Yesterday on my way to spin class I had the radio on in the car again, and, lo and behold, the sentimental song that came on was “Close to You” sung by the Carpenters. I had to laugh because this song makes “Operator” sound completely unsentimental. The gritty scenario of the guy being dumped seems so very real next to the silly lyrics of “Close to You,” with its fantasy of a “dream come true” boy that is followed everywhere by singing birds and “all the girls in town.” Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice, but “Close to You” must be one of the worst songs ever recorded. Nonetheless, it made it to Number One on the Top Forty list in 1970, where it remained for four weeks, and it also won a Grammy.
For me this song also brought up the sinister side of over-happiness. It brings back the 1970s of The Stepford Wives, a book and movie in which men’s desire was to control and render idiotically pleasant the women in their lives through nefarious means. Even though the movie was re-made in 2004, the 1975 version was the one that emerged out of a time when women were struggling to create choices for themselves. If you think that all is well in 2011, then I refer you to the Stepford Wives organization, but at least it’s now easy to see those women as the fakey freaks they are.
On the other hand, Karen Carpenter came of age at a time when gender limitations were the norm, and these sexist norms were just being broken down. I would say that she suffered for them, died for them, even. Karen Carpenter started off as a terrific drummer, but was forced into becoming merely a vocalist. Her brother controlled their careers and chose the music they would perform, and she was forced into an unwise marriage by her mother, who forbade her to call it off at the last minute. Of course, the anorexia that killed Karen Carpenter was a complex disease including many factors. But if you have any doubt about the destructive nature of cotton-candy fake happiness instead of deeper fulfillment based on a more complex vision, take a look at these two videos: one a medley of KC playing the drums early in her career and the other of KC after the drums had been stripped from her, propped up in clothing designed to disguise her thinness and singing “Close to You” like an automaton. The songs may not make you cry, but if the comparison between the sassy early Karen and the re-packaged one doesn’t at least make you cringe, then you’re ice.
There’s a hint here, of course, about what sentimental means: there may be an element of fakery. It’s a partial definition–that’s not the only quality involved, and it may not always be involved–but the sentimental sometimes evokes our skepticism.
P.S. Please see the comments for more accurate information about the dates of the linked videos.