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  • Perfect is Dead:Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio; or, If Hooks Could Kill
  • Eric Lott

For Tom Smucker

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought.

—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

The Carpenters seem made to order for what Theodor Adorno in a famous essay called "the fetish-character in music and the regression of listening."1 Nothing in the smooth, reified, even fetishistic sheen of songs such as "Close to You"—a brand of Los Angeles vernacular sentimental poetic production for the airwaves—suggests the potential for authentic aesthetic experience or expression. The apparently unbroken surface of this industrially manufactured sound, however, is in fact riven by longing, constriction, and discomfort, and I will argue that it constitutes a kind of negative dialectic of the L.A. that had so revolted Adorno during his exile there in the 1940s and early '50s. In this sense the Carpenters provide an excellent test case for Adorno's ideas about structural listening and the fate of aesthetic responsiveness in the age of radio (one of Adorno's first activities upon his arrival in the United States was of course his work with Paul Lazarsfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project). In Dialectic of Enlightenment (an L.A. story if ever [End Page 219] there was one), Adorno and Max Horkheimer use the parable of Homer's Sirens to theorize sonic experience in capitalist society, the only options being dogged sublimation (the rowers' stopped-up ears) or beauty without consequence (Odysseus strapped, motionless, to the mast);2 it is tempting to suggest that by the time the Carpenter family moved to Downey, California, in 1963, the agon of Odysseus and the Sirens had been reduced to the upbeat oblivion of surfers and the Beach Boys. Yet when the Carpenters hit it big in 1970, deuce-coupe Fordism was already undergoing significant strain, and the contradictions of capital, urban space, cultural abundance, the nuclear family, and female power were registered—hideously, magisterially—in music that was calculatingly designed for the car radio and the quadraphonic sound system. The Caucasian blues of "Superstar," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Goodbye to Love," "Hurting Each Other," and others project the suburban whiteness of Downey—known for its aerospace industry, its surfing, its pioneering fastfood chains, and its racist police force—into a soundscape of pain and self-negation, whose real-life counterpart came in Karen Carpenter's notorious death from anorexia at the age of thirty-two. Read right, in other words, the Carpenters' music speaks symptomatically of the "damaged life" Adorno espied in L.A.'s endless summer.3

It is amusing, I'll allow, to catalog some of the ways in which the Carpenters story suggests a willfully anti-liberatory ethos—political, personal, and musical. The brother-sister duo looked almost freakishly alike, their visages on album covers and in photo shoots frozen into the same rictus of compulsory cheerfulness. This aura of sibling sameness is often represented pictorially and musically as a marriage of true talents, an endogamous involution that further resists the incursion of difference. The motivating product behind—or consequence of—this imaginary is a series of hit songs overdetermined by repetition, calculation, sameness: the same sweet bummer vibe in song after song of lost or unrequited love, set to arrangements that blur one into the next, featuring Phil Spector–like choruses of background vocals made up solely of Karen and Richard Carpenter's multiply overdubbed voices. One of their first big hits, "We've Only Just Begun" (1970), was originally a bank commercial jingle—at a single stroke fulfilling exponentially Adorno's nightmare of culture-industry commodification. By...


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