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Camera Obscura 19.3 (2004) 56-91

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Grainy Days and Mondays:

Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics

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Figure 1
Framed in front of a staticky TV monitor, Karen's subjectivity is influenced by the media and further washed out and disfigured by video reproduction in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story .
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The year is 1970, and suddenly the nation finds itself asking the question, "What if, instead of the riots and assassinations, the protests and the drugs, instead of the angry words and hard-rock sounds, we were to hear something soft and smooth, and see something of wholesomeness and easy-handed faith?" This was the year that put the song onto the charts that made the Carpenters a household word.
—Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

The Carpenters have "only just begun" when a male narrator dryly delivers this speculative historical analysis. His somber voice is juxtaposed with flickering, pixelated period images shot off the surface of a television monitor: bombs falling, California governor Ronald Reagan, an American flag, a flurry of angry protestors, Richard Nixon with his daughter Tricia, a stock photo of a happy heterosexual couple, and the final triumphant moments of a beauty pageant. Immediately following this commentary and montage, the opening piano notes of "(They Long to Be) Close to You" knell on the soundtrack as the film cuts to the inside of a [End Page 57] recording studio. The camera pans to show Karen in the booth, and just at the moment when she should begin singing, "Why do birds suddenly appear," she coughs instead.1

"Karen, are you all right?" asks her brother Richard, the musical duo's other half. "I'm sorry, Richard," she replies. "Goddamn, I'm really flubbing it up today, aren't I? I'm sorry, guys. I don't know what's the matter with me." "Just relax. Take a deep breath," Richard coaches. "Look, we'll just do it until it's right. Just do what I tell you, and it will be great." Karen responds, "I just want it to be perfect ." And in her retake, it is.

This sequence appears early in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (dir. Todd Haynes, US, 1987), a forty-three-minute 16mm film that uses dolls to portray sibling supergroup the Carpenters' rise to fame and singer Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia. Since 1989, the film has been forced out of legitimate distribution and into an underground economy of bootleg circulation for copyright-infringing use of the Carpenters' music. Although this scene presents an opportunity for its audience to hiss at Reagan's appearance and to cackle at the plasticky good girl botching her signature song, the sequence also concisely presents the film's critique of cultural signification and its personal effects. The contrasts among the iconic, reshot images of American culture, circa 1970, are striking, whereas the dissonance between the degraded footage and its indexical capacity to portray history—and between the rough images and the purported softness of the Carpenters' sound—is perhaps more subtle. Superstar strips away the media's surface sheen and exposes the human frailty behind easy (if often melancholy) listening. As I will argue in this essay, appropriated music and images function expressively within the text to re-produce the mass-mediated context of the Carpenters' work and to re-present an affective cultural memory of the 1970s. Pirated videotapes of the film, by extension, inscribe a bootleg aesthetic that exhibits the audience's engagement in a clandestine love affair—watching, sharing, and copying the illicit text so that the viewers' reception of Superstar becomes historically, perceptually, and emotionally reshaped.

Superstar positions the sunny Californian Carpenters, whose [End Page 58] image as performers promoted conservative family values, as something of an anomaly during a period of social revolt. They were, however, extraordinarily popular and scored twenty top-forty hits between their debut single "Close to You" in 1970 and Karen Carpenter's death by heart attack following an overdose of Ipecac syrup in 1983. Haynes's Superstar is at...