Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Carole King: Five Million Friends

Carole King's Tapestry is a triumph of mass culture. In less than two years it has sold well over five million copies, putting it in a class with the best-selling albums of all time, and it is still on the charts, moving from 59 to 52 in the October 29 Cash Box, for instance. Such statistics are so overwhelming that they seem to transform a mere record into some sort of ineluctable cultural presence, and in a sense they do. But five million people isn't everybody--there are a hundred million phonographs in this country. How would you estimate the overlap between Tapestry and the two albums that have sold even more, The Sound of Music and Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water? Obviously, Tapestry shares a lot of its audience with Bridge Over Troubled Water, but one way or explaining the difference between the two is to guess that twice as many Sound of Music owners also own Bridge Over Troubled Water as own Tapestry.

All three of these albums are smooth, well made. But technique in itself is neutral--it can be bane or benison, manipulation or revelation. The Sound of Music exemplifies its perils, and the perils of popular culture in general. Pauline Kael wrote of the film that its audience became "the lowest common denominator of feeling: a sponge" and that it epitomized "the sentimental American tone that makes honest work impossible." By offering simplistic solutions to problems that are unreal in the first place, it can only separate its audience from the details of their real-life difficulties, thereby exacerbating them. In contrast, Bridge Over Troubled Water is often funny and honest. It breathes life. Yet I suspect that its flawless, rather languid loveliness is ultimately sporific, whereas Tapestry is in many ways an eye-opener.

Not that Carole King approaches the bitter hard-rock perspicuity of Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger. Why should she? If such work were suddenly to sell five or six million units, it would probably be for the worst sadomasochistic reasons. These things happen in stages, and Carole King has achieved unprecedented honesty and innovation within her range of appeal. Those who dismiss her sanguine world-view as sentimental either aren't listening or are afflicted with a constitutional inability to understand that many people do attain genuine contentment without wearing blinders. Tapestry functions as pacific listening for rock fans with similar aspirations. On the two albums preceding Tapestry her old group, which later became Jo Mama, tended to jar this serenity with uneven mixes and slightly jazzy settings. Then Lou Adler decided to produce her. The result goes down easy.

Tapestry had its chin-up song ("Beautiful") and its pastoral-escape song ("Way Over Yonder") and its inane life-is-cosmic song ("Tapestry"). But it also evoked the joys of physical (not necessarily sexual) love and the pain of the geographical separation that is the curse of romance in our mobile paradise. It contained a true and sentimental standard about friendship and a true and ironic standard about breaking up. It praised an outlaw. And it affirmed the continuity of life with two apt classics from her pre-performance rock and roll composing career. But most of all, it established Carole King's individuality as a woman.

For Adler's production was so smooth that it slipped a real, potent woman past five million half-suspecting Americans. Carole King is genuine. She is beautiful not because her features are ideal--she is the greatest thing to happen to the Jewish nose since Barbra Streisand--but because her face is open, pleasant, honest, warm. So is her piano style--the first widely recognized instrumental signature ever developed by a woman. And so is her voice--not crystalline folky or hog-chomping funky, just a speaking voice that catches and breaks and even quavers as it conveys melody and emotion. Men had been permitted colloquial vocal styles for many years, and by 1970 they were the norm, but women, objectified in the male-dominated culture, were expected to conform to the old instrumental norm or else ooze sex. Carole King destroyed that expectation, perhaps forever. No matter how many I-will-follow lyrics she writes and sings, that ought to be worth a footnote in anyone's history of cultural revolution.

A success as spectacular as that of Tapestry is impossible to anticipate and almost impossible to follow, so no one felt too put off when King's next album Music, covered its substantial lyrical retreat with a few minor musical advances. But now there is Rhymes & Reasons, which reneges on the advances and continues the retreat. Song by song, the melodies haven't lost their magical properties, and the words are not dishonest when you listen carefully. But the energy level is very even, and none of the most memorable musical-verbal phrases, those little snatches at the heart of a song's meaning, jolt the sensibilities the way "It's too late, baby, it's too late" or "Smackwater Jack he bought a shotgun" did.

There is no other material available. Unfortunately, King seems so bound up in the present that she has abandoned her past, but it would be delightful to hear her rendition of "Chains" or "The Locomotion" or the completely in-character "Something Good." What's more, she and lyricist Toni Stern have written two songs tougher than any in King's career. "No Sad Song" is a dispassionate account of the death of a Casanova which was a minor hit for Helen Reddy, and "A Fine Way to Go" is a hard-nosed story of sexual frustration in a small town, with a catch refrain that all lovers of popular culture should commit to memory: "You can't get everything you need at the movies."

If King is avoiding such stuff to protect her image, she's making a mistake. Contentment and quiet concern are essential to her broad popularity, but what is extraordinary about the mass audience she has attracted is that a good portion of it expects sharp insight as well as peace and consolation from its music. Neither Music nor Rhymes & Reasons will ever approach the sales of Tapestry because both lack that quality. I respect Carole King's integrity too much to believe her choice is crass. She's been lucky in her life. She's honestly happy with her husband and child and physical comfort and work, so that "No Sad Song" and "A Fine Way to Go" just don't feel like her story. The truism about mass culture is that the audience levels the work, but the paradox can be a lot deeper than that. Too often, the work is vitiated by the fact of its own success.

Newsday, Nov. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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