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Skinny blues: Karen Carpenter, anorexia nervosa and popular music


Abstract and Figures

This article discusses an extraordinary body in popular music, that belonging to the person with anorexia which is also usually a gendered body – female – and that of the singer or frontperson. I explore the relation between the anorexic body and popular music, which is more than simply looking at constructions of anorexia in pop. It involves contextually thinking about the (medical) history and the critical reception and representation, the place of anorexia across the creative industries more widely, and a particular moment when pop played a role in the public awareness of anorexia. Following such context the article looks in more detail at a small number of popular music artists who had experience of anorexia, their stage and media presentations (of it), and how they did or apparently did not explore their experience of it in their own work and public appearances. This close discussion is framed within thinking about the popular music industry's capacity for carelessness, its schedule of pressure and practice of destruction on its own stars, particularly in this instance its female artists. This is an article about a condition and an industry. At its heart is the American singer and drummer Karen Carpenter (1950–1983), a major international pop star in the 1970s, in the Carpenters duo with her brother Richard; the other figures discussed are Scottish child pop star Lena Zavaroni (1963–1999), and the Welsh rock lyricist, stylist and erstwhile guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards (1967–1995 missing/2008 officially presumed dead).
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Skinny blues: Karen Carpenter,
anorexia nervosa and
popular music
Film Television & Media Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
This article discusses an extraordinary body in popular music, that belonging to the person with
anorexia which is also usually a gendered body female and that of the singer or frontperson.
I explore the relation between the anorexic body and popular music, which is more than simply look-
ing at constructions of anorexia in pop. It involves contextually thinking about the (medical) history
and the critical reception and representation, the place of anorexia across the creative industries more
widely, and a particular moment when pop played a role in the public awareness of anorexia.
Following such context the article looks in more detail at a small number of popular music artists
who had experience of anorexia, their stage and media presentations (of it), and how they did or
apparently did not explore their experience of it in their own work and public appearances. This
close discussion is framed within thinking about the popular music industrys capacity for careless-
ness, its schedule of pressure and practice of destruction on its own stars, particularly in this instance
its female artists. This is an article about a condition and an industry. At its heart is the American
singer and drummer Karen Carpenter (19501983), a major international pop star in the 1970s, in
the Carpenters duo with her brother Richard; the other figures discussed are Scottish child pop star
Lena Zavaroni (19631999), and the Welsh rock lyricist, stylist and erstwhile guitarist of the Manic
Street Preachers, Richey Edwards (19671995 missing/2008 officially presumed dead).
We might locate that colloquial inauguration of anorexia on a Las Vegas nightclub stage in the
fall of 1975, when the popular musician Karen Carpenter collapsed while singing Top of the
world; or on the morning of 5 February 1983, when news [broke] of Carpenters death from a
starvation diet... [I]n the 1970s and 1980s [anorexia] ... became a vernacular, an everyday
word, an idiom. (Patrick Anderson, So Much Wasted,2010, 32)
The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, Help me, please, Im lost in my
own passive resistance, something went wrong... Did anyone ever ask you that question
whats it like being a girl in music? (Kim Gordon, Open letter to Karen,n.d.)
This article discusses an extraordinary body (Thomson 1997) in popular music, that
belonging to the person with anorexia which is also usually a gendered body
female and that of the singer or frontperson. I explore the relation between the
anorexic body and popular music, which is more than simply looking at construc-
tions of anorexia in pop. It involves contextually thinking about the (medical) history
and the critical reception and representation, the place of anorexia across the creative
industries more widely, and a particular moment when pop played a role in the pub-
lic awareness of anorexia. Following such context I will look in more detail at a small
number of popular music artists who had experience of anorexia, their stage and
Popular Music (2018) Volume 37/1. © Cambridge University Press 2017, pp. 121
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media presentations (of it), and how they did or apparently did not explore their
experience of it in their own work and public appearances. This close discussion is
framed within thinking about the popular music industrys capacity for carelessness,
its schedule of pressure and practice of destruction on its own stars, particularly in
this instance its female artists. This is an article about a condition and an industry.
At its heart is the American singer and drummer Karen Carpenter (19501983), a
major international pop star in the 1970s, in the Carpenters duo with her brother
Richard; the other figures I introduce are Scottish child pop star Lena Zavaroni
(19631999), and the Welsh rock lyricist, stylist and erstwhile guitarist of the
Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards (19671995 missing/2008 officially pre-
sumed dead).
I draw on and seek to develop the work undertaken by the likes of Su Holmes
on what she has recently termed star or celebrity anorexia(Holmes 2015, p. 815),
and Paula Saukko on how female celebrity images circulate discourses on anorexia
(2006). However, my focus is on music rather than media, with a critical interest in
ways in which the practices and expectations of the music industry set a conformist
template of corporeality, particularly for its female stars. Media discourses are intro-
duced for material about the presentation and representation of the anorexic body
(for example, from reviews and interviews in the contemporary music press, as
well as televised performances and music videos). The specific musical considera-
tions include discussion of the choice of instrumentation, the (sound of the) singing
voice, and the analysis of lyrics with a theoretical approach informed by ways of
thinking about the musically performative body from disability cultural studies
(Thomson 1997; Lubet 2011; McKay 2013). As noted, these musical questions are
centred on Karen Carpenter, both to reflect on her experiences of anorexia and to con-
tribute further to the critical interrogation of how pop operates, especially for its
female artists. Her lack of public utterance on her anorexia, right up to her death,
is understandable, given her lonely and vulnerable position as the global star first
and most associated with it. However, it is also problematic, not least since it leaves
key male figures around her to shape and control her narrative regular Carpenters
lyricist John Bettis whose songs constituted what biographer Ray Coleman calls the
sound tracks of her personal life(Coleman 1994, p. 148), and brother Richard as
Carpenters spokesperson and protector of the legacy, in particular. The article con-
cludes with observations about the place of popular music in seeking to capture
experiences of anorexia and related eating disorders in younger people today, and
the balancing act between popular song as trigger, as therapy and as a certain
form of authentic experience and expression.
There is remarkably little sustained writing on the culture of Karen Carpenter
(Jarman-Ivens 2007,2011; Lott 2008; Morris 2013; Smith 2014), bearing in mind her
major international success in pop, her musical innovation as female drummer
lead singer, and that she was the figure first and most associated in the publics
mind with what they thought of in the mid-1970s as the new condition of anorexia
The Carpenters were and are one of the worlds best-selling music acts,
with claimed record sales of 100 million and certified sales of 45.9 million, from an
active career from 1969 to 1983, when Karen died, as well as compilations,
As Helen Malson shows in The Thin Woman, the medical discourse around the condition originates a
century earlier, in the 1870s (1998).
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re-masterings and releases of previously unreleased material since then (List of best-
selling music artists2017). Yet my literature search on Carpenter located signifi-
cantly more scholarly writing about, for example, Todd Haynes and Cynthia
Schneiders short 1987 Karen/Barbie film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story than
has ever been written on the music of Carpenter herself, her extraordinarily success-
ful portfolio of recorded and live playing and singing, her media (television) career,
her life and death. Although there are at least two popular biographies today
(Coleman 1994; Schmidt 2010), it remains the case that Karen and Richard
Carpenter have been ill-served by popular music and cultural studies scholars,
have not been deemed worthy of featur[ing] heavily in popular musicology,as
Freya Jarman-Ivens puts it (2011, p. 63) just too popular to be impressiveto
most of us (Morris 2013, p. 2). It seems AOR and MOR, categories between which
we might place much of the Carpenters repertoire, still do not excite the scholars suf-
ficiently and, more broadly, female pop artists especially, as Jarman-Ivens notes, still
remain under-researched.
The Carpenters were never cool, even when Sonic Youth et al. tried to reclaim
them in the 1990s (Sonic Youth 1990; Various artists 1994). Back in the late 1960s and
early 1970s theirs was a deep music, of multi-layered vocal harmonies and over-
dubbed keyboards, but it sounded empty. It seemed to be less about expression
than a kind of repression. It was cold not soul, and you couldnt really dance to it.
An extraordinary contralto pop voice, with wonderfully resonant low notes (the
moneys in the basement, Karen used to say: quoted in Coleman 1994, p. 237),
always felt disembodied. Regular guests at the White House, in 1973 President
Nixon presented the Carpenters to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt as one
Figure 1. Young America at its very best. Karen and Richard Carpenter at the White House with
President Nixon, 1 August 1972.
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of the finest young groups in America, and young America at its very best(quoted
in Schmidt 2010, p. 101; Figure 1). Politically theirs was a public musical culture of
conservatism; it was wholesome and contained, and in seemingly stark contrast to
the sonic experiments and gestures of the counterculture variously a soft rock
music ... embod[ying] the US family values of the 1970s(Saukko 2006, pp. 153,
152) or the essential soundtrack to turn-of-the-seventies Southern California unfree-
dom(Lott 2008, p. 224). They never lacked disparagers, notes Mitchell Morris
(2013, p. 118). Rock critic Lester Bangs had reviewed a concert for Rolling Stone in
1971 and concluded band and audience ... gave me the creeps’–the review was
entitled The Carpenters and the creeps(1971, p. 21). Eric Lott describes the
Carpentersmusic as a brand of Los Angeles vernacular sentimental poetic produc-
tion for the airwaves, with its smooth, reified, even fetishistic sheen. And yet, he
continues, [t]he apparently unbroken surface of this industrially manufactured
sound ... is in fact riven by longing, constriction, and discomfort(2008, p. 219).
To turn from the industry and music to the condition and health history, there
is an identifiable historical public epidemiology: preceded in the mass media, the
social imaginary and the fearscape by polio (Shell 2005; McKay 2009) in the 1950s
or thalidomide (Vargesson 2015) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anorexia nervosa
began to be popularizedin the 1970s, to be obscured only by AIDSin the 1980s
(Brumberg 2000, p. 13). While profoundly visible through the shock of the thin, its
public symptom and presentation or display readily identifiable today, the eating
disorder of anorexia nervosa is complicated. It may be that it is a condition combin-
ing elements of cognitive and physical impairment, a mental health issue leading to
or presenting in a diminished corporeality. It may be that it is instead or as well a
social and cultural phenomenon, or rather one understood as originating at least
in part in the socio-cultural. Generally, the first of these is from a medical perspective,
the second from a feminist one. Patrick Anderson has articulated the critical dia-
lecticwithin approaches to anorexia, between the complicated nosology of anorexia
as a diseaseand anorexia as a symptom of ... cultural powerand gendered body
expectations (2010, p. 33; emphases original). Anorexia is complex and can be contra-
dictory: Helen Malson and Jane Ussher have observed that the thin or anorexic
body may be discursively construed in a multiplicity of often conflicting ways,
and one key example they offer of this is that it may signify both self-production
(of idealised body or identity) and self-destruction (symbolically and physically)
(Malson and Ussher 1997, p. 49). A clinical definition from Magills Medical Guide
informs us that anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a body
weight at or below 85 per cent of normal, an intense fear of weight gain that leads
to restrictive eating to the point of self-starvation, and a distorted perception of
ones body weight and the seriousness of the effects of the disorders(Pawlowski
and DeAngelo 2017). Yet, even though this is a clinical description, it goes on to
point out that anorexia is a multi-faceted problem that has physical, genetic, emo-
tional, and cultural components. More specifically, anorexia gained the attention
of medical professionals during the 1960s and beyond as a result of the medias obses-
sion with thinness. The media are prime contributors to this trend(Pawlowski and
DeAngelo 2017; emphases added).
In the cultural context, it has been recognised that some creative practices and
industries have had a greater tendency towards anorexia than others. David Garner
and Paul Garfinkels early study of socio-cultural factorsfound that trainee profes-
sional dancers and student fashion models were susceptible; this contrasted with, for
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instance, students in music colleges and conservatories who, although also (like the
dancers) having to undergo demanding and competitive training, were not
required to maintain a thin body shape for their careers(Garner and Garfinkel
1980, p. 648). Thus,[a]norexia nervosa and excessive dieting concerns were overre-
presented in the dance and modelling students(Garner and Garfinkel 1980,
p. 647), and with dance especially at ballet school many of the students developed
anorexia while actively studying(p. 652). Further, 28% of the professionally
oriented dance sample were amenorrhoeic(p. 653). It may be that the cultural ana-
lysis of eating disorders like anorexia has replicated the position of certain creative
industries: a meta-analysis of studies undertakenontheimpactofidealised
thin bodies in the media found that over 80% (21 of 25 discussed) employed
fashion magazine images (still photographs) as experimental stimuli(see
Tiggemann and Slater 2004, p. 49; emphasis added). Work on the impact of
thin idealsin pop music videos on young female viewers found, perhaps unsur-
prisingly, that brief exposure to music videos containing thin and attractive
images of women led to increases in body dissatisfactionamong the female
viewers (Tiggemann and Slater 2004, pp. 49, 55). So studies of both creative
practice and media representation have affirmed a cultural connection. It is
important to acknowledge that this has been problematised by recent critical
feminist scholars wary of over-emphasising what Maree Burns has termed the
inscriptive power of cultural images of thinness,whichmayrender persons
[with experience of eating disorders] as passive and docile rather than (also
as) engaging with, resisting and potentially transforming the discourses embed-
ded within those images(Burns 2009, pp. 1245). In media studies more gener-
ally readings of fans as global prosumersof accelerated and YouTube-ificated
audiovisual media also problematise straightforward passive impact and influ-
ence relations (Vernallis 2013, pp. 1415).
How does anorexia resonate in pop? Arguably popular music scholars may rec-
ognise in the combination of ambition to achieve and dark drive to self-destruct that is char-
acteristic of eating disorders(Saukko 2006, p. 162; emphasis added) a familiar
personality profile from their own cultural realm; in my own work I have termed
this an aspect of popsdestructive economy(McKay 2013). The role of the industry
is identified by some other scholars as bearing responsibility. Eric Lott, for, example,
describes how Karen Carpenter [i]nternaliz[ed] the [music] businesss murderous
pressure on the female image(2008, p. 230). Holmes point out that Lena
Zavaronisanorexia was often explained in terms of the normative script of the
damagedchild star in which fame itself led to her demise(2015, p. 815; emphasis
original). More widely, a trawl through online media sources such as celebrity news,
fanswebsites and listicles reveals many pop figures presenting and repeating a
familiar narrative. A recent feature on celebrity site Rant Hollywood, for example,
contains a list of 15 musicians who have suffered from eating disorders, with a
photograph and a single sentence diagnosis or explanation for each. It confirms
the place of eating disorders in media and public discourse of (primarily female)
pop. The musicians include Lady Gaga, Alanis Morissette, Victoria Beckham of the
Spice Girls, Ke$ha and Diana Ross, and many are quoted as explaining their disorder
via the industry: anorexia the result of the anxiety caused by the demands of [pro-
ducer] Berry Gordy(Ross), part of my job was to be as skinny as possible and, to
make that happen, I had been abusing my body(Ke$ha), suffered between the
ages of 14 to 18 while trying to break into the music industry(Morissette) and
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under a great amount of pressure to lose weight and stay fit to maintain her pop star
image(Beckham; see Rose 2015). To answer Kims question to Karen (in one of my
epigraphs): this is what its like being a girl in music. (For other ways in which the
idea of girlcan belittle and empowerin popular music see Warwick and Adrian
2016, p. 2; emphasis added.)
