Monday, October 18, 2010

“Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”

By Randy Schmidt
ISBN No. 978-1-55652-976-4

Rock-star deaths are a dime a dozen these days. Overdoses, car accidents, plane crashes; tragic ends go with the territory of living fast and dying young. What makes Karen Carpenter’s death at age 32 in 1983 different, however, was that she was more America’s daughter than Janis Joplin, and her death started a cultural conversation not about the obvious trappings of fame (easy drugs, careless suicides), but about anorexia and its roots in the darker dynamics of the American family.
They say that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and Richard Carpenter, as the last surviving member of the Carpenter family, likely exercises some firm control over his family’s image. Still, the access that he gives Randy Schmidt in researching and writing this book is unparalleled. And like the best biographies Schmidt uses Karen’s life to subtly open up larger areas of discourse while telling a fascinating story.
He starts with the obvious: In retrospect it’s remarkable that Karen’s gaunt, death-mask features kept showing up in the entertainment sections of magazines and newspapers without complaint or public comment. But then again, this was a pre-TMZ and pre-internet era of tightly controlled publicity. If Karen didn’t hear it from her own family and handlers (“the sharks around her,” Schmidt writes), it didn’t exist.
Then he moves onto the sensational stuff: In TV pitch terms, “Little Girl Blue” is a woman in danger storyline filtered through equal parts “American Idol”, “CSI” and the Food Channel. First there’s the unassuming beginning (Richard takes Karen on as a bandmate at their mother’s suggestion), then the meteoric rise to fame (16 consecutive Top 20 hits). After that there’s the toying with their squeaky clean image (in People Magazine they admit to actually having sex – with other people – and believing marijuana should be legalized), and finally, the bizarre yet-all-too inevitable ending (death by heart failure due to complications from anorexia).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Little Girl Blue” is that it’s one of the first books that knows food is an American religion. And Schmidt understands all too well the irony of a major celebrity starving herself to death in what’s become an obese consumer culture.
The heavy production of the book is equal to the task of summing up Carpenter’s life. Schmidt begins with a quote by Emerson, titles his chapters with eerily prescient pieces from Carpenter songs, and writes with a weight and profundity that perfectly complements the tight, academic font of the book.
And yet “Little Girl Blue” doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s almost a Shakespearian tragedy. Schmidt manages to turn vinyl and newsprint and YouTube videos back into a flesh and blood person. It’s to the book’s credit that as I was reading “Little Girl Blue” I kept thinking that Karen Carpenter herself was interviewed for it.