Karen Carpenter in the Age of Irony

Every month, I write a show called "The Meeting."*

(The asterisk stands for "of the International Order of Sodomites.")

It's a comedy/variety show, with sketches, songs, and politics mixed in, and every month, we honor a gay icon. Over the last three and half years we have honored the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Diana Ross, the movie Beaches; we've been all over the map. But every month, no matter who we honor, I invariably get emails from people telling me how much this particular icon means to them.

And then I chose Karen Carpenter for March, and my inbox was full. Full.

Emails upon emails. Requests, memories, and stories; people wanting me to know how much they love Karen Carpenter. And I don't blame them. I adore Karen Carpenter myself. There is no sound in the world like the harmonica solo that opens "Rainy Days and Mondays," it's totally unique, yet reminiscent of so many other things, and then you hear the voice of Karen. There's nothing like it. All the rest is just an invitation to listen to the sound of that beautiful and singular voice.

Karen Carpenter's voice isn't big, or loud, or gymnastic. I don't know if she would make it on American Idol today. It's simple, real, but painfully alive. It's filled with hope and promise, yet totally aware of the dark. It's that mixture that grabs you, holds you and forces you to connect, to engage. She is speaking just to you, taking you to places only you and she have known. She sings like she's your friend, in a private conversation, confessing her fears and hopes just to you. She's instantly familiar, as if you've known her all your life. You can hear her smile on some lines; her slow building grin shading the notes that somehow communicate no matter how bad it has been, it can always get a little better. Very few people have this sort of talent. It's a rare and precious thing, and as history has taught us time and time again, it's usually gone entirely too soon. It's what makes them Icons.

I expected a lot of emails, but what I didn't expect was so many from really young people. I got more emails from people who were born well after Karen was dead than anyone else. Karen Carpenter died 30 years ago last month, and yet there is a whole host of young people who adore her music and still fall in love with that voice. She speaks to them in a way that so much of the world around them doesn't: She is totally unironic. I know this may shock you, but, I don't like Irony.

Or perhaps I should clarify, I don't like staged irony, the sort that is lived and from what I gather, quite intentional. A friend of mine refers to this as "Hipster Irony." It's that sly wink and smile that smug 20-somethings wear when they decide to don a truly hideous cat sweater from a thrift store, or offer you some Kombucha from their Jem and the Holograms thermus. It's the grin that says,"Yes, I know this is awful, but through my very condescension, I am making it tragically beautiful, don't you think? Aren't you jealous of my powers?"

Well, no. No, I'm not.

It reeks to me of apathy, a strange disapproval/adoration that allows the "ironic," a cold distance from everything that surrounds them. Nothing is real or good or even bad, it just is and they can make fun of it, or love it, or hate it. Who cares. It doesn't involve them. They're laughing at it all.

On the other hand, I want to be involved. I want to like things, because I genuinely like them; because I'm invested in them. I want them to get me excited, to make me smile or think or cry. I want to be engaged. It's that connection that I look for in art, or in music, or in movies, or in clothes, or even in people, truthfully. How do we connect. I want to be a part of something, to feel something. And I guess I'm not the only one. I have emails to prove it.

You could be "ironic" about Karen Carpenter. The music can sound hokey, all those strings, the French horns, and the '70s swirl that lives in so much of the sound. And it's overly optimistic, and "wholesome" in a world that is increasingly less so. But as one 19-year-old put to me in her email, "I listen to Karen, and I feel less alone."

That's what great art is all about. It's hard to see the irony in that.