Karen Carpenter’s voice was a constant background noise in my youth, which explains why I didn’t conceive a genuine respect for her until my thirties. She had a tough life; after being shoved into the spotlight by an ambitious brother and a borderline mother, she fell into a truly bad marriage and ended up starving herself to death. The genuine pathos of Karen’s existence makes the sunny optimism of her music just that much more upsetting. I don’t think there was anyone less “cool” in the self-conscious Seventies and Eighties than Karen Carpenter. When she succumbed to anorexia, my local rock station played “We’ve Only Just Begun” with the DJ cutting in to moan “TO DIEEEEEEEE…” at the (in)appropriate time. Along with disco, the Carpenters found themselves relegated to less-than-human status in the Guns-N’-Roses-fueled rearview mirror.
Unlike disco, the Carpenters didn’t get a modern rehab. They’re just too “white” and this is an era where “whiteness” is commonly considered to be a malignant force. They were also capable of making some genuinely odd musical choices. “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft” is perhaps the oddest. It was expensive and complex to record, and as with much of the Carpenters’ output it was driven by the desires of the brother, not the sister. Yet there’s something remarkably charming in retrospect about the idea of being so optimistic that you couldn’t imagine anything but a positive outcome from First Contact. Think of this song as a musical version of Iain M. Banks’ Culture books; a love song to the ultimate Other, performed by a woman who was her own mortal enemy.