Sometimes its a boy. Intriguingly, in Paula Saukkos view to be a thin
woman articulate[s] a contradictory desire to be both ultra-feminine and mas-
culine(2006, p. 154) arguably this might be thought less of a contradiction
in rock and pop than in other spheres. In pop to be as thin as a mic stand is a
cool achievement, while to be feminine and masculine at the same time is fre-
quently another (see Figure 2). As it progressed, Richey Edwardssweightloss
was becoming increasingly both noticeable and displayed by him, part of his
preparation for Manics stage shows even, as bassist Nicky Wire later recalled:
often anorexics try to cover up their condition with baggy clothes ... But on
the first day of the British tour, Richey walks in and hes wearing the tightest
pair of girlsleggings Ive ever seen in my life. He still wanted the rest of the
world to know he was fucked up(Wire, quoted in Power 2010,n.p.).And
fans generally prefer their rock survivors to be skinny, like Mick or Keith; if
weighty or fat, especially where that contrasts with the youthful vigour of
their pop prime, they are figures of ridicule, embarrassment or at best pity.
I think of late period Elvis, cruelly described by Greil Marcus in full American
mythographic mode as the white whale(1991, p. 3). The spectacular public
meltdown in 2007 of another transformed popster, Britney Spears, was, as
Amy Erdman Farrell puts it in Fat Shame, a celebrity downfall story covered
in excruciating detail ... largely told through a narrative about her fat body
(Farrell 2011, p. 121).
Figure 2. To be as thin as a mic stand is ... cool. Richey Edwards, 1994, from Manic Street Preachers
Revolvideo, single release from The Holy Bible album.
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Karen, on top of the world, dealing with the pressures of the business
Karen met the culture industry on its own terms, and lost. (Eric Lott, Perfect is dead, 2008,
p. 230)
According to Patrick Anderson, then, Karen collapsed in Las Vegas in 1975 while
singing Top of the world, an event which began to open up to public consciousness
the condition of anorexia nervosa. An upbeat country-tinged love song co-written by
brother Richard Carpenter (music) and regular Carpenters lyricist John Bettis, Top of
the worldhad been a number 1 single in the United States in 1973, and was a high-
light of the Carpenterslive show. The opening line is Such a feeling coming over
me(Carpenters 1972)if not dissociated, is this what you sing before your body col-
lapses on stage? Ray Colemans biography of the band, which, although authorised
by Richard with some clunking editorial interventions, does focus on both his and
her health and addictions during their years of fame, puts the sudden end of the
1975 US tour and the cancellation of the Europe and Japan tours to follow slightly
less dramatically than Anderson (there is no onstage collapse, for example). Yet
Coleman too captures the concern about and shock of Karen Carpenters health.
[S]he was in deep physical trouble, down to around eighty pounds, ... yet astounding
everyone with her perfect vocal performance. But there was no kidding between the shows.
In Las Vegas she could hardly wait to leave the stage and reach ... her dressing room,
where she lay, or slept, until the second show. (Coleman 1994, p. 186)
(Schmidt has her weight at 91 lbs in September 1975, and writes that she made it
through the Vegas shows without a major incident: 2010, pp. 127, 144.) By now,
at the bands peak in popularity, [t]here was often a collective gasp from the audi-
ence when Karen would take the stageand they saw her body (Schmidt 2010,
p. 137). An otherwise favourable review in Variety of the 1975 Vegas shows noted
that she is terribly thin, almost a wraith’–and, in an indication of the lack of aware-
ness of the times, concluded with a suggested solution that was both thoughtless and
unhelpful: she should be gowned more becomingly(Anon 1975, p. 135). Despite the
rearranged and reduced schedule, within a couple of years she would go on to have
what she casually described as a ministroke(quoted in Coleman 1994, p. 232), strug-
gling with her eating disorder and complications resulting from it. She died in 1983 at
the age of 32, following a heart attack or, as her death certificate put it, emetine car-
diotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa; her heart muscles were
apparently atrophied by recent regular use of the well-known emetic ipecac syrup
(Schmidt 2010, p. 283).
Nine months after her death Richard was plugging a new album by the
Carpenters, of unreleased out-takes and songs from her final recording session he
had subsequently arranged and produced in the studio. On ABCsGood Morning
America he was probed on the role of the industry in his sisters premature death,
Its easy to point a finger at the pressures of the business, but Karen adored her career, and the
pressures and so do I so I really, really dont think it was that at all. (Carpenter 1983)
Shortly afterwards, in the same interview, he points precisely to her active schedule
as in fact being a key contributory factor in her cardiac arrest. We should remember
that the Carpenters had been a live act as well as a studio phenomenon. Schmidt tells
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us that between 1971 and 1973 they performed 150175 concerts per year around the
world, frequently in the form of punishing six-week stints of one-nighters (Schmidt
2010, p. 121). An album would take four to five months to produce, and then there
were extensive television, radio and other media duties. It was a relentless schedule,
aridiculous schedulein Karens own view, as articulated in late 1975 when quizzed
about her health and the postponed tours (quoted in Coleman 1975, p. 155).
She occasionally pointed to ways in which, even early on, the lifestyle of flux
and semi-structure that came with live playing and extensive touring disrupted
the simple daily routine of food and meals or perhaps she was already thinking
about justifying a new relationship with eating. As early as 1973 she said: When
youre on the road its kind of hard to eat. Period. On top of that, its really hard
to eat well. We dont like to eat before a show because I cant stand singing with a
full stomach(quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 127; emphasis original). The reasons she
offers here for not eating (well, or at all) are linked with her musical life. I am uncer-
tain whether she could not sing with a full stomachfor technical reasons to do with
breathing, projection, comfort or because, as she goes on to say in the same interview,
if you eat heavy youre going to be a balloon’– that is, she already thought she
would look fat on stage if she ate before a show. We can sense here how Karen,
like other [f]emale stars and celebrities[,] live[d] under a constant media spotlight
of surveillance which in turn demand[ed] a prescriptive regime of self-maintenance
(Holmes 2015, p. 815). There was also stark gendering of the touring and live experi-
ence. In a 1981 BBC radio interview, Karen looked back on the effects of being sur-
rounded by exclusively male band members, which could be oppressive and
At one point, there were thirty-two of us on the road. Its a big bunch. You tend to travel in the
same circles with the same people, meet the same people, and hang out with the same people
... Being the only girl, outside of my hairdresser, its not easy having thirty brothers on the
road. Everybody, including management, is extremely protective ... You really dont meet
anybody. (Quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 109)
As with some of the songs, Karens words can resonate subtextually. If your own
brother and co-star has a powerful reputation as a controlling presence, how magni-
fied is the experience of gendered control when it feels like there are thirty brothers
on the road? Management could indeed be extremely protective’–their practice
extended effectively to trying to control her love life, by secretly paying off boy-
friends they thought unsuitable (Coleman 1994, pp. 199201). Thus they sought to
protect their investment in their superstar there was a common view that the suc-
cess of A&M Records was largely built on the Carpenterss huge sales, after all, sales
which also subsidised the more rock and experimental end of the company roster
(Coleman 1994, p. 96).
