Close to Her

by Bob Schwartz

Karen Carpenter
This past week on American Idol, a show on life support, some finalist named Lazaro—whose back story includes the fact that he apparently doesn’t speak English and he stutters—chose to perform the song Close to You by the Carpenters.

Also, Lazaro apparently can’t sing. The performance was rated by Idol experts as the worst ever in the show’s history. It is available online, but please don’t listen; treatment for it will require years of therapy. Lazaro was summarily eliminated by viewers.

In a 1994 tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter, Karen Carpenter songs are covered by an amazing collection of artists. In the video of their version of Superstar,  Sonic Youth includes a Karen Carpenter montage, with their riding around in a convertible, passing a sign announcing “Now Entering Downey, Home of the Carpenters.” It is a moving tribute, and the vocal couldn’t be any farther from Karen Carpenter’s.

Here’s why: no vocals are close to Karen Carpenter’s, and nobody sane or self aware goes there. Not even her brother Richard’s heavy-handed arrangements and production—responsible for their massive commercial success—could obscure that. Watching her sing is a revelation. The revelation is that while she certainly knew she was good, she probably had no idea just how good (or beautiful) she really was. Knowing she was so much more than good enough might not have saved her, but she was that good.

How good? If she was in a competition like American Idol, they would just stop the season right there, if not cancel the show entirely. Same thing if she was on The Voice, because they would have found The Voice. Search over.

In 1980, she sang a television duet with Ella Fitzgerald.  If there has ever been a queen of American popular song, Ella may have been it. Duets are funny things. They are frequently a bit off or complete misfires, even when the two artists are separately good. Another thing is that each one of the pair has to bring something special, even when they are not artistic equals. Comparing Karen to Ella, or anyone to Ella, is like comparing anyone to Karen: pointless. In the case of this duet, remember that Ella was renowned for her purity of tone, her effortless range, and for that something that was supremely and gorgeously her. All those things can be said about Karen Carpenter. Ella was already having health problems at this point, though you wouldn’t know it from her voice, and she would live for another sixteen years to the age of 79. Karen was visibly suffering from the problem that would end her life, three years later, at the age of 32.

Karen Carpenter singing Superstar.