I love The Carpenters. You can’t not like The Singles: 1969 – 1973 in particular; in fact, it’s my fave “greatest hits” release by any artist. I see it as the unofficial female mirror to Pet Sounds, exploring a lot of the same themes, expressing a lot of the same angst. It’s beautiful and unlike most “greatest hits” packages, it also flows as if it were a cohesive album as opposed to a compilation. The close recording time of the songs means the vocal range and play styles of the group didn’t change so much as to make any tracks stick out. While she may not be an equal of Brian Wilson’s songwriting-wise, Karen Carpenter is certainly as talented vocally. What’s more, she unfortunately suffered the adversities of life in order to “sing the blues” as well as Brian or anybody else.
There’s one particular song I want to single out for special praise. I consider The Carpenter’s version of “Ticket to Ride” to be *the* best cover of another band’s music I’m aware of. It’s done in a completely different style from the original, a somber ballad instead of an uptempo pop tune which gives it a whole new emotional weight as a result. So many covers just rehash the same thing with only slight differences, making them effectively pointless. Plus, as someone who sampled like 400 late 60’s-70’s albums the last three years, you have NO IDEA how many shitty Beatles covers I’ve been subjected to. This is one of *maybe* three or four which actually does the original justice.
Kinda personal, and probably gonna sound weird or stupid to some of you, but I discovered this comp around the same time I was reading a Princess Diana biography at the end of high school. Princess Di’s story really resonated with me at this time of my life, for reasons I’ll explore later in this essay. It was strangely comforting to know that even someone so beautiful and beloved by the masses could be so unhappy in her personal life. Not that I was taking pleasure in her misfortune, but it helped me realize I was not alone or especially unworthy for being singled out and unhappy all the time. Beyond that, there’s just something vaguely compelling about Diana Spencer and her story that made me want to seek out more information, more of her (and it was this fascination in a lot of people which incentivized the media’s harassment and stalking that paradoxically made Diana more miserable and ultimately killed her. Talk about irony.)
Anyway, I listened to that Carpenters CD countless times, and it made the Diana Spencer biography somehow more powerful for me. I know it’s an arbitrary connection that says more about my mind-state than anything else, but I was really surprised how well the two synced up in my mind:
1) Beginning with their “happy” marriage ceremony full of promise (“We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Top of the World”)
2) Then the cracks beginning to form (“Ticket to Ride” and “Superstar”) The former made me visualize this particular incident where she discovered a gift for Charles from Camilla just before he went off on a trip abroad of some kind. Diana was seen crying as her husband left. Everyone assumed it was because she missed him already, but really it was because she knew deep down her marriage was doomed.
3) From there, things getting worse and eventually end on her own terms (“Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Goodbye to Love.”)
4) Then finding some semblance of purpose and satisfaction, despite the difficulties, in being her own person. Empowering others with her charitable endeavors and appearances. (“Yesterday Once More,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Sing.”)
5) “For All We Know” and “Hurting Each Other” represent her and Charles continuing to give each other grief or take not-so-subtle jabs in the media, like the infamous Panorama interview.
6) Finally, “Close to You” is the summation of her adult life, and the relationship with Charles that dominated it. It’s her desire, deep down, for her affections to be reciprocated by the person she (at least at one time) valued most. A reminder that at the root of all this pain and self-doubt came a tender appreciation for another human being.
A Small Scale Condemnation of Society
I greatly admire Princess Diana. Besides providing me with an unusual source of comfort through a lot of hard times in high school, I find her story to be a quietly profound black omen for our culture.
Diana was a beautiful young woman who represented a hopeful future. Her relationship with Charles was hyped up as a modern fairy tale–even the priest at their wedding said so. However, that was quickly proven to be a misguided fantasy; almost from the beginning she knew Charles was still in love with Camilla. The rest of her life was defined by the contradiction that the whole world loved her…except the one man whose affections she desperately craved. She was treated abominably by Charles as a result of his love for Camilla and resentment towards Diana. She was left out to dry by the royal family, and stripped of her HRH, despite their arcane rules putting her in this situation in the first place. She was stalked, harassed and exploited by the press to satisfy an insatiable public demand. As her brother said, a woman named for goddess of hunting became the most hunted person in the world. I would add to that, she was also a fairy tale princess archetype our media loves feeding to little girls, whose life story revealed that fairy tale endings don’t exist in our world.
I see Diana’s undeservedly grisly death in that tunnel as a divine condemnation for the way our society treats people. For example, why does the Prince need to marry a virgin? That was the archaic and sexist rule which set this whole tragedy in motion. Why do we think it’s okay to hound someone non-stop, never letting them have a moment’s peace just because they’re famous? People dismiss this injustice as “that’s just the way it is” or victim blame by saying “she knew what she was getting into” but why don’t we really step back and consider if it has to be that way in the first place? Why are there people who still cheat on their partners, or drive drunk? Why does it take a Princess and public icon to tell us it’s wrong to ostracize the vulnerable (in her case, AIDS patients)? Or remind us of the lingering scars of warfare (land mines and their innocent victims)?
