Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die, Part 6: The End of the Show

The final chapter in a series on The Carpenters' A Song for You.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part three here.
Part four here.
Part five here.
A Spotify songlist based on the track order for the cassette can be found here.
Just for the record - all sentiments expressed are speculation. Think of it as a pop-psychology fantasia on one of my favorite albums. Thanks for reading. 

Sometimes, in the unhappiness of the day-to-day, we retreat into art for solace. What if the art doesn't help anymore? What if art, the thing that gives us joy, and freedom, becomes just another thing that keeps everyone out, another thing hanging over us, another possibility for failure? The Carpenters worked hard for their success, but as the man says, nothing comes for free.

The Carpenters entry into the genre of “The Road is Fuckin’ Tough” songs came with the penultimate track, “Road Ode.” The narrative of this album has come full circle, with the curtain raising of the opening song echoed here. But where before we were her sole listener, now she acknowledges that we are one of many - the audience is legion, intruding and keeping her simultaneously isolated, and never alone. She makes a point of telling us that her smile, her “Top of The World” charm, is a lie. That we, even we, her confidants, are one of the many whose expectations and demands are destroying her. The bright, hip, choruses belie the bitter, lonely lyrics. She’s onstage forever, so sad, so alone....

….and the crowd fades away. We are back at the beginning, reprising “A Song for You.” At first heavily reverbed, as if from a long distance she comes into focus, singing, once again, singing just to you . Don’t be fooled, this you is still the “you” of fantasy, the “you” that she has imagined as a way out of her loneliness. There lies the problem - it’s all one “you.” “You” are both the beloved, and the taskmaster. “You” are the only one who understands her, and the one who is driving her to destruction. You’re her parents, and the one person who can rescue her from the life she has created to try and please them. But really, you can’t save her, and she knows it. You oughta feel bad about that, too, because remember, she has predicted her own death (“And when my life is over/Remember when we were together”). You should feel guilt, but she would never be so gauche as to inflict it upon you. She is dying, not to make you feel bad, but because she loves you so much. Listen to how much she wants to please you (“I know your image of me is what I hope to be/I’ve treated you unkindly, but darling can’t you see?”). She will die trying to be that image of her you want to see.

This album shows the true story of Karen Carpenter in perfect Pop fashion: the crushing expectations, the impossible hopes of rescue and release, the longing for acceptance and the willingness to twist oneself into any shape to get it, the wistful looks back at an idyllic childhood that never was. We all know the next part of this story, the part where she dies in her parents’ home after a series of failed relationships and the slow suicide that is anorexia. But really, it was all here, available for us to see, both past and future. The future, her future, was here, in this album, all questions answered. She showed us the whole bitter script, asking for a different ending, and we were too seduced by her voice, her talent, by what she gave us, to hear her cry for help.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want a copy of the whole thing in one document, let me know, and I'll make a pdf available.


  1. I was listening to WTF with Marc Maron, interviewing Sarah Benincasa who wrote a book about her battles with agoraphobia. I thought the following insight was pertinent:

    "I got so depressed about all my fears that I kinda stopped having an appetite. And I saw that when I didn't eat that I slept a lot, and when I slept I felt okay because I would have very nice dreams. So I somehow made the connection that if you don't eat then that's better because you don't have energy, and when you don't have energy you can't stay awake and you sleep all the time. [...] I noticed I was getting skinnier and skinnier and I thought that was a good sign, not from an aesthetic point of view. I felt like I was physically disappearing and I really like that feeling... There's less of you in the world."

    1. Great quote, Patrick. The whole anorexia thing is a really big part of this story, and I sort of elided it to get the article down to manageable size. There are many reasons for anorexia, including body image, depression, expectations of others, anxiety - as many reasons as there are to, say, do drugs.

      It seems to me that anorexia is a coping mechanism, and a response to illness, rather than an illness in and of itself (though the DSM-whatever-roman-numeral would disagree, and I'm definitely no psychologist).