Karen Carpenter’s Afterlives

Everyone knows that feeling when a song—written by someone else in some other place or time—sees you so completely in the present. But how does that happen?

Everyone knows that feeling when a song—written by someone else in some other place or time—sees you so completely in the present. Or when a superstar celebrity, who looks and sounds nothing like you, compellingly puts your realities into clear focus and even propels you to soldier on with life. Accounts of such affective relationships between artists, their bodies of work, and their followers abound in organized scholarly literature and in scattered individual chronicles alike. By now, they may even be considered old tales to tell.

But how exactly do celebrities from one particular context become pertinent to other people across the world? How do musical records obtain weight in cultures they did not originally intend to address? How do fans convincingly sing about realities far different from, if not totally opposed to, their own?

Karen Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters casts a renewed light on how to understand celebrities and the enduring prominence and relevance of their artistic legacies beyond Euro-American contexts. This book argues that such a dynamic may be considered a consequence of both expansive social histories and more down-to-earth, if not deeply personal, engagements.

Part of the Music Matters series from the University of Texas Press, Why Karen Carpenter Matters documents Karen Carpenter’s life and traces the long, globalized route that her music has travelled outside America. However, it goes beyond a hagiographic accounting of the American singer’s storied lifetime. Interweaving memoir with social history, musical analysis, and queer and cultural theory, this revelatory read meditates on the allure of Carpenter and her beguiling lyrics within Tongson’s own private life as a middle-class, queer, and immigrant Filipino in the US.

Tongson confesses: “Karen was like family—but more of a distant relative whose resemblance felt significant even if it was only circumstantial, and whose global accomplishments were touted as aspirational for my musical clan.” Carpenter, that is, was present in Tongson’s life from a young age: teaching her, at first, how widely her Filipino family might claim inspiration and success beyond their home, and, later on—after immigrating to the United States—how to integrate into an unwelcoming new country.

The human will to affirm creativity, agency, and connectedness is the insight that “Why Karen Carpenter Matters” keys its readers into.

Now a professor of English at the University of Southern California and a recognized expert in Asian American cultures of singing, Tongson argues that celebrities are relevant because they stimulate fantasies, hopes, and aspirations among their viewers and listeners. But she also underscores that they continue to matter because of the committed investments made by fans who identify with them. The latter proposition establishes that people like Tongson are not placed under the spell of their idol; rather, they are actively negotiating with Carpenter’s stardom, inclusive of her failures and accomplishments. Such effort complicates overstretched claims about the influence of celebrities over their purportedly undiscerning, ever-faithful followers.

Finally, Tongson ruminates on why even the whitest and most bourgeois of the Carpenters’ chart toppers maintain their significance not only for Tongson herself, but also for many of her fellow Filipinos back home who imitate—that is, re-signify and re-perform—the singer even decades after her death. She spotlights acts of musical labor that vocally render American songs as if they had come from the Philippines—or, more suitable to say, as if Filipinos had originally owned them. In doing so, she highlights private and public practices of repossession that Filipinos, wherever they are situated, conduct in dealing with personalities who come from elsewhere but have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of who such Filipinos are and what they do.

By laying bare how Karen Carpenter matters to Tongson’s own life (as well as to her family’s), how Carpenter’s music remains deeply embedded in Philippine culture, and how her voice and figure continue to be reworked by Filipinos, Tongson challenges sweeping conceptions about the widely touted penchant of the Filipino people to mindlessly mimic Americans, and the supposed totalizing domination of American popular culture in the Philippines. She compels readers to pay more careful attention to what she calls other “species of intimacy”: where people of color like herself, as well as other Filipino singers, are not merely “worshipping another white woman’s prudish perfection.” She maps a terrain where the star power and mass appeal of famous American personalities, such as Carpenter, thrive not through rigid preservations, but through lively reappropriations and reanimations by a multitude of publics. The human will to affirm creativity, agency, and connectedness is the insight that Why Karen Carpenter Matters ultimately keys its readers into, now and once again.

How did foreign celebrity singers—like the Carpenters—maintain their fame in a country like the Philippines? Surely the answer depends on the aftermaths of American colonialism and imperialism.

After experiencing half a century of American subjugation, the Southeast Asian archipelago continues to simultaneously enjoy and grapple with social institutions, like a massive public-school system and a broadly networked media industry, that produce and disseminate American ideas, images, and ideologies.1 Up to this day, a web of American cultural resources largely fuels what is produced and consumed in the Philippine market. From one perspective, these products supposedly aid Filipinos in educating, uplifting, and civilizing themselves. From another vantage point, they further widen existing social divisions, marginalize—if not demonize—native cultures, and engender in their citizens more sympathy for their former colonial masters than for their own kind.

