My Top 1000 Songs #566: Superstar

[I've been writing up my Top 1000 songs on a daily basis--you can see them all in descending order by hitting the All My Favorite Songs tag.]

I wrote a chapter in Jittery White Guy Music (available on Amazon, please check it out!) about the challenges of growing up in a relatively rock-free household. When I discovered Top 40 radio at the age of 9 and immediately because obsessed with an entire musical universe I hadn't known existed, I was surprised to learn some of my friends already had a head start, with parents who fueled their youth with music. Me, I had to start the journey from scratch, as my parents had pretty lame musical taste. And no artist characterized this more than the Carpenters, the saccharine pop duo whose adult contemporary music--captured on