Touring was unsustainable at such intense levels and, overnight, mid-tour, in
late 1978 the Carpenters suddenly stopped playing live and disbanded their long-
term backing group. Karens life would now feature a string of therapists and med-
ical interventions, hospitalisation, emergency hyperalimentation to increase her
weight, her extreme use of laxatives and later emetics, alongside a fairytale marriage
in 1980 and its swift failure. Su Holmes writes of the media spectacle of [Lena
Zavaronis] anorexia(2015, p. 815), which differs starkly from Karen Carpenters
reticence, denial and silence about her condition within the media. An excruciating
out-take exists of an October 1981 BBC interview with the Carpenters, Karen visibly
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frail, painfully thin, clearly ill though still smiling, quite feisty and capable of crack-
ing jokes. She is probed initially by interviewer Sue Lawley about the duos lengthy
absence, and then about Karens health. I was just pooped, she explains, when
youve been on the road for all those years without stopping. She denies having
(had) anorexia nervosa when the point is put to her fairly bluntly by Lawley
soon Richard interrupts off-camera and says I dont really feel we should be talking
about the weight loss, maybe its better to take a pass, and the subject is dropped for
the broadcast interview (Nationwide 1981). The out-take shows both her self-denial
and his agency in terms of media representation, each in stark contrast to the evi-
dence of her body before the camera.
There was always the career: recording a solo album in 1979 and 1980 that was
not released by the record company, a relative return to form with Richard on 1981s
Made in America, and regular television specials in lieu of live appearances. Saukko
understands the recording project in particular within a frame of personal autonomy
and health.
Carpenters attempt to solo with more mature or daring songs (three of the songs were disco)
symbolized her desire to become an independent person and to break free of her oppressive
familial and professional environment, which were hinted to have contributed to her
anorexia. (2006, p. 161)
Meanwhile Richard was in his own showbiz success hell for a while: addicted to
Quaaludes (prescription sedatives), he could not sign an autograph on tour
let alone play piano because of physical tremors, and his voice was slurred, which
meant harmonies might suffer (Schmidt 2010, p. 184). From President Nixons
young America at its very best, the Carpenters were rapidly heading into a dual
pop cycle of therapy and rehab, to the accompaniment of postponed tours, and
even rumours of a split dysfunction surely magnified by the discourse of control
and perfectionist tendencieswhich brother and sister shared, in studio and on stage
(Jarman-Ivens 2011, p. 71).
Chick drummer, chick singer
I want to look more closely at two further aspects of Karen Carpenters musical car-
eer which throw light both on her life and health, as her anorexia progressed, and on
ways in which popular music practices and conventions functioned to control or
accommodate her extraordinary body. These are: her identity as drummer, and the
ways in which that changed; and her singing voice and sung lyrics, and the complex-
ities of how these may have repressed or communicated her condition.
The solo album, entitled Karen Carpenter, was finally released in 1996, 13 years after her death. The
sleeve notes by producer Phil Ramone inform us that the tracks were as mixed with Karen in the studio,
except for the unmixedbonus track , the final one on the album. Her version of Last one singinthe
blues(Carpenter 1996) is a fine and resonant recording, made more interesting and one could say mov-
ing even because the intro and middle eight still feature her spoken instructions to the band: Just a cinch
slower, Lib(to drummer Liberty DeVitto), Dont forget the break. In the studio, with a producer who
was not her brother, and a different band, recording her solo album, she is, for a while, in control. That
Richard and the A&M Records senior executives should absolutely veto its release in 1980 is certainly a
powerful statement of male disregard and reassertion of gendered authority.
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First, let us remember that, before she was the lead singer, Karen Carpenter was
the drummer. Further, on the Carpentersfirst album, originally released in 1969 as
Offering, she also plays bass guitar on two songs, so we should say that at this time
she was a multi-instrumentalist. As a student at California State University in the
1960s Karen was the only female drummer on the campus, and, more remarkably
still, even with the pop revolution in full swing ... a female drummer who sang was
rare indeed(Coleman 1994, pp. 56, 54; emphasis added). The sense of rarity and sur-
prise seems to endure even Angela Smith, in her recent book Women Drummers,
introducing her subjects via a list of names, adds a qualification and exclamation
after the name of the first: the emphasis is on women who ... have been at the
top of their class in popular and contemporary jazz, country, blues, and rock
women such as Karen Carpenter yes, Karen Carpenter!(Smith 2014, pp. xvii
xviii). She was technically good, with a jazzy touch good enough for Richard to
foreground the drumming in some of his arrangements for Offering:Your wonderful
paradeends with a drum solo; All I can dois in 5/4 time, with a driving jazz feel. I
do not want to overstate the case, but there is also in the tight and slightly experimen-
tal jazz arrangements by the embryonic Carpenters in demo recordings from the
mid-1960s a glimpse of a different drumming, from the then teenage girl. A decade
later, in Playboy magazines 1975 annual readerspoll Karen topped the Best Rock
Drummer of the Year category, above Led Zeppelins John Bonham in second (he
was not pleased; Smith 2014, p. 121). It should also be noted that she featured on
music trade press advertisements, mainly alongside male drummers, for Zildjian
cymbals in 1971 and Ludwig drums the following year so there was a degree of
acceptance and recognition from the wider industry of her achievements as a
Yet there was pressure on the drummersinger to step out from behind the kit,
and from the back to the front of the stage. As Lott explains, she was implored by
Richard to abandon the drums, crimping her musicianship and putting her out
front, where her paralyzing self-consciousness was only redoubled(2008, p. 231).
It was not only Richard. Reviewers wrote pieces with titles like Bring Karen from
behind those drums:Why stick a lovely girl with a tremendous voice behind a
set of traps ... when by rights she should be out front moving to the music while
she sings?(James Bresette, 1971, quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 84). An increase in bod-
ily visibility onstage confirmed the positioning and reinstatement of a conventional
female role, even though this is explicitly not what she wanted. (On the topic of
her drumming Karen was regularly vocal, and happy to offer a gender perspective.
At high school, where [a]ll I ever heard was girls dont play drums”’, she had
quickly joined an all-girl band, after all: Schmidt 2010, pp. 25, 27.) We should
acknowledge that this was a reinstatement of a conventional singersrole too: not
many long-term successful pop bands have featured a lead singer who is also the
drummer, whether male or female.
In terms of the relation between her instrument
–‘the drums made her barely visible during performances(Smith 2014, p. 119) and
her perception of her own body, it was commonly felt by the men around her that
Karen framed this in the context of weight. An early boyfriend explained her fear
Well-known male drummer-lead singers include Mickey Dolenz, Robert Wyatt, Don Henley, Phil
Collins, and pop bands like the Dave Clark 5 and Paper Lace. Female examples, apart from Karen?
There are very few. Sheila E. (with Prince) is one. Karen really was indeed, is a striking innovator
in this regard.
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that when she ate her weight went to her hips, so she wouldnt eat ... She was
always worried about the hips, and thats one of the reasons she wanted to stay at
the drums(quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 120). Her then manager, Sherwin Bash,
recalled her as a chubby young lady who could hide some of that chubbiness behind
all these drums. Altogether more accurately (she was not chubby), Bash went on to
say that She was kind of a tomboy, and the drums were traditionally a male instru-
ment. She was kind of asserting herself in a certain way(quoted in Schmidt 2010,
p. 84). So, at the same time, the drums were indeed a mode of gender assertion
for her, as a successful and rising young woman during the womens liberation
movement. As she herself put it in 1970: A lot of people think that since Im the
lead singer I should be fronting the group. I disagree because I think weve got
enough chick singers fronting groups. I think as long as I can play [the drums], I
want to play(quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 84).