The impact of the US in the postcolonial Philippines is not unknown to Tongson. Growing up in Manila, she was exposed to how American culture was very much pivotal in the systems and operations of everyday life. Belonging to a musically inclined family—whose members performed in the swankiest lounges and cocktail bars in Southeast Asia and even the United States in the latter half of the 20th century—Tongson developed what she calls “postcolonial fling[s] with anglophilia.” As a kid, she often travelled outside the Philippines with her family, read many English books, and listened voraciously to foreign music. Particularly crucial to Tongson’s childhood experience was her exposure to a household suffused with the top tunes from America: specifically, Richard and Karen Carpenter’s. She heard their global hits being sung by her mother (the one in charge of naming Tongson after a woman famous for her precise and velvety voice), whistled by the family’s cook, or played on the radio by relatives while enjoying afternoon games of mah-jong or late-night sing-alongs.

And so the Carpenters came to serve not only as markers of Tongson’s “minutiae of other feelings” throughout her adolescent and middle-aged life. Their songs also functioned as her “conduct manuals for proper behaviors and acceptable passions.” Tongson writes about the pivotal role of Karen Carpenter, in particular, in mediating her ideas of an elsewhere—that is, of “America.” Tongson considers Carpenter to be her gateway to a larger world, as well as her “funhouse mirror of whiteness and promises, of an American perfection that seemed unattainable.” She recalls the images of white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns in the music videos of the American duo’s finely developed records, which have concretely signified to her the meaning of American affluence. Hence, in many ways and in many songs, the Carpenters consistently figured in every emotional foray and attempt at social mobility that Tongson pursued in the Philippines, in the countries she and her family temporarily lived in, and, most importantly, in her brave new American world.

In the book, Tongson documents the lives of Richard and Karen Carpenter, from the time of their “imperial ascendency” as global music icons during the late 1960s, throughout the mid-1970s, and up to the waning of their stellar careers from 1975 onward. More specifically, she centers on Karen: as she and her family moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to sunny, suburban Downey, California; as she fostered her musical talents as a young woman at Cal State Long Beach; as she and her brother finally broke into the music charts and thereafter churned out one hit record after another; as she contended with the fortunes and misfortunes of fame within a fickle and finicky music industry; and as she degenerated in terms of health and wellness before finally succumbing to a tragic and untimely death in 1983, at 32, in her parents’ house, of complications from an eating disorder.

Tongson delineates how the music icon’s personal undertakings have resonated with her own issues concerning gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, and immigration and identity. Like the American singer—who, behind the scenes, felt distanced from the normal life she persuasively sang about—Tongson constantly faced feelings of unhomeliness and incongruity in the “eternal sunshine of Southern California.” Tongson’s second-class status in America—largely due to her racial otherness—mirrored Carpenter’s inferiority to her brother, Richard, at least in their family’s hierarchy of favorites.

So-called “failed femininities” and “aberrant normalcies” likewise linked the two Karens. Tongson is an openly brown, butch lesbian, while Carpenter, during her childhood especially, was teased by her friends, family, and neighbors as a “freewheeling tomboy.”

Tongson nurtured her affection for Karen Carpenter, particularly for her contralto voice and the mush of her music, as a way of battling loneliness and locating an internal sense of grounding in her constantly changing environments. It was her namesake’s life story as “a girl who would never be normal, no matter how hard she tried” that gave Tongson the bearings to make sense of her difference in the US. Certainly, the Carpenters was the whitest of acts, and their music was overflowing with archetypes of abundance in America—where there was, per the song “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “so much of life ahead,” and where one may not only experience “horizons that are new to us” but also “find a place where there’s room to grow.” Yet “nothing felt more Filipino,” according to Tongson, “in those first lonely years fresh off the boat than the sound of Karen’s voice.”

In plotting out these correspondences between the American singer’s life and her own, Tongson demonstrates that her affinities for Carpenter are not simply residual effects of world-historical events. Rather, they also rest on extremely subjective, deeply emotional, and profoundly intimate—but in no way less significant or multifaceted—experiences linking Tongson to Carpenter.

Why do Filipinos, in particular, see and hear in American celebrities a reality so different and distant, but nevertheless resonant and appealing?

Tongson surfaces these private dramas not simply to succumb to nostalgia. Instead, she does so to ask why the songs of the Carpenters—about middle-class promises of love and white fantasies of new yet chartable horizons—continue to resonate in postcolonial countries like the Philippines, especially to their people, who are far different from the suburbanites that the American singers represented. Why do Filipinos, in particular, cultivate strong links to foreign cultures and even derive from them their most precious hopes and dreams? Why do they see and hear in American celebrities a reality so different and distant, but nevertheless resonant and appealing?

In one of her homecomings to the Philippines, Tongson discovered the longevity and ubiquity of the Carpenters, both on the Philippine airwaves and in the voices and bodies of Filipinos. “I heard the Carpenters everywhere,” Tongson recounts. Although the Carpenters undeniably gained popularity in countries like Japan (where “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” ranked number one on the country’s music charts in 1978) and Germany (where “Sweet, Sweet Smile” was a smash hit), the patronage they obtained—and continue to enjoy—in the Philippines is one of a kind and truly incomparable. “Though there aren’t any charts to prove definitively that the Carpenters were more popular in the Philippines than in any other nation in the world,” Tongson notes, “their enduring presence on Filipino radio, and in Filipino American karaoke repertoires, attests to my people’s profound affinity with this most wholesome of American duos.”

