a hit Japanese television series, Miseinen, stimulating the release of a best-selling Carpenters retrospective album that became the most successful foreign album in Japan ever, until surpassed by Mariah Carey.  As recently as 2009, another Carpenters’ album (“40/40”) again topped the Japanese charts.  And it was only several months ago that the Carpenters were finally supplanted (by a Korean K-pop group) as the all-time leading foreign singles recording group in Japan.

Meanwhile, when China gradually opened the door to foreign music following the death of Chairman Mao, the universal appeal of Karen’s warmly engaging voice crossed all cultural barriers and the Carpenters’ recordings (often bootlegged) became the most popular in China, and remained so for decades.   The Internet abounds with stories relating the ubiquity of Carpenters music, especially the perennially popular “Yesterday Once More,” in Chinese restaurants, karaoke bars, hotel lounges, and CD shops.  So great is the Carpenters' continued popularity in China that even an imitative tribute group (strategically dubbed the Karpenters) has been able to draw packed audiences to their concerts in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.  Reporting on the remarkable success of that tribute group's shows in China, one Chinese reporter observed:  "If Lady Gaga is the new favorite this season in China, the Carpenters must be the the all-time favorites and someone, somewhere in the country is always singing along with the Carpenters."  Hu Bei, Back on Stage Live and Close to You, Global Times (Oct. 9, 2010).

                 The friendly young faces of the Carpenters when they first rose to stardom         
             All of this is lost on the philistine gatekeepers of the R&R Hall of Fame.  While grating rap groups like Public Enemy are eagerly welcomed with slavish adulation, the duo whose lush romantic harmonies have mesmerized listeners from Downey, California, to London, Tokyo, and Shanghai for over 40 years is studiously ignored and excluded.   The very musical and personal qualities that endeared the Carpenters to American audiences in the 1970’s, and to British and East Asian listeners for decades later, have effectively rendered them persona non grata to the politically correct cognoscenti who decide what is musically acceptable in America today .  The only thing to be said for this sad state of affairs is that it pretty accurately reflects the distorted values that have come to govern much of our contemporary culture.


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