Carole King‘s contribution to the canon of pop music is so big that her name seems both omnipresent and never enough celebrated. Thus, the volume dedicated to King’s most successful and acclaimed album, Tapestry (1971), in Bloomsbury’s prestigious 33 1/3 book series, is an obvious choice for a project that aims to discuss legendary albums . It’s also a timely one, as the album turns 50 years old in 2021.
The album reunites King’s compositions that were previously recorded by artists like the Shirelles (“Will you love me tomorrow?”) and Aretha Franklin (“You make me feel like) A natural woman”). It also includes songs that were exclusive at the time, such as “It’s too late” and “You’ve got a friend”, which remain some of King’s best and most known.
Writing a whole book about such an iconic album is enough of a hard task (even if it should be a short book, as it is the scope of the 33 1/3 series). Beyond that, this series allows unlimited formats besides the usual album review or report. For one side, it makes a dream opportunity for music writers, but it also adds extra weight to anyone trying to stand out in the series’ extremely competitive proposal selections.
Writer and Professor Loren Glass achieves the qualifications wisely by going for a diverse approach. He investigates Tapestry through both a personal and a larger sociocultural context, while also telling the story of how it came to be released and became one of the most influential albums of all time. That Glass ends up reviewing more King albums than just Tapestry is a bonus.
If in any album there are potentially more stories than those told by its songs, Tapestry is, indeed, an album that can be connected to a wide range of topics. Joshua Friedberg‘s article “‘Blue’, ‘Tapestry’, and Oil’“, for example, explores it (along with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, another landmark album for the singer-songwriter “genre” that, coincidently, was also released in 1971), in the context of petroculture. A scholar of Cultural Studies, Glass’ interest lies in the relationship between literature and popular culture.
He frames Tapestry in the landscape of its time, especially regarding second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement. Tapestry would also impact the way women were perceived as individuals and as forces in the music industry. (Even if within a limited spectrum, as King was a white woman in an industry that was, and still is, not as kind to women of color).
At a time when most American men across the political and cultural spectrum casually called women “girls” (or “chicks” or “babes”) and assumed they occupied a subordinate position in both the family and the workplace, these artists not only sang as and for women, they aggressively injected the word “woman” into the popular lexicon.
Carole King’s Tapestry is divided into four parts, which are preceded by “Introduction: The Mother of Us All”, where Glass sets the scene by sharing his story. Growing up in California in the 1970s, as a “counterculturally co-parented” son of a lesbian woman member of the women’s liberation movement, and a father whose wife would also become a sort of mother-figure, King and Tapestry resonated with Glass in ways that would shape his views on gender, sexuality, agency, love — and, of course, music.
In “Maturity”, we understand Tapestry as King’s personal and artistic ontogenesis, its musical influences earned a place among the “soundtrack of the consciousness-raising generation”. The second chapter, “Trilogy”, is inspired by how King describes Tapestry as a culmination of her first three albums. The third chapter, “Celebrity”, portrays King’s reservation on sharing her personal life with the world as a type of “renegotiation of the relationship between intimate experience and public experience”. In the last chapter, “Legacy”, Glass discusses the solid and ongoing repercussions of Tapestry for pop culture and for the business of the music industry.
A fresh and interesting take in Glass’ Tapestry is seen in how he connects the dots between economical and cultural factors that led albums like Tapestry to kickstart what he calls the “album era”.
Indeed, the peak years of the women’s liberation movement coincide with the apogee of long-playing album as an art form, and this is not a historical coincidence. Unlike the 45-rpm single, which was associated both economically and thematically with teenagers and adolescence, the 33-rpm album was associated with maturity and adulthood by both artists and audiences. Singles were the ephemeral product of AM radio; albums presented more perennial fare for FM stations and home stereo systems, which were becoming increasingly sophisticated and affordable. If singles were listened to on cheap portable turntables by teenagers in the bedrooms of their parents’ homes, albums were listened to on expensive stereo systems by adults in their living rooms. And while albums had initially appealed to a mostly male clientele, Tapestry confirmed that there was a large untapped market of independent women with money and musical sophistication who would, in the 1970s, be a central economic and cultural driver of the singer-songwriter sound.
Some of the best moments in Carole King’s Tapestry are when the author delves in the songs off Tapestry as their own microcosms through songwriting analysis anecdotes. Here, King’s creative choices are placed in a broader context, from themes and lyrics to chord progressions. Some of these moments might seem too technical for a reader that is less interested or less knowledgeable about music theory, but they are nevertheless fascinating. Also, there are simpler moments when the author makes it easy to understand how King gets her message across through composition.
Carole King is the queen of chords; her brilliant progressions are the rich soil bed in which her elegant melodies grow, and this canonical intro [of “I feel the Earth move”] confirms a clear compositional authority as the piano pounds alone for two measures before Charlie Larkey booms in with his octave-bouncing bass line.
For this reason, Glass’ exploration of Tapestry is a pleasurable and enlightening read not only for fans of King or music in general but also to songwriters and those interested in the magical world of music-making. Glass does justice to the album, which is acknowledged by many as “a lesson in songwriting” (Dantzler, 2020), and “some of the greatest songwriting and a masterclass in blending the roots of folk, soul, rock and blues while never feeling forced” (Price, in The Guardian, 2021).
When moving from Carole King and Tapestry’s extravaganza to their position alongside other artists and albums immortalized by fans and critics, Glass makes intrepid statements. For example, he describes the endurance of Tapestry as a symbol of musical maturation, in opposition to albums such as those by the Beatles. The comparison can be debatable, but the author’s choice to extol Tapestry is definitely not.
Additional Works Cited
Dantzler, Courtney. “Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ is a lesson in songwriting“. Duke Chronicle. 23 February 2020.
Friedberg, Joshua. “‘Blue’, ‘Tapestry’, and Oil’“. PopMatters. 23 October 2019.
Simpson, Dave; Snapes, Laura. ‘It shook me to my core’: 50 years of Carole King’s Tapestry. The Guardian. 12 February 2021.