Tongson examines musical personalities in the Philippines who draw their social participation and cultural capital from the deceased vocalist. The Karen Carpenters of the Philippines, as they are called, may not be anything like the American singer in terms of class, color, or creed. But they nevertheless maintain a special relationship to her voice, life, figure, and repertoire.

They range from Claire de la Fuente (a seasoned singer who gained wide popularity in the local entertainment industry from the 1970s onward) to Anna Gusmo (a blind busker whose Karen-esque rendition of “You” went viral on the Internet in the early 2010s). De la Fuente’s and Gusmo’s singing voices eerily resemble Karen Carpenter’s vocal quality. In their respective performances, furthermore, both effectively exemplify how Filipinos can sing—so powerfully and persuasively, effortlessly and masterfully—songs about a white woman’s First-World comforts and conveniences.2


Joni Mitchell’s Ferocious Gift

By Ivan Kreilkamp

These imitative acts of singing and speaking, though, have been framed within nationalist discourses as markers of a troubled modernity of Filipino civilization. Not only do they signpost a lack of organic genius and an incapacity for innovation, they also illustrate the alleged miseducation of the Filipino race and the unremitting supremacy of American media, language, and culture over the collective consciousness of common Filipinos.3

But rather than speaking condescendingly of Karen-esque performances, Tongson considers them to be deliberate and lively modes of practice in which Filipinos engage as they make sense of, and make do with, the legacies of their former colonizers. Tongson also discards ideas reducing imitation to a disembodied, inauthentic, and therefore substandard practice. The Karen Carpenters of the Philippines—like the Filipino versions of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, and so on—turn to famous and fabled personalities to express, remake, and sustain themselves under difficult contemporary conditions.

To be sure, Tongson is not merely drawing a picture of dependence here. On the contrary, she recalibrates prevailing assumptions about the power of celebrities over their followers by carefully dispelling models alleging a blind following among Filipino fans and listeners. She further troubles renderings of Filipinos as mimics par excellence, who fail to mediate and who, instead, simply memorize or master foreign musical and other artistic acts. Unlike studies that focus on Filipinos who successfully made their way to the US through their approximations of American talent, Tongson’s book dwells on Filipino performers in the Philippines engaged in procedures that reinscribe, reenact, and remake the lifetime and lifework of Karen Carpenter. This intervention is crucial because it emphasizes how Carpenter’s celebrity and musical bequests enrich and hold together the fraught lives of listeners. But, more to the point, Why Karen Carpenter Matters throws into sharp relief how a local populace, often mired in poverty, delicately and deliberately deals with lyrics that may not completely make sense in context but whose attendant affects serve as funds of inspiration to a people unceasingly striving hard to experience better days ahead.

Just as Tongson keeps close to her heart the songs of the Carpenters to survive her alienating American present, de la Fuente and Gusmo deploy their Karen-esque vocal capacities with the hope of improving their lives and getting things right in their often dire situations. Indeed, be it for Tongson or for the ordinary Filipino people, to relate to and emulate Karen Carpenter is not only to stake a claim on the extensive afterlives of the American songstress. More than anything, it is incontrovertibly their singular mode of self making and world building.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcusicon

  1. Elizabeth L. Enriquez, Appropriation of Colonial Broadcasting: A History of Early Radio in the Philippines (University of the Philippines Press, 2008).
  2. Prior to Tongson, several colonial and contemporary writers had already taken note and weighed in on the vocal virtuosity of Filipinos. Rather pejoratively, the travel writer Pico Iyer branded the Filipino people as “musical mannequins” because of how they would impeccably resound Western songs on various platforms for performance: in the streets, on social media, on television and the radio, in singing competitions at home and abroad, on Broadway and West End stages, and in the lounges of cruise ships and hotels. Such ability has aided Filipino artists, like Lea Salonga, Arnel Pineda, and Jake Zyrus, to successfully penetrate the rigid music and other media industries in the US. Similarly, it is one of the main reasons foreign creative industries all over the world continue to hire Filipinos, often en masse, as musicians and performers. Anjeline de Dios, “Packaging Talent: The Migrant Creative Labor Management of Overseas Filipino Musicians,” in International Migration in Southeast Asia: Continuities and Discontinuities, edited by Kwen Fee Lian, Md Mizanur Rahman, and Yabit bin Alas (Springer, 2016); Stephanie Ng, “Performing the ‘Filipino’ at the Crossroads: Filipino Bands in Five-Star Hotels throughout Asia,” Modern Drama, vol. 48, no. 2 (2005); Lee William Watkins, “Brown, Black, Yellow, White: Filipino Musicianship in Hong Kong and Their Hybridized Sociability,” Humanities Diliman, vol. 7, no. 1 (2010); Lee William Watkins, “Minstrelsy and Mimesis in the South China Sea: Filipino Migrant Musicians, Chinese Hosts, and the Disciplining of Relations in Hong Kong,” Asian Music, vol. 40, no. 2 (2009).
  3. Renato Constantino, “The Mis-education of the Filipino,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 1, no. 1 (1970).
Featured image: Karen Carpenter (detail) (2016). Photograph by rocor / Flickr