Yet what happened was that Richard sang less, she drummed less, and she
became the chick singer fronting [the] group, conforming to industry expectations,
and piling pressure for years to come on her self-image onstage before an audience,
alone under the spot. If the anorexic body is a body that appears to disappear, then,
paradoxically, this disappearing body also becomes more visible(Malson and
Ussher 1997, p. 51; emphasis original). As Karen the singer became more visible in
shows, so what Lott calls her gruesome disappearing actbegan in earnest and
was finessed (2008, p. 227). Karen seemed to sense that the move to front of stage
was a source of damage to her. In the long and surprisingly candid Melody Maker
interview a few months after her 1975 health crisis she told Ray Coleman: it hurt
me that I had to get up and be up front. I didnt want to give up my playing.
Singing was an accident. Singing seriously came long after the drums(quoted in
Coleman 1975, p. 148; emphasis added). (In later years there would be talk of
Karen guesting on drums on, of all things, her friend Olivia Newton-Johns
Physical tour in 1982, but by then she was far too weak: Schmidt 2010, p. 271.)
Let us be clear: her striking early innovation as a successful female drummerlead
singer has rarely if ever been repeated in pop. What we can think of as her new
way of combining playing and singing offered a different look on stage, which
could of course be exploited as a sort of pop gimmick but was also an inspiring
example for especially young female viewers ( pace Kim Gordon and Sheila E., for
a start). Karen recognised and revelled in her dual musical role, which was removed
from her against her will by the men around her (brother, management). Arguably,
she did become a bigger star with more hit songs and greater record sales, but her
musical innovation, creativity, expression and contribution were diminished.
Second, as for the singing voice and the very words being sung some written
especially for her, usually by John Bettis, others chosen for her by Richard these too
are complex, even conflicting in the search for meaning and self-understanding.
Trying to make sense of Karens voice has us reaching for contradiction or antithesis.
After all, she did tell us that theres two sides, two interpretations/A laugh is a cry,
hello means goodbye(Carpenters 1977a). Her voice is the ultimate for me, wrote
one early critic, [b]oth more bland ... and more resonant than any other
(Smucker 1975, p. 86). In Lotts view, her voice is unmatched in its ability to summon
a languid melancholy that is somehow at the same time evacuated of personality
(2008, p. 221). For Jarman-Ivens, the ‘“naturalvoice of Karen is played off against
the synthetic”’ technologised sections of Richards productions (2011, p. 92). For
Morris, the songs seem to embody a split between a virtuosically smooth [musical]
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exterior ... and an abject interiority just under the sheen of that voice(2013, p. 120).
Elsewhere I have made an effort to locate what disabled singer Neil Young has called
popular musicsweird voiceswithin disability discourse, in order to further under-
stand the meanings of the sounds of such voices and their relation to their producing
bodies (McKay 2013). This has led me to offering the theorisation of mal canto for
such efforts rather than bel canto and I would extend the argument here to
posit that, in popular music at least, mal canto has frequently, generally even, been
male canto, a gendered vocal practice of disability that privileges masculine crip
However, with Karen Carpenter the issue is not one of imperfection, paralleling
and extending in mal canto the damaged body via damaged voice. Rather, the issue in
fact is vocal perfection. Karen seemed to be striving for what she thought of as ver-
sions of perfection in voice and in body alike, could we say that? I think this is the
significance of Jarman-Ivenss point about her voice, drawing on Roland Barthes,
when she writes of the grain-disciplining, antibodily soundscape offered by the
Carpenters(2011, p. 86). Even when Richard decides to leave evidence of the
body in the songs, a present corporeality on some of her vocal recordings in the
form of the sound of her inhalations not edited out, these deep breathspreceding
lines are read as adding a special, unexpected dimension(Coleman 1994, p. 125)
only in an antibodily soundscapesuch as that of the Carpenters could the warmth
or human sound of natural breathing be thought so surprising (see also Jarman-Ivens
2007). Yet, through her closeness to the mic, in the studio especially, it is possible to
hear fine-grained articulationsin her singing voice. Such a recording technique of
sonic close-upmay produce an infectiousor attractive intimacy, which, taken
together with her timbral qualities and the low register, make for an ideal evocation
of melancholy, especially when we pay attention to the words she also singing
(Morris 2013, p. 134). For Morris, listening to Karens voice is a compelling experience
of sentimentality:
When the power of [her] register is married to partial shadings of vowels and consonants and
constant decorative departures by scoop and portamento from the center of the melodys
pitches, the combination is apt to overwhelm us with blissfulsad contingency. (Morris
2013, 134)
She never wrote her own lyrics (No, I dont write ... Nothinever came out,
she told Country Music: Naglin 1978, p. 217), yet there is a compelling case for read-
ing songs Karen sang as autobiographical. How? For a start, she often sang of aspects
of the industry, a metatextual commentary in songs about music, radio, stars, fans.
More significantly, even when she took a famous extant lyric, such as the
Carpenters1977 version of Dont cry for me, Argentinafrom the musical Evita,
one can agree with Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn, writing shortly
after her death: the songs lyrics have a chilling quality when considered in light
of what weve learned about [Karen] in recent days(1983, p. 251). Biographer
Randy Schmidt goes further: this song was autobiographical when placed in context
with the personal struggles she faced over the years(2010, p. 174). We should
acknowledge that many successful pop stars in the destructive economy of their
own industry might recognise and agree with the songs observation that as for for-
tune and as for fame/ ... theyre not the solutions they promised to be(Carpenters
1977b), but tears and the desperate struggles of a woman with a high public profile,
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who had transformed her own life, and then her own body, resonated powerfully
with Karen Carpenter. As she sang at the end of the song, all we really did have
to do was look at her to know that every word was true. Also, of course, regular
Carpenters lyricist John Bettis was effectively writing words specifically for her,
with her and only her in mind. Because Bettis, Richard and Karen worked so closely
together during the 1970s he even found his lyric subjects to be about emotions and
experiences the three of them shared: his words, about their lives, scored by Richard,
sung by her. It was an intensely closed world which one might call incestuous were
that word not already being quite widely used about the brother and sister who sang
love songs, seemingly to each other. According to the Coleman band biography, in
one song lyric, Bettis brilliantly spoke for the inner womans mood at the time,
another was a weirdly autobiographical lyric for Karen(1994, pp. 288, 124). Once
more we see a problematic gender politics in operation, as the words to Karens
inner womans moodare written by a man. Yet it is her characteristic vocal articu-
lation and interpretation of them on record that we all hear, always; it is her singing
voice that brings them to life, even when that life expression includes the sublimation
of emotion and feeling. Bettis was indeed
regularly writing lyrics that could later be interpreted as sound tracks of her personal life. Karen,
too, felt an intuitive response to the messages in Johns lyrics, and though it was too tender a
subject to debate, they would exchange a knowing remark. (Coleman 1994, 148; emphasis
In her Open letter to KarenKim Gordon (Figure 3) has Karenarticulating one of
those knowing remarks, sort of, as her Karen explains: Theyre not my words ...
