Fantasies of the Normal

A conversation with author Karen Tongson about the the Carpenters' iconic music of the 1970s and its radical afterlives


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Performance

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Programs in Film Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bryn Mawr College


Homay King

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce "Fantasies of the Normal," a conversation about the The Carpenters' iconic music of the 1970s and its radical afterlives, on Wednesday, October 9, 2019 from 6-8pm. The event will feature music and conversation with author Karen Tongson in conversation with Homay King, and is presented with the Programs in Film Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bryn Mawr College.

In the '60s and '70s, America's music scene was marked by raucous excess, reflected in the tragic overdoses of young superstars such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. At the same time, the uplifting harmonies and sunny lyrics that propelled Karen Carpenter and her brother, Richard, to international fame belied a different sort of tragedy—the underconsumption that led to Karen's death at age thirty-two from the effects of an eating disorder. In Why Karen Carpenter Matters (2019), Karen Tongson combines memoir, biography, and cultural studies to explore the unexpected queer and transnational appeal of the music of the Carpenters. She reveals why the Carpenters' chart-topping, seemingly whitewashed musical fantasies of "normal love" can now have profound significance for her—as well as for other people of color, LGBT+ communities, and anyone outside the mainstream culture usually associated with Karen Carpenter's legacy. This hybrid of memoir and biography excavates the destructive perfectionism at the root of the Carpenters' sound, while finding the beauty in the singer's flawed, all too brief life.

While usually understood as Nixon-era icons of white, "all-American" culture, the Carpenters have a rich afterlife in queer and experimental art (such as Todd Haynes' Superstar). They also enjoy an enduring legacy in the Philippines and other US colonial territories, due in large part to their dissemination via Armed Forces radio in the 1970, serving as a reference point for "OPM" or Original Pilipino Music (Tongson comes from a family of musicians based in Manila and Riverside, California). For this conversation and multimedia presentation, Tongson and King will discuss Karen Carpenter in relationship to queer, racialized, and migrant subjectivity, exploring how the aspiration to mythic ideals of race, class, gender, and national belonging can lead to surprising transformations of those norms.

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Karen Tongson is the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters (2019), and Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (2011). In 2019, she received the Lambda Literary Jeanne Córdova Award for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction. She is associate professor of English, gender & sexuality studies, and American studies & ethnicity at USC, and co-editor of the award-winning book series, Postmillennial Pop (with Henry Jenkins) at NYU Press.

Tongson has two books in progress: Empty Orchestra: Karaoke, Queer Aesthetics, Queer Theory (Duke), and NORMPORN: Television and the Spectacle of Normalcy (NYU Press). Previously a panelist on MaximumFun.org's Pop Rocket podcast, she now cohosts Waiting to X-hale with Wynter Mitchell-Rohrbaugh.

Homay King is Professor of History of Art and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of Virtual Memory: Time-based Art and the Dream of Digitality, and Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. The latter was an inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's blockbuster exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, to which she contributed a catalog essay. Her essays on film, contemporary art, and theory have appeared in Afterall, Film Quarterly, October, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Camera Obscura editorial collective.

"We can trace Karen's cruel optimism not only in her biography, through the family from whom she sought the unconditional love she never quite received, but also in her music—in the songs she sang that taught us to abide by our own cruel optimism about true love, auspicious beginnings, and a perfect 'now' we might never live to see."

-- Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters