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The tragic song Sonic Youth wrote about Karen Carpenter


At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though innocent 1970s pop singer Karen Carpenter and aggressive ’80s noise rockers Sonic Youth have anything in common. Carpenter died the same month that Sonic Youth released their debut full-length LP Confusion is Sex, so it’s not like the singer had any idea who the New York band even was. But bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon saw a sympathetic figure in Carpenter.

“Karen Carpenter had interested me for a long time,” Gordon writer in her memoir Girl in a Band. “The Carpenters were such a sun-drenched American dream, such a feel-good family success story like the Beach Boys, but with the same roiling darkness going on underneath,” she said, adding: “Obviously Karen Carpenter had a strange relationship with her brother, Richard, a great producer but also a tyrannical control freak. The only autonomy Karen felt she had in her life she excepted over her own body. She was an extreme version of what a lot of women suffer from – a lack of control over things other than their bodies, which turns the female body into a tool for power – good, bad, or ugly.”

Gordon explains that, while she might not have always gravitated towards the sound of The Carpenters, she felt a powerful magnetism in Karen. “I always found Karen’s voice incredibly sexy and soulful. She made every word and syllable her own, and if you listen to those lyrics, you go, Wow. But at the same time, was there any band ever more white-bread than The Carpenters.”

It was also the power of Todd Haynes’ underground film Superstar, a no-budget biopic of Karen’s life made completely using Barbie and Ken dolls, that affected Gordon and her views on Carpenter. While Sonic Youth were making their major label debut with the 1990 album Goo, Gordon decided to pay tribute to Carpenter in the song ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’. The song depicts Carpenter playing the drums and making famous friends in heaven while reflecting on feeling like “I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day / But I look in the mirror and I’m bigger in every way.”

“I could make up a lot of reasons why the song was called ‘Tunic’,” Gordon explains. “The most obvious is that Karen was so thin from starving herself that her clothes hung on her bones like flowing biblical robes. She couldn’t make peace with her own body’s curves. She would never get the love she craved from her mother, who favoured her brother, or from her brother himself.”

“Their approval meant everything,” she continues. “How was she not the quintessential woman in our culture, compulsively pleasing others in order to achieve some degree of perfection and power that’s forever just around the corner, out of reach? It was easier for her to disappear, to free herself finally from that body, to find a perfection in dying.”

Sonic Youth would also contribute a cover of ‘Superstar’ to The Carpenters’ tribute LP If I Were A Carpenter in 1994. Gordon finishes her analysis in Girl in a Band by sharing an open letter she wrote for a magazine back around the time of ‘Tunic’ and Goo‘s release.

“Dear Karen,

Thru the years of The Carpenters TV specials, I saw you change from the Innocent Oreo-cookie-and-milk girl next door to hollowed eyes and a lanky body adrift on a candy-coloured stage set. You and Richard, by the end, looked drugged – there’s so little energy. The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, ‘Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong. I wanted to make myself disappear from their control. My parents, Richard, the writers who call me ‘hip-py, fat.’ Since I was, like most girls, brought up to be polite and considerate, I figured no one would notice anything wrong – as long as, outwardly, I continued to do what was expected of me. Maybe they could control all the outward aspects of my life, but my body is all in my control. I can make myself smaller. I can disappear. I can starve myself to death and they won’t know it. My voice will never give me away. They’re not my words. No one will guess my pain. But I will make the words my own because I have to express myself somehow. Pain is not perfect so there is no place in Richard’s life for it. I have to be perfect too. I must be thin so I’m perfect. Was I a teenager once? I forget. Now I look middle-aged, with a bad perm and country-and-western clothes.’

I must ask you, Karen, who were your role models? Was it yr mother? What kind of books did you like to read? Did anyone ever ask you that question – what’s it like being a girl in music? What were yr dreams? Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush between yr legs? Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extremely beautiful, soulful voice?

Your fan – love, Kim.”