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Sentimental Update

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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.

4 responses »

  1. “Close to You” is one of those songs that is so unthinkably bad that it’s a cultural sin. Of COURSE the tune won a Grammy and ascended like a hawk into the top 40. That song hunts the airwaves, waiting for the weak listener who isn’t quick on the dial. That, and the horrors of James Taylor, and the even more ravenous pterodactyl of “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings (, which for the first fifteen seconds SOUNDS like a potentially interesting song, the piano joined by some light-industrial sounding percussion. That is a wily predator, there.

    Sentimentality has always been suspect, ever since it was invented in the Eighteenth century (once general life expectancy rose over, say, fifteen years old after the Middle Ages). The idea of isolating tender emotions for appreciation makes sentiment akin, in the way it functions, to pornography, which isolates sex from its lived context. “Sentimentality,” Wallace Stevens once wrote, “is a failure of feeling.” I think what he is getting at is that the expression of a tender feeling to signify a tender feeling means that the tender feeling has been either invented or distorted, since, if it is so tender, it cannot be expressed in any typical way that can be understood (or consumed by a listener, reader, or viewer) as tender. Laurence Sterne toys with this idea with wicked, perfectly sustained irony in his Sentimental Journey.

    I never knew Karen Carpenter was a drummer, which is perhaps one of the most costly aspects of the legacy of her as the vapid chanteuse she became. In the 1970s, I suppose drumming seemed unfeminine: wielding long, hard sticks, rhythmically, with an open-legged stance. But Karen Carpenter the drummer was an artist. Karen Carpenter the singer was merely a craftsperson.

    Now let me find the “Piña Colada Song” on my iTunes.

    • You have the “Piña Colada Song” on your iTunes? Hahahaha. That song is so hilarious, and perhaps it, too, gives a hint about the constitution of obnoxious sentimentality. I have always adored how that song’s story–the guy who places a personals ad behind his girlfriend’s back only to have her be the one who answers his ad–offers magic for the solution of relationship problems. It must be fate if the old girlfriend is the one that answers his ad. And because they’ve both been “bad” (that is, willing and ready to cheat), somehow they’re okay with each other, and we as the audience are expected to forgive them and wish them well. It all begs the question of why the narrator just didn’t go to his “lady” and say, “I’m a little bored. Why don’t we spice things up a bit?” But, no, that would be too simple, too grown-up, and too real. Instead, these are the kind of folks that nowadays star in reality TV shows and they don’t have a lick of sense. They rely on angels and miraculous chance to bring them together again. Certainly as fake as “Close to You.”

      And I like your points about sentimentality, though I am trying to take a kinder, gentler approach. You trace out the same literary p.o.v. about it that I was raised on and educated in, but there are shades and shadows of distinctions to be made. There are times when sentimentality works. Maybe that’s like saying that there is some genre fiction that works within or beyond the usual standards, but I think a lot of literature and music uses “the expression of a tender feeling to signify a tender feeling” and that it doesn’t always distort or invent it (or that distortion or invention isn’t always a failure). I have a lot more to muddle through in this regard, and I’m hoping my friend Anna the Victorianist will help me.

      I didn’t know either that Karen Carpenter was a drummer, and quite a good one. I also found out while reading up that she had been trying to launch a solo career but the label refused to release her solo album. She was struggling for control, as so many anorexics do. I feel as though she didn’t have a chance. There was a way in which the false image took over her whole life. I mean, the Carpenters were supposed to be so wholesome–no drinking, no drugs, etc.–but Karen was secretly addicted to laxatives, using thyroid medication to amp up her metabolism, and perhaps eventually using ipecac to make herself vomit. Richard was addicted to Quaaludes, and she may have used those as well. Would that she would have smoked pot and set herself free and used her demons to explore her creativity instead of just her brother’s.

      We should always know that when it’s too good to be true, it’s not true. But those piña coladas can confuse us.

  2. “Close To You” is not a great song, but what the Carpenters did with it made it a hit. The song sat around for years going nowhere. Many have recorded it. Only Richard and Karen could make it a hit. It was the song which sold the world on Karen’s voice.
    The videos you post are interesting, but incorrect. The “Close To You” video is from 1971, the same time frame as much of the drumming video is. Karen was NOT skinny at this time. She weighed a healthy and curvy 120 lbs, a weight she maintained until 1975 (yes, around the same time as she was pretty much permanently removed from her drumming duties.) Her mother chose her performance outfits for her early in Karen’s career, likely as a way to hide Karen’s burgeoning femininity. Karen was a gorgeous and often sexy woman. Check out photos and videos of her from about 1969 through 1975. You will be surprised to discover that she was not born with Anorexia, as so many seem to believe. I should mention, as well, that Karen did not dress in dowdy granny dresses off stage.

    • Thanks, Bill, for sharing your specific knowledge about the video dates. It is very hard to tell what Karen looks like under that outfit in the “Close to You” video, so I mistook it for a later time. I do understand that her anorexia was by no means inborn–my point was indeed that there were forces, including pressure to give up drumming, that contributed to the development of her anorexia. I see on the web that you’ve commented on those elsewhere and are very knowledgeable about how that disease took over her life and killed her. I’m sure she struggled for years with Richard over what and how they would perform, and I’m glad to know that she didn’t dress that way off stage, that at least sometimes she had a sense of her own beauty and power. My heart goes out to her. Thanks again for educating me further.


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