Book Review
Between a Soft Rock and a Hard Place: A Review of Karen Tongson’s <em>Why Karen Carpenter Matters</em>

Between a Soft Rock and a Hard Place: A Review of Karen Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters

Jeff Melnick

Early in her new book Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Karen Tongson reports that a karaoke machine in the Philippines once presented the key phrase from the Carpenters’ 1970 song “We’ve Only Just Begun” as “whiteness and promises” instead of “white lace and promises.”1 Sometimes, Tongson suggests, getting something “wrong” can be a very powerful mode of perception and argumentation. As with so much of this strikingly inventive book, this fascinating postcolonial encounter has truths to tell that transcend strict facticity. Again and again, Karen Tongson puts her version of Karen Carpenter in front of us–as voice, as fantasy of white suburban womanhood, as hero to so many in the Philippines, as a spectral reminder of the devastating impact of anorexia nervosa–with no apology for purposefully blurring the line between the historian’s empiricism and the fan’s inventions. As with so much creative reconstruction (in music, in scholarship, and so on), this book is not strictly documentary. It is not meant to communicate its power as a “faithful” cover, but as an extension, a fantasia, a recontextualization.

(Courtesy University of Texas Press)

Why Karen Carpenter Matters has plenty of “real” history, sociology, and deft musicology: you do not want to miss Tongson’s bravura reading of “Goodbye to Love.” But in addition to the more positivistic elements of cultural history and close reading, the book also includes fan fiction about Carpenter’s relationship with high school drumline buddy Frankie Chavez–one of many figures in the book who remind us to pay attention to the singer’s commitment to her life as a drummer–and plenty of Tongson’s autobiography, both deployed to examine the many ways fans can take control of and re-plot the meaning of the music they love.

Karen Tongson was named for the musician by her Filipino parents. Interestingly, Tongson uses this biographical fact to build a fascinating investigation of Karen Carpenter as her “namesake,” reversing the usual hierarchical and generational conventions. With this “more promiscuous…model of kinship,” Tongson alerts us in the first few pages of the book that Why Karen Carpenter Matters is most interested in mythologies surrounding Carpenter, the “afterlives generated by her music and her voice.” 2 This book represents the work of a seasoned scholar working outside the lines of the traditional disciplines; the experimental breadth of the book will be challenging for some, but the cross-fertilization of queer theory, fandom studies, musicology, and postcolonial studies is provocative in all the best ways. Tongson “uses” Carpenter as a generative text; sometimes the musician is a direct object of study, but sometimes she is a vehicle used to travel to all kinds of fascinating places. With this project, Tongson reminds us of how thrilling it can be to recontextualize a cultural actor who is so familiar to us that it has become hard to see (or, in this case, hear) her in ways that transcend cliché.

The major contributions of Tongson’s book travel along three major vectors of invention and analysis: embodiment, genre, and racialized colonialism. Let me take each of these serially, though one of Tongson’s real achievements is put the categories into dynamic conversation. Tongson faces down Carpenter’s devastating anorexia in the book’s first paragraph, which suggests that the musician’s death may be understood as a “protracted suicide aided by her underconsumption.”3 The literature on the medical, social, and cultural meanings of anorexia is vast and Tongson mostly sidesteps it; she is much less interested in diagnosing Carpenter’s affliction than she is in exploring how it has been narrated in the years since her death. Tongson is repulsed by the conventional wisdom that it was all Carpenter’s mother’s fault: “There’s something odious about how quick we all are to capitulate to yet another story that casts women as both victim and perpetrator… It keeps all the men in Karen’s life and career off the hook.”4 Instead, Tongson wants to encourage us to think about the musician’s anorexia as related to her lifelong struggles with rigid gender identity, inviting us to look directly at the “tomboyish androgyny” that characterized Carpenter’s teen years. Admittedly speculative, Tongson asks us to consider if the teen drummer discovered in androgyny a way to “unsex her own body” and keep the focus on her music.5

The material on anorexia is suggestive, troubling, and purposefully partial. Tongson’s twin investments in memoir (which includes compelling material about her own “brown, butch lesbian” physical self) and hagiography make it impractical for her to taken on multiple generations of scholarly and artistic work on the etiology of eating disorders and their relationship to trauma.6 Within her own framing, though, Tongson compellingly considers how Carpenter failed to live up to the punishing demands of mainstream beauty culture. Tongson’s reading of Carpenter’s anorexia against Mama Cass Elliot’s marginalization as a fat woman is brilliant: Carpenter’s anorexia and Mama Cass’s large size are plotted as dual “failures” in a culture that disciplines and punishes any women who deviate from the norm of “proper” size.7

Karen Tongson at the Texas Book Festival in 2019. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Why Karen Carpenter Matters is never as blazingly readable as when Tongson turns to matters of genre. For Tongson, “soft rock” is not only an apparent oxymoron, but also a capacious container of race, class, and regional identities. In the consideration of Carpenters’ (and her own) suburban California roots, Tongson takes soft rock, a genre often mocked, seriously. Repudiating the lazy narratives that generally characterize discussions of soft rock, Tongson instead considers it as the product of a specific place and time: “Beyond the surf and sand, it is this Southern California, an interconnected sprawl of suburbs with a surfeit of good public schools, venerable places of worship, and reasonably priced theme restaurants with live music… that seduced so many dreamers of the golden dream.” 8 Tongson reads the cultural and social landscape of these suburbs into the Carpenters’ music and–wonderfully–finds traces of the siblings’ high-school choral training in their hits.

While the consideration of genre includes a thrilling dive into the hyperlocal (Tongson even quotes an analysis of the Carpenters’ sound written by their high school choir director!), the stakes here are ultimately global. This Filipino-American scholar and fan is insistent that we think about why Karen Carpenter matters outside of a US-centric frame. Tongson’s narrative of Carpenter’s life — and afterlife — in the Philippines serves as an important reminder that globalization is not synonymous with top-down corporate control or homogenization. Tongson’s work here constitutes a fascinating instance of what globalization scholars call “glocalization” — essentially the process of tweaking a global product or form to match more local tastes. Filipinos have used Karen Carpenter and her music in all sorts of creative and unpredictable ways, and the musician’s reception on the island has profound tales to tell about imperialism and colonial resistance, about “originality” and beauty. According to Tongson, the core precondition for the appreciation for the Carpenters in the Philippines is that their oeuvre consisted mainly of covers: “The Carpenters, in other words, like the Filipinos who loved them then and now, became originals by making the most beautiful copies.”9 Here, Tongson builds a postcolonial poetics, which is also a politics: “in our nation…achieving precision through an intimate interpretation is a point of pride after a long colonial history in which ‘mimicry’ has been heralded as our greatest skill.”10

In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Karen Tongson calls the musician her “funhouse mirror of whiteness and promises, of an American perfection that seemed unattainable.”11 This metaphor of evanescent manifestation is just right for an artist who has not slipped from our radar, but remains a cipher, almost half a century since her first appearance on the cultural scene. A suffering Barbie-doll, a voice jostling for attention with Metallica’s riffing in Girl Talk’s epic mashup Feed the Animals, a high-sign of hipster credibility exchanged by ironic indie-rockers, and a role model to generations of Filipino (and Filipino-American) fans, the posthumous Karen Carpenter emerges as a popular culture figure who — like Dead Elvis — contains multitudes. Tongson’s work has roots stretching back at least to Richard Dyer’s late-1980s work on Judy Garland (another icon with consequential meaning for queer people after her death), but her transnational, autobiographical approach is singular and innovative. There was a time not too long ago when it would have seemed willful or eccentric to insist on Karen Carpenter’s importance to discussions of American popular music history, gender and queer theory, and globalized circuits of cultural production and reception. But with Karen Tongson’s book on her “namesake,” we must contend with a new map of meaning.


  1. Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), 5. Return to text.
  2. Tongson, 131n1, xi. Return to text.
  3. Tongson, xi. Return to text.
  4. Tongson, 81. Return to text.
  5. Tongson, 83, 84. Return to text.
  6. Tongson, 26. Return to text.
  7. Tongson, 91. Return to text.
  8. Tongson, 53. Return to text.
  9. Tongson, 111. Return to text.
  10. Tongson, 106. Return to text.
  11. Tongson, 121. Return to text.

Featured image caption: The Carpenters in 1972. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Jeff Melnick has been thinking about the Manson Family since first encountering the book and mini-series Helter Skelter in the 1970s. Melnick is a professor at University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), Black-Jewish Relations on Trial (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), and A Right to Sing the Blues (Harvard University Press, 1999). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.