Friday, July 28, 2017

Carpenters – "Superstar" (1971)

Loneliness is a such a sad affair
And I can hardly wait to be with you again

Back in the seventies, my friends and I thought that the music of the Carpenters was about as square as music could be.  (Using the word “square” probably makes me about as square as a blogger can be.)

It’s been decades since I listened to an entire Carpenters record on the radio.  I usually change stations immediately when I hear the opening notes of “Close to You” or ‘We’ve Only Just Begun” or “Rainy Days and Mondays.”

Richard Carpenter with his little sister, Karen
But for some reason, I didn’t do that when “Superstar” came on the Sirius XM ’70s on 7 channel about a week ago.

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Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  

Or maybe it was longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver who said that.  (Or maybe it was President Harry Truman.)

Whoever said it first, it’s true.  I thought I knew that all the Carpenters’ hits were too sappy and sentimental to bear.  But I learned some things the night I listened to “Superstar”:

First, Karen Carpenter is a great singer.

Second, Richard Carpenter is a great arranger.

And third, the Carpenters’ “Superstar” is a perfect pop record.

I’ve listened to it about a hundred times in the last week, and I’m not even beginning to tire of it.

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“Superstar” is about a groupie who has had an affair – perhaps just a one-night stand – with a touring rock guitarist.  Every time she hears his song on the radio, she remembers the night they met and wonders why he never came back to see her.  But he’s moved on for good – you have to wonder if he even remembers her.

It’s a nice little song, but I don’t think either the music or the lyrics are anything special.  Apparently Karen Carpenter felt the same way in 1971 when her brother Richard told her about hearing Bette Midler perform “Superstar” on the Tonight Show – or perhaps the song’s lyrics were too explicitly sexual for Karen’s tastes.

Richard changed “I can hardly wait to SLEEP with you again” to “I can hardly wait to BE with you again,” and Karen agreed to give “Superstar” a try.  

She recorded a “scratch” vocal track – which is a recording of the lead vocal that’s intended to serve as a reference point for studio musicians to follow when their accompanying instrumental tracks are recorded.  

The Carpenters
After the instrumental tracks are recorded, the singer usually returns to the studio to record a final lead vocal track.  But Richard thought that Karen’s first take was so perfect that he decided to keep it rather than having her do it over.

He then backed Karen’s flawless vocal track with a inspired instrumental arrangement – which should come as no surprise given Richard’s talents as an arranger.  (Music professionals certainly recognized his talent as an arranger: Carpenter was nominated for the “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals” Grammy no fewer than five times between 1970 and 1977.)

Music professor Kevin J. Holm-Hudson published a detailed analysis of the Carpenters’ recording of  “Superstar” in 2002 in the journal of the Society for Music Theory.  You can click here to read that journal article.

One of Holm-Hudson’s many insightful comments on Richard Carpenter’s “Superstar” arrangement is how the verses and choruses differ.  The minor-key verses feature “classical” instruments – a harp, an oboe, French horns, and strings – that are often associated with melancholy or grief.  

The major-key choruses, which are louder and more rhythmically assertive, use instrumentation that is more typical popular music genres – the drums are more prominent, and tambourines and Tijuana Brass-style trumpets are added to the mix.

You can click here to read an analysis of Richard’s arrangement of “Superstar” by Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist who also has engineered and produced records.

Levitin appreciates just how important the arrangement of a song can be:

No one could think more of Karen than I do, but you can have the best singer on the planet and the best song, but if you don't have the right arrangement for that song and singer, the singer's going nowhere and neither is the song.  The arrangement is everything that makes a hit record.

He’s right.  “Superstar” proves that.

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Here’s the Carpenters’ recording of “Superstar,” which was released in 1971 on the Carpenters album:

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a purer and more unaffected lead vocal from a female artist.  Karen’s singing on “Superstar” is truly extraordinary.

At the very end of the song – after Karen sings her last note – Richard has one final surprise for us.  The strings play one more chord, and then another.  The last chord in particular is so soft that you may have never noticed it before, but it is as unexpected and sublime a final chord as I have ever heard.  

You can click below to buy the song from Amazon:


  1. About two years ago, I was shopping for shoes at the Big 5 store in East Pasadena CA. This haunting song came on the sound system, but I didn't remember the title, so I posted an inquiry on the "I listen to 70s music..." Facebook group and in an hour or two received the answer. A few months ago, I broke down and bought a Carpenters Greatest Hits CD so I could include it on a home-brew compilation disc.

  2. I never considered myself a Carpenters fan, either, for all the reasons you cite. And despite that, I consider Karen Carpenter's singing on "Superstar" to be one of the greatest female vocal performances I have ever heard anywhere. Chilling.