The Power of Vulnerability
But, to diminish Princess Di’s contribution to history as that of a passive victim would be a disservice. She was an active voice for charity and reform. By all accounts, she was a protective and loving mother to her children. After being wronged by her husband, she surprised everyone by having the guts and acumen to use the press’ infatuation to her own advantage in standing up for herself. Imagine if the denizens of King Henry VIII’s England could have looked into the future and seen that someday, the discarded new woman in a royal’s life would be able to take her case to the court of public opinion and win. When you consider that, it’s a powerful testament to how far previously untouchable power structures are beginning to lose prestige.
But more than that, I think Diana embodied a certain empathetic, feminine spirit the likes of which I’ve yet to see again. In her slightly insecure smiles she tapped into a sense of the shared but unspoken pain I think many of us carry silently in our day to day lives. With her warmth and compassion for the mistreated or overlooked, she proved that true strength is empathy, not domination. Her unfortunate struggle with bulimia showed how toxic beauty standards are, and (since it allegedly began with an offhand remark from Charles on her weight) how our words impact others. Through the collective mourning her death inspired, she proved that we all need to let our emotions out once in awhile; it’s okay to cry. In a way, she embodied the concept that flaws and vulnerabilities can make you more endearing and therefore more powerful to others.
I also remember distinctly the night I got my wisdom teeth taken out, during my senior year of high school, where I watched a documentary about Diana on YouTube called The Secret Tapes. The moment I found most endearing was when she was going over a speech with her public speaking coach, and she lost her nerve when the children unexpectedly walked in. Obviously, as someone who struggles with speaking myself, I found that super relatable. Another moment from the same film, which made me come close to tears was the voiceover when Diana discussed putting her children to bed. How she would ask “who loves you most in the whole wide world?” and they’d answer “Mommy!” I think that’s really the heart of the Diana tragedy; she was just a nice lady who wanted to be a good mother to her kids, who wanted to have a husband that loved her. These are the simple things, which many of us take for granted as we strive for shallow pursuits like wealth or celebrity. It’s important to realize what really matters, and how a lot of people who seem to have it all are striving for what the rest of us take for granted.
This was all very impactful to 16-18 year old Me, who was holding in the trauma of bullying and sexual assault with no one I could go to for comfort. As someone who needed a gentle touch in my life but received only criticism, teasing and unspoken disappointment, even from friends and family. Someone who struggled with a different eating disorder (food addiction) to cope with my own emotional pain–and rather than find out why, I just got called fat all the time by people who should have had my back.
The Need for Femininity
I recall at the time, watching the footage of Diana’s funeral (my parents had taped it) and being frustrated at some of the spectators. The newscasters would ask multiple people why Diana was so important to them, and they could only give superficial answers like “she was a young princess.” However, I challenged myself to answer that question too and found that I couldn’t either. It’s hindsight and the experience of age that has allowed me to finally put into words why this woman I’ve never met had such a profound effect on me then and now. I suspect it was a similar case with those people on that day–some things are just hard to quantify at the time they happen. But the scale and magnitude of grief so many felt at her passing clearly demonstrates that something was felt, even if it’s difficult to specify.
I believe these aspects of Diana’s legacy resonated with a lot of people, even if they couldn’t express it in words, or admit to it openly. I think a lot of us desire that sort of feminine presence, the freedom to be vulnerable, in our lives. Unfortunately our society greatly prefers masculine traits over feminine ones*, and I see that as unlikely to change anytime soon. It seems a lot of feminist icons these days try their damnedest to exemplify traditionally male-attributes to fit in professionally. Even the creators for most of the “girl power!!” characters in media lately seem to prefer writing flawless, tough females who have to browbeat and out-compete men in order to be strong. It’s as if even women’s advocates are ashamed to be traditionally feminine these days, at least from my limited experience. Forgive me, but I see nothing in Hillary Clinton, Captain Marvel or Rey from Star Wars that I want to emulate, or feel inspired by, or would equate with being a strong woman specifically. I’m not saying all girls should act dainty, prissy or get back in the kitchen, but I do wish we had more women in the public sphere who derived their strength and admiration from embracing their emotions, stylishness, empathy and vulnerability. None of those attributes should be looked down upon, nor should women assume they must disown them in order to be respected or successful. That’s all I’m saying.
*I know I’m opening a can of worms with that statement. I plan on touching on the subject of sexism, against men and women, in a future post.