Karen Carpenter: Unlikely Gay Icon
BY Randy L. Schmidt
August 22 2011 3:00 AM ET UPDATED: February 04 2013 6:57 PM ET
February 4, 1983: The anorexia-related death of 32-year-old Karen Carpenter sent shock waves throughout the music industry and around the world. On this, the 30th anniversary of her untimely passing, Randy Schmidt, the author of the acclaimed best-selling biography Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, examines the legacy of the extraordinary singer with the heartbreaking voice and her enduring impact on other musicians and LGBT fans.
“Do me one favor. Do not do disco!” This was Richard Carpenter’s only commandment to sister Karen as she embarked on a solo recording career in the spring of 1979. But disco was exactly what this velvety-voiced queen of unrequited-love songs had in mind.
“I love Donna Summer,” she told producer Phil Ramone upon arrival at his New York City studios. Summer’s “Hot Stuff” was her favorite song at the time. “I’d give anything if we could do a song like that!” The girl who crooned “We’ve Only Just Begun,” the default wedding song for an entire generation, had grown up. Or at least she was trying.
With a repertoire of classic recordings like “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Goodbye to Love,” and “Top of the World,” the Carpenters have gone down in history as the top-selling American musical act of the 1970s. Theirs was a matchless combination of Karen’s rich, mournful, smoky alto perfectly ensconced by Richard’s brilliant compositions and arrangements in a sweet swell of aural lushness.
The duo’s impressive string of 16 consecutive top 20 hits began in the summer of 1970 with “Close to You” and continued through “There’s a Kind of Hush” in 1976. The hits would likely have continued, but that lovely, inimitable voice — the muse for Richard’s genius — was silenced on February 4, 1983. At only 32 years of age, Karen Carpenter died of heart failure. She succumbed to a seven-year battle with anorexia nervosa and became the proverbial poster child for the mysterious eating disorder.
Admired in her heyday by the likes of John Lennon, Barbra Streisand, and Elvis Presley, Karen has since found her rightful home alongside those and other timeless vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald (with whom she duetted during a Carpenters television special in 1980). She is regarded as one of the finest female singers of the past century, and her legacy lives on in the music of those she’s inspired. Karen put her musical stamp on a range of artists who cite her as an influential force: k.d. lang, Lea Salonga, Sandi Patty, Jann Arden, Shania Twain, Sonic Youth, and even Madonna.
Part of the legacy exists in the campy aspects of this purveyor of “polite plastic pop” (as one reviewer dubbed the Carpenters’ music in their prime). In 1987 little-known filmmaker Todd Haynes attempted to tell Karen’s story with a cast of Barbie-type dolls in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a 43-minute film shot against a backdrop of miniature interiors. Banned from distribution due to legal issues with music rights, Superstar quickly gained a cult following. Two years later came The Karen Carpenter Story, a clichéd made-for-TV biopic executive produced by Richard Carpenter himself. The highest-rated TV movie the CBS network had licensed in five years, it prompted a sweeping renaissance in appreciation for the duo’s music. These films, a (not quite) tell-all “authorized” biography, a tribute album by well-meaning alt-rockers, and bizarre (true) stories of Richard marrying his first cousin and Karen’s corpse having been exhumed and relocated have added to our fascination with this unlikely icon.