But I will make the words my own because I have to express myself somehow
(Gordon, n.d.). For the dark side of the Carpenters, the underside of El Dorado,
as Lott puts it, clues exist everywhere in their music(where else could they? Her
anorexia, of course, and youthful death; his drug addiction); various deconstructive
readings evidence this. For instance, Lott writes of the isolation conveyed in Close
Figure 3. The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things. Kim Gordon/skeleton/drummer,
1990, from Sonic Youth Tunic (song for Karen)video.
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to You,an apparently dreamy evocation of intimacy that is in fact its opposite
just like me/they long to be/close to you”’ (Lott 2008, p. 227). The screenwriter of
a television biopic about Karen found himself re-evaluating the music: I [used to
think] when she sang Im on top of the worldshe was serious. I never heard the
undertones to it, the layers(quoted in Schmidt 2010, p. 4). To link word back to
music, Morris has identified a very specific undertonein the repeated low E she
sings at the end of lines in each verse of Top of the world’–‘there has been so
much of that low E, he observes, explaining:
Thus do sonority and melodic construction make common cause to undermine the songs
manifest message ... Our doubts about the perfect world ... have fastened upon the telling
In Morriss view, the low E Karen sings and repeats in falling terminal is the telling
sign,proof that it [the perfect world of which she sings] is not true(2013, 140;
emphasis added).
Other anorexias in popular music: Lena Zavaroni, Richey Edwards
This is not to suggest that something like anorexia was somehow unspeakable in
pop, or only addressable obliquely as we will see, far from it, today. Possibly riding
the wave of anorexia fascination that was created following Carpenters death in
1983, Lena Zavaroni was a regular on the British chat-show circuit discussing her
experience with an openness Karen had been incapable of. Zavaroni was a child
star, discovered via a television talent show in 1974. Aged 10 and less that five
feet tall, she embarked on an international solo pop career packaged as The Little
Girl with the Big Voice(see Figure 4), with her first hit single, a cover of the
American standard Ma! Hes making eyes at me. This is, I have often thought,
even back in the seventies, curious material for a pre-pubescent girl: a song about
sexual desire, male seduction and marriage, light-hearted, yes, but hardly appropri-
ate for a 10-year-old. Quite extraordinarily, the words are altered from the original
version favoured by other female singers (such as Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme,
Teresa Brewer and Annette Funicello). They sing of the seducers behaviour and
awareness of limits: Mercy, let his conscience guide him(Zavaroni 1974a).
Zavaroni sings the slightly more easy to deliver and alliterative: Mercy, let my con-
science guide me’–as though a 10-year-old has or should have a sexual conscience.
(He gets his kiss, by the way, and more than one.) Further, to be the Little Girlin
pop when you have yet to go through puberty into womanhood is clearly restricting
and problematic. In one interview frequently cited in her obituaries and retrospective
features about her life and music, she observed:
When they tried to fit me into these costumes, they would talk about my weight. I kept
wondering how they expected me to fit into these dresses. I was a plump little girl and I
was also developing into a woman. I wanted to be just right for them, but I had to go to all
these breakfasts, dinners and lunches. I only became fanatical about not eating when the
pressure got too much. (Quoted in Thorpe 1999)
Each of these instances, right from the start of her career, highlights at the very least a
carelessness by those in the industry who were responsible for looking after her.
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Within a few years Zavaroni became also an experienced television presenter,
fronting her own music and variety shows on both main British channels of the
Figure 4. The little girl with the big voice. Lena Zavaroni, 30 March 1974. At Madurodam miniature
town, Netherlands.
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time. So she was comfortable on camera, as presenter, performer or guest. On one
1985 chat show, she talked about her showbiz return, with a stark opening statement,
followed by a therapy-style second-person objective observation, one that places her
musical practice at the centre of her strategy or fantasy: To be truthful, I never
thought I would come back, I really had terrible doubts. Until you get over a
thing like that, because its part of your life at that time, ... thats when you start
looking at things you want out of your life. I decided that the thing thats going to
get me back hopefully to full standard again is singing(in Alexander 2000; emphasis
added). Did Zavaroni really believe that, that singing would, even could, be her cure?
Or was it self-delusion, or a plea to the television audience to remember that a singer
is what she had been? At the height of her child stardom she was regularly perform-
ing on American television (and indeed at the White House for President Ford on one
occasion). Jerry Lewis introduced her as a turn on one of his telethons: Wait till you
hear the voice that comes out of this kid. If you close your eyes you might think shes
Judy Garland(Zavaroni 1974b). Sadly there would become some truth in that.
A decade or so after Zavaronis regular chat show appearances discussing anor-
exia came a notable piece of popular music, words written by a man, sung by another
man, that stands as a stark effort at capturing the subjective experience of an eating
disorder. The lyrics of 4st 7lbsby the Manic Street Preachers were written by Richey
Edwards, the bands guitarist and art stylist, one could say. At the time Edwards was
struggling with anorexia and depression, had been self-mutilating on stage, was in
and out of psychiatric hospitals, and within a few months would disappear, pre-
sumed suicide. The lyrics chart, in the first person, the weight loss of a young
woman, from 6st to 5st 2lbs to finally 4st 7lbs (63 pounds), like the poetic diary of
an anorexic. Karin Eli describes the song and its narrative trajectory: it is sung in
body parts and numbers. Its protagonist, a nameless adolescent girl, perpetually
looks downward, fixing her gaze on her breasts, her ribs, her feet, the scale. She
counts herself down, lying in wait for the non-launch(Eli 2012, p. 1).
4st 7lbsis sung by the bands male rock vocalist James Dean Bradfield, in a
challenging act of phrasing and delivery. The front cover of the album it appears
on, The Holy Bible (1994), shows a triptych painting of an obese woman, dressed
only in underwear, fleshy female folds signalling for the listener the concern within,
pointing to the key song. Among what seem to me overblown rock songs about the
Holocaust and torture on this widely acclaimed album is the most personal, and
therefore effective, one, which Martin Power (2010) describes in his history of the
band as containing Richey Edwardssmost profoundly moving lyric. The song
opens with a distorted guitar riff and a sample of a young woman, Caraline
Neville-Lister, talking about her anorexia, taken from a contemporary BBC television
documentary: I eat too much to die, not enough to stay alive(Llewellyn-Jones 1994).
In the lyric, there are relatively few rhymes, and many of the lines do not scan the
musical structure, though there is a certain versechorus pattern imposed by the
music. It is a non-fit, a study in awkwardness and dysfunction, with a tempo change,
ritenuto, towards the end to well, what? Suggest the wasting through the musical
slowness? Try to slow down the wastings fatal progression? (We should ask how far
the lyricists subsequent suicide clouds or complicates his characters eating disorder.
It is in the manner of the rock and roll suicide a profoundly impoverishing cultural
phenomenon, in my older mans and fans strongly-held view that the ending of the
song, of her story, is magnified by his own ending.) The picture drawn is harrowing,
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of course, in describing what seems to be the girls deluded vanity and ready accept-
ance of damage, but also illuminating and even witty.
So gorgeous sunk to six stone ...
Stomach collapsed at five
Lift up my skirt my sex is gone ...
My visions getting blurred
But I can see my ribs ... (Manic Street Preachers 1994)
The rock star male and his anorexic female persona merge when we see the per-
formative demands and the sheer disdain for the ordinary audience, who are fat
This disciplines so rare so please applaud
Just look at the fat scum who pamper me so. (Manic Street Preachers 1994)
Yet Edwards is the guitarist, not the singer of the band. While he stands thin on stage
or screen authenticating his own lyrics, making them and him 4 REAL(the words
he cut on his arm after an early concert in 1991 before a music journalist and a pho-
tographer) there is a double act of distantiation. The first is the use of the girl as lyr-
ical persona, and the second is the fact that his words of intense personal expression
are (always) sung by someone else, the not-quite-so-thin lead singer Bradfield. (A
New Musical Express feature about the band in 1992 described Bradfield as the
Marlon Brando-era Stanley Kowalski to Edwardss Blanche Dubois from Tennessee
WilliamssA Streetcar Named Desire: Bailie 1992.) Arguably Edwards is feminised
in his own lyric and masculinised by his bands singer. Today, a little more burly
in middle age perhaps, Bradfield still sings the song in the live set; it survives and
is not diminished. 4st 7lbs, written and sung by two men, performed by one of
them across decades, helps us see another gendered perspective on eating disorders.
Conclusion: pro-ana music and media
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world. (Carpenters, I need to be in love,1976)
In the 1990s Richey performed anorexia, as part of some kind of rock aesthetic of self-
destruction, and wrote the lyrics of a powerful, extraordinary song about it. In the
1980s Lena talked of anorexia, seemingly on any television chat show that would
have her as a guest, as she tried to revive her career, but she never sang of it. In
the 1970s Karen, the pop groundbreaker, did not even like to say the words anorexia
nervosa, not even (or especially) after a full years therapy in New York to try to deal
with it. No waif warrior(Katzman 2009, p. xvii), seemingly, our Karen. She never
sang directly of it, of course, and yet it seems everywhere in the Carpenters music,
from the technologised perfection of the sound on record to her gasp-inducing
body unhidden by drums for concert audiences, from her wide- or empty-eyed, smil-
ing denial to the often banal pop lyrics that somehow always suggested more and
worse –‘In my own time nobody knew the pain I was going through(Carpenters
1975)to the void voice that was so full.
There is today a thriving online subculture in pro-ana songs, images, websites, social
media and youtube channels such as anamiamusic. The songs that are on these plat-
forms are usually self-written, commonly feature young female voices, breathy vocal
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recording, high pitched sonic signifiers of sensitivity often sparsely accompanied
by acoustic guitar or piano, lyrically focused. Others included are classic rock or
grunge songs with male singers whose lyrics articulate or are understood as referen-
cing the (angry) experience of eating disorders. There are some pop hits. Nowadays,
it seems, the teenagers bedroom mirror, once a reflective screen for practising guitar
poses, frames alternate pop corporealities, while the essential mobile phone, its
music, screen and camera, instantly accesses every triggering song ever and you
can kik your ana buddy at the same time. Even in anorexias treatment, music signi-
fies: the use of song-writing as a preferred mode of music therapy for adolescents
with eating disorders confirms their already existing relationship with music and
their identification with particular songs or artists who resonated with their life
experience(McFerran et al. 2006, p. 402). So, perhaps Lena was right on that 1985
chat show: singing songs could help lead back to full standard.
(It is worth noting that in my survey I found fewer mentions of Karen
Carpenter than I expected on comment boards and chat groups from these mostly
younger web mistresses and contributors. In this context at least she does not figure
in what Morris describes variously as a martyrologyor canonization(2013,
pp. 118, 119.) I do not think her absence is because of the historical nature of
Carpenters music after all, artists and songs like the Monkees’‘99 pounds
(recorded 1967, released 1970), Elton JohnsTiny danceror the Kinks’‘Skin and
bone(both 1971) are all mentioned in various contexts, therefore speak to the
new, younger audiences. It may be because lyrically there is no obvious mention
of eating disorders in the Carpentersrepertoire, not even in song titles, or the
musics smoothness is not heard as containing identifiable sonic signifiers of suffer-
ing, pain or anger, or the young people that mostly construct, post to and read such
sites do not actually want to make dead (female) heroes, say.)
What follows is a set of lyrics from songs about anorexia or featuring on anamia
websites. These are wordy snapshots, forming a nosological cento, sort of. In reading
(aloud), one may pause, after each. What is the critical or theoretical imperative,
here? I can at least say this: in their creativity such lyrics and readings offer .. . some-
thing, whether that is positive (the articulation or understanding of anorexia) or
negative (triggering), or a dis/comforting mix of both. Thinking of creativity, it is
well worth acknowledging Karin Elis key observation in her short reading of that
Manics song: although 4st 71bs’‘is bookended by death, she writes, I still find
that the songs profoundest insight is about survival. Edwards eloquently captured
eating disorder as an immersive, lived process(Eli 2012, p. 2; emphases added).
While anorexia may (does) remain puzzling, here are some of the answers of anor-
exics themselves, as popular music fans and performers, which are alternatively
powerful and profound, sobering and moving, banal and domestic, funny and
Perfection is a disease of nation. Please die, Ana. Hiding in my baggy jeans. Society made me
fat. Perfect weight, 88. All worn out and nothing fits. I have you to save my day. Skeleton you
are my friend. Youre so fucking special, I wish I was special. Ana wrecks your life like an
anorexia life. When may we leave the table? Im Mrs Shes too big now shes too thin. I told
you to be balanced. Youre coming undone. If I swallow anything evil put your finger
down my throat. Thin, where the hell have you been? Mother tries to choke me with roast
beef. Dont make noise youll break your legs. Underweight goddess. Hey mom, look, Im
up here, I finally made it. Anorexia will cut your life much shorter (Shut the fuck up). I
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hear youre losing weight again. Hi my name is Ana and Im here to save you very smart of
you to call me. Mirror mirror on my wall. Wants to look like a star, but she takes it too far.
The final rhyming couplet is taken from Canadian singer-songwriter Rachel
FergusonsNever good enough(Ferguson 2006), a song that features regularly on
pro-ana, thinspiration and general ED sites and lists. It captures something of the
relationship between the constructed and mediated expectations of pop culture
and the fantasy or desire of the young (female) fan or wannabe, although again
we should bear in mind Burnss warning about too readily accepting the inscriptive
power of cultural images of thinness(2009, p. 124). I hope this article has shown
ways in which one influential creative cultural sector, the popular music industry,
is capable of producing and reproducing disastrous lives for its stars, or at least of
demanding of their bodies something extraordinary and then being incapable of or
uninterested in helping them negotiate let alone recover from their willed transform-
ation. Lott views this as the culture-industry death drive(2008, p. 231), I have
myself written of the destructive economyof pop (McKay 2013), of how it can func-
tion as a disabling culture, while Holmes sees the contemporary media landscape as
being pervasively populated by the figure of the female celebrity train wreck”’
(2015, 814). I have aimed to deepen our understanding of the operations and pro-
cesses of the industry for some of its own workers, their health and survival, and
for pop fans. I have also sought to widen critical discussion on a specific culture of
anorexia, as we might put it.
I would like to thank a reviewer of ShakinAll Over: Popular Music and Disability for
asking in her review something like, Why no Karen Carpenter?, and setting me off on
a journey. That was Jessica A. Holmes, in Ethnomusicology Review. Good question.
Also I thank my University of East Anglia colleague Su Holmes for initial critical dis-
cussions and for sharing some resources, as well as for a sharp critical reading of a
draft (errors remain mine), my musician friend Joey Herzfeld for being interested
enough in the music of the Carpenters to point me to some of the lesser-known rep-
ertoire, and the members of the International Association for the Study of Popular
Music discussion list for responding so fulsomely to my query about drummer/lead-
singers. Finally I do want to acknowledge with gratitude the work of the two
anonymous readers during the journal review process: their sensitive and incisive
comments have, I hope, helped the critical focus.
Image credits. Figure 1: Collection RN-WHPO: Nixon White House Photographs.
NARA-194770. Public domain. Figures 2 and 3: Fair use. Figure 4:Lena Zavaroni
927-0962by Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief-Fotocollectie Algemeen
Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 19451989. CC BY 4.0.
Alexander, J. (dir.) 2000. The Real Lena Zavaroni. Channel Four Television. Broadcast 23 February 2000, part of
the Trouble With Food season of programmes
Anderson, P. 2010. So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance (Durham NC, Duke
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Bradford Cox's physical appearance has mystified audiences, critics, and fans since the inception of his American indie rock band Deerhunter in the early 2000s. As the band's frontman, Cox is 6’4” with an exceptionally thin, angular frame, physical effects associated with Marfan syndrome. Yet many critics and fans do not recognize that he has a disability per se, instead speculating about possible anorexia, drug abuse, mental illness, and even his gender and sexual orientation. Through analysis of Cox's reception and creative output, I argue that the simultaneous fetishization and normalization of his body is due to its resonance with two overlapping countercultural discourses: the current idealization of thinness in indie rock as it both extends and departs from an earlier tradition of freakery and androgyny in punk. I show that Cox resists what he views as the masculine heteronormativity and performative apathy of indie rock through “freakish” sartorial reference to his androgynous punk idols PJ Harvey, Joey Ramone, and Patti Smith, an aesthetic that for Cox is vitally queer. Cox uses his solo musical output to further convey his alienation as a queer-disabled male artist: through his lyrics, album art, and specific vocal affectations and production techniques, he establishes a continuity across the visual and sonic registers of his identity to ultimately achieve a sense of belonging.
This contribution adds to the economic literature on the market value of rarity in markets for cultural collectible goods by studying the price of rare audio recordings (chiefly vinyl) sold on the online marketplace Discogs. Community-based variables serve as proxies for (inverse) rarity and (potential) demand. Results show that the elasticity of price with respect to our measure of inverse rarity (demand) ranges between −0.120 and −0.140 (0.150 and 0.160). In addition, effects of hedonic characteristics such as the popularity or collectibility of an artist can be identified. Finally, the study provides evidence for premia for rarity at the top end of the distribution of prices.
In July 2014, an anonymous source leaked the raw audio of Britney Spears’s confessional ballad “Alien.” Haters pounced on this star’s denuded voice, gleefully seizing on the viral artifact as a smoking gun for Spears’s deficits and for the pop industry’s artistic fakeries more broadly. My paper situates this flashpoint of Spears-shaming within late-capitalist archives of public humiliation, cyberleaks, and the paternalistic scrutiny of women’s bodies and voices.
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Given the explosion in recent years of scholarship exploring the ways in which disability is manifested and performed in numerous cultural spaces, it's surprising that until now there has never been a single monograph study covering the important intersection of popular music and disability. George McKay's Shakin’ All Over is a cross-disciplinary examination of the ways in which popular music performers have addressed disability: in their songs, in their live performances, and in various media presentations. By looking closely into the work of artists such as Johnny Rotten, Neil Young, Johnnie Ray, Ian Dury, Teddy Pendergrass, Curtis Mayfield, and Joni Mitchell, McKay investigates such questions as how popular music works to obscure and accommodate the presence of people with disabilities in its cultural practice. He also examines how popular musicians have articulated the experiences of disability (or sought to pass), or have used their cultural arena for disability advocacy purposes.
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Nearly 60 years ago thalidomide was prescribed to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. What followed was the biggest man-made medical disaster ever, where over 10,000 children were born with a range of severe and debilitating malformations. Despite this, the drug is now used successfully to treat a range of adult conditions, including multiple myeloma and complications of leprosy. Tragically, a new generation of thalidomide damaged children has been identified in Brazil. Yet, how thalidomide caused its devastating effects in the forming embryo remains unclear. However, studies in the past few years have greatly enhanced our understanding of the molecular mechanisms the drug. This review will look at the history of the drug, and the range and type of damage the drug caused, and outline the mechanisms of action the drug uses including recent molecular advances and new findings. Some of the remaining challenges facing thalidomide biologists are also discussed. Birth Defects Research (Part C), 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Thin Woman provides an in-depth discussion of anorexia nervosa from a feminist social psychological standpoint. Medicine, psychiatry and psychology have all presented us with particular ways of understanding eating disorders, yet the notion of ‘anorexia’ as a medical condition limits our understanding of anorexia and the extent to which we can explore it as a socially, discursively produced problem. Based on original research using historical and contemporary literature on anorexia nervosa, and a series of interviews with women diagnosed as anorexic, The Thin Woman offers new insights into the problem. It will prove useful both to those with an interest in eating disorders and gender, and to those interested in the new developments in feminist post-structuralist theory and discourse analytic research in psychology.
How can we account for the persistent appeal of glossy commercial pop music? Why do certain performers have such emotional power, even though their music is considered vulgar or second rate? In The Persistence of Sentiment, Mitchell Morris gives a critical account of a group of American popular music performers who have dedicated fan bases and considerable commercial success despite the critical disdain they have endured. Morris examines the specific musical features of some exemplary pop songs and draws attention to the social contexts that contributed to their popularity as well as their dismissal. These artists were all members of more or less disadvantaged social categories: members of racial or sexual minorities, victims of class and gender prejudices, advocates of populations excluded from the mainstream. The complicated commercial world of pop music in the 1970s allowed the greater promulgation of musical styles and idioms that spoke to and for exactly those stigmatized audiences. In more recent years, beginning with the "Seventies Revival" of the early 1990s, additional perspectives and layers of interpretation have allowed not only a deeper understanding of these songs' function than when they were first popular, but also an appreciation of how their significance has shifted for American listeners in the succeeding three decades.
To be fat hasn't always occasioned the level of hysteria that this condition receives today and indeed was once considered an admirable trait. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture explores this arc, from veneration to shame, examining the historic roots of our contemporary anxiety about fatness. Tracing the cultural denigration of fatness to the mid 19th century, Amy Farrell argues that the stigma associated with a fat body preceded any health concerns about a large body size. Firmly in place by the time the diet industry began to flourish in the 1920s, the development of fat stigma was related not only to cultural anxieties that emerged during the modern period related to consumer excess, but, even more profoundly, to prevailing ideas about race, civilization and evolution. For 19th and early 20th century thinkers, fatness was a key marker of inferiority, of an uncivilized, barbaric, and primitive body. This idea-that fatness is a sign of a primitive person-endures today, fueling both our $60 billion "war on fat" and our cultural distress over the "obesity epidemic." Farrell draws on a wide array of sources, including political cartoons, popular literature, postcards, advertisements, and physicians' manuals, to explore the link between our historic denigration of fatness and our contemporary concern over obesity. Her work sheds particular light on feminisms' fraught relationship to fatness. From the white suffragists of the early 20th century to contemporary public figures like Oprah Winfrey, Monica Lewinsky, and even the Obama family, Farrell explores the ways that those who seek to shed stigmatized identities-whether of gender, race, ethnicity or class-often take part in weight reduction schemes and fat mockery in order to validate themselves as "civilized." In sharp contrast to these narratives of fat shame are the ideas of contemporary fat activists, whose articulation of a new vision of the body Farrell explores in depth. This book is significant for anyone concerned about the contemporary "war on fat" and the ways that notions of the "civilized body" continue to legitimate discrimination and cultural oppression.