The first song I can remember singing in the shower started like this:
“When I was young, I’d listen to the radio,
waiting for my favorite songs
When they’d play I’d sing along.
It’d make me smile.”
Do you know this song?
Do you hear the tune in your head?
Are you singing along with me?
If yes, you’re already in on the joke.
If not, play along for a few minutes. Humor me.
The song continues:
“Lookin’ back on how it was in years gone by
And the good times that I had
Makes today seem rather sad, so much has changed.
It was songs of love that I would sing to then
And I’d memorize each word
Those old melodies still sound so good to me
As they melt the years away…”
I was five then. I know only because I remember the blue paint on the walls of my parents bathroom and my reflection in the mirror that spanned the length of the vanity. I was beveled, like the glass of the shower door.
I was Karen Carpenter in that mirror. Singing my little heart out. Singing about the kind of pain I wouldn’t know until many years later — the simple heartache that is a result of nothing too tragic, just the passing of time.
Soon after those singing in the shower days, I’d lose the freedom to belt out Karen Carpenter to social pressure. The Carpenters, after all, were played only in the tape deck of my mom’s car and on the easy listening channel. The Carpenters were weak … and for losers.
This changed quite suddenly when I was a senior in college. A compilation CD was released called “If I Were A Carpenter” in which alternative rock bands got together to cover the songs of the brother-sister duo. The result was stunning. Mind-blowing. Just listen to Sonic Youth’s rendition of Superstar. It’s an entirely different song. Reinterpreted, and yet, carrying the same powerful message.
“Don’t you remember you told me you loved baby?
You said you’d be coming back this way again baby…”
It’s dreamy, this version, creepy even. Not sweet and innocent. Nothing a five year old girl would sing in the shower. It’s so not Karen Carpenter, and yet, her legacy remains between the lines.
Funny, I thought, this morning. At 5, I could hear a faint bit of optimism in Karen’s vibrato, as if maybe the superstar would one day return. At 39, listening to Sonic Youth, all I hear is drawn out hopelessness and the certainty that the superstar will never “be back this way again.”
Who was right?
“Yesterday Once More,” the song I used to sing in the shower was covered on the album by a band I never heard of (and still haven’t) called Redd Kross. Their version introduced electric guitars and transforms a wistful reflection into an anthem.
Consider what happened to Karen Carpenter when her songs were covered by alt rock bands. She became relatable to an entirely different audience.
Someone whose ears would have been closed shut to her poetry, to her message when she sang it … suddenly might have opened up when her words and music were expressed by someone else. In their accent.
This made me think of my listening of others. And others’ listening of me.
How quick we are to stop listening when the voice is unfamiliar, when the song isn’t one we want to sing along to. Or when we’ve already decided the person speaking is weak, or a loser.
We’ve already shut our ears … before they even have a chance to speak. Or sing.
And what happens when someone else steps in and offers the same message, but with a different tune.