Of course, most Sonic Youth fans are aware that the 1990 song, “Tunic (Song for Karen),” is a not exactly transparent reference to Karen Carpenter, the honey-voiced chanteuse and easy-listening icon. Kim Gordon’s trademark disaffected delivery feels almost sardonic, as she pleas, “I feel like I’m disappearing - getting smaller every day, but I look in the mirror - I’m bigger in every way” a reference to Carpenter’s tragic 1983 death from complications related to anorexia nervosa.
In fact, Gordon was a giant Carpenters fan, and the song is completely earnest. Explaining the lyrics 20 years later, Gordon professed,
I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller. And there have been times when I feel I’ve lost mine. When people come and ask me about being famous or whatever and I don’t feel that, it’s not me. But it makes me think about it. The music is definitely about the darker side. But I also wanted to liberate Karen into heaven
Below is an open letter written by Gordon to Karen (date unknown), reprinted from the Sonic Youth biography, Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix:
Thru the years of The Carpenters TV specials I saw you change from the Innocent Oreo-cookie-and-milk-eyed girl next door to hollowed eyes and a lank body adrift on a candy-colored stage set. You and Richard, by the end, looked drugged—there’s so little energy. The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, “Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong. I wanted to make myself disappear from their control. My parents, Richard, the writers who call me ‘hippie, fat.’ Since I was, like most girls, brought up to be polite and considerate, I figured no one would notice anything wrong—as long as, outwardly, I continued to do what was expected of me. Maybe they could control all the outward aspects of my life, but my body is all in my control. I can make myself smaller. I can disappear. I can starve myself to death and they won’t know it. My voice will never give me away. They’re not my words. No one will guess my pain. But I will make the words my own because I have to express myself somehow. Pain is not perfect so there is no place in Richard’s life for it. I have to be perfect too. I must be thin so I’m perfect. Was I a teenager once?... I forget. Now I look middle-aged, with a bad perm and country-western clothes.”
I must ask you, Karen, who were your role models? Was it yr mother? What kind of books did you like to read? Did anyone ever ask you that question—what’s it like being a girl in music? What were yr dreams? Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs? Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?
your fan – love,
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Just how beautiful was Karen Carpenter’s voice? Listen to her isolated vocal tracks and find out
Via Letters of Note