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Lifted by Song

She had the voice of an angel, and all too soon she became an angel herself. Or so some would say. I’m talking about one of the most popular singers of the twentieth century: Karen Carpenter, who died at the age of 32 after selling millions of records with her brother Richard.

Voices can be funny things. If we hear a voice on the radio, it’s impossible not to have a mental picture of what the speaker looks like. But the picture is rarely much like the reality. People can sound good and look bad, or sound bad and look good. Karen Carpenter wasn’t a mismatch like that. She had a beautiful voice and she was a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, she wasn’t happy with her appearance and she succumbed to the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. They would cut short a highly successful career and end a life that was still full of promise.    

She was born on 2nd March 1950 in Connecticut, on the east coast of the United States, but when she was 13 her family moved right across the continent to Los Angeles, California. Like her older brother Richard, she showed great musical talent at school, but where he had studied the piano, she preferred singing and percussion. When she left school, she joined Richard and other musicians on a quest for a professional career in music. At first she sang vocals while playing the drums, but she was a petite woman, not much over five foot, and was hidden behind her drum kit.

She was persuaded to leave the drums to someone else and sing at the front of the stage. Did this move to the spotlight increase her concern with her appearance and weight? Quite possibly, but she might have succumbed to eating disorders if she hadn’t been a musician and hadn’t set herself such high standards of performance. As it was, she and Richard didn’t let early disappointment deflect them in their pursuit of stardom. They began performing together in 1965 and signed a contract with A&M Records in 1969.

Karen’s warm and gentle voice was central to the international success that awaited them in the decade about to break. After the Love and Peace associated with the ’60s, the 1970s were a return to harsh reality, a turbulent period of financial crises, oil shortages and terrorism. The music of The Carpenters, as Karen and Richard styled themselves, offered a welcome escape in troubled times. It opened a door to sunnier or more thoughtful spaces. They wrote a lot of their own music and songs like “Top of the World”, “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” became international successes.

Those songs been popular ever since and the hits kept coming. Unlike much else from the period, The Carpenters’ music has stayed popular, pleasing the ears and soothing the souls of millions of people right around the world. At the time, their enormous popularity and the demands of performance took their toll on both of them. Richard developed an addiction to a sedative drug called Quaaludes and Karen’s obsession with dieting became more and more extreme.

Despite their difficulties, they released an album almost every year from 1969 to 1982. It was in the April of that year that Karen recorded what would prove to be her final song. She was in the grip of full anorexia by then, dangerously underweight and taking dieting drugs that threw her body under increasing strain. She developed a heart condition, something that just shouldn’t happen to a woman of her age. She should have been healthy and happy, revelling in the fame and financial security that she had achieved, but perhaps her illness had the same roots as her success: a drive to be, do and look her best.

If so, she was killed by her own high standards. Despite receiving the best psychiatric help available, she couldn’t bring herself to eat normally or stop taking dieting drugs. She returned to her parents’ home in California and it was there, on 4th February 1983, less than a month before her 33rd birthday, that she suffered a fatal heart attack. The precise cause of her death is still disputed. What isn’t in doubt is that she left the world with so much more to give.

Her death also gave her music a new depth and poignancy. The Carpenters had written happy and upbeat songs, but they were also famous for slower and more introspective songs like “Solitaire”, “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Where Do I Go From Here?”. Many fans hadn’t known about Karen’s struggle with eating disorders or hadn’t realized how serious they were. Now they knew the truth: the woman who had sometimes performed sad songs had been singing them from the heart.

But whether it’s happy or sad, the music of The Carpenters retains its power to lift the spirit and remind us that there is always beauty and calm amid the troubles of the world. Karen has now been gone for more than thirty years, but her voice can still be heard everywhere and The Carpenters’ music will never stop winning new fans. Stardom wasn’t enough to make Karen happy and keep her with us, but she made the world a better place while she lived and the music she left will never be taken away.