Reviews

It's Yesterday Once More in 'Little Girl Blue'

Little Girl Blue is a damning and penetrating account of tortured and tormented artist, Karen Carpenter, and could just be one of the most depressing books you’ll ever read.

Joan Crawford Had Nothing Over Agnes Carpenter

There are some true villains to be found in Little Girl Blue, and it becomes quite clear that Karen was trying to fill a void of some sort by not eating and using laxatives (and later, poisonous ipecac, which induces vomiting but weakens the muscles of the heart) to lose weight. While she was adored by millions of fans around the world, Schmidt paints a picture that Karen was always put behind the interests of her brother and lacked any sort of love or affection from the members of her own family and inner circle.

Managers and her brother convinced her to step outside her drum kit and perform ballads live in concert at the front of the stage – something that Schmidt contends she never felt overly comfortable doing. Both her brother and her mother Agnes, who comes across here as a manipulative control freak, would use her as the bagman whenever a member of their entourage needed to be fired.

The same characters would almost always disapprove of any picks for a suitable romantic partner – which usually came from within the Carpenters own gaggle of stage hands – repeatedly and harshly. When Karen chose to cut her own solo album in 1979 while brother Richard took time off to kick an addiction to Quaaludes, she was chastised yet again by the same members of her family for almost trying to break up the band.

Her record label was equally unsupportive, leading the record to be shelved until 1996, naturally denying her the opportunity in life to assert any sort of independence as a maturing young woman and artist. When she learned that her husband-to-be, real estate developer Tom Burris, was a liar and not what he seemed to be -- for instance, he seemed to indicate during his courtship that he wanted to start a family with Karen, but dropped a bombshell right before the wedding that he'd had a vasectomy -- her mother shamed her into going through with the marriage on the guise that preparations were underway to such an extent that there was no turning back, and that she should sleep in the bed that she’d lay in.

Finally, when she finally tried to seek help for her eating problems in the early ‘80s, she fell under the spell of a shady doctor, Steven Levenkron (who wasn’t even a licensed practitioner), who sought to make her dependant on him. When asked by Levenkron to have Karen meet her family during an emotional session that saw the young singer reduced to tears, her mother simply refused to acknowledge her love for her own daughter. Honestly, Joan Crawford almost comes across as a more loving and dependable parent than Agnes Carpenter in this searing account.

Of course, Little Girl Blue leaves us with more questions than actual answers: questions that probably can’t be answered now that the principal characters are now six feet under. (That’s so to speak: Karen didn’t want to be buried, so she and other member of her family are actually interred above ground.) For one, what made Agnes such a domineering, controlling Tiger mother? The book sheds no light, other than to suggest that something wasn’t right upstairs with her from the get-go. Why didn’t Karen’s father Harold step in and try to be some sort of buffer between her and her mother? We don’t know. Why didn’t Karen’s closest friends do more to help the beleaguered star cope with her illness? Schmidt doesn’t really pry, except to acknowledge that things were different in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and that anorexia nervosa was unknown territory at the time.

And what about Richard? Richard took his mother's side when it came to whatever disagreements were floating through the family, usually, since he was considered to be the Golden Boy and probably didn't want to rock the boat or upset Agnes. There was probably some sort of maternal obligation he felt towards her but, without his involvement in the book, that's a bit of heresay. Why did he side so much with his mother? Without his involvement, that subject gets skirted. All of these things make Little Girl Blue a little one-dimensional: it’s as though the biographer, in trying to get the truth behind Karen’s story, sacrificed some balance in his quest to finally look behind the velvet curtain. (Assuming, of course, there was any sort of balance that could be found in such a dysfunctional family).

Still, Little Girl Blue is a powerful and absorbing book, one that will make you never listen to the Carpenters’ music in quite the same way again. In the middle of my reading, I made the mistake of going out onto my apartment balcony with a beer on a late summer evening. I had just put the Carpenter's double-LP Greatest Hits on my turntable. I had snagged it from a dollar bin of a Toronto record store some years ago. I was expecting pleasant background music, I hoped for a feeling of being swept away in the gorgeous multi-tracked harmony of Karen’s voice. I got something completely different out of the experience, though.

While listening to the record, I actually grew upset and agitated, and eventually had to take it off. I just couldn’t see the magic behind the music – all I could feel was anger and bitterness towards Richard, Agnes and the label executives who ran an unbelievable talent into the ground. I suppose that would mean that there’s a certain power and sway to the narrative of Little Girl Blue, making it an important look at the absolute waste of what should have been Karen's salad years. Maybe a lot that has been said about the life of Karen Carpenter in the years following her death, but Little Girl Blue punches new buttons and, despite its odd flaws, it's a must read for those interested in how some celebrities suffer behind the prettified scenes of their art. That's something I’m sure that Richard Carpenter doesn’t want to hear – but, at least this time, he’s biting his tongue.

Prev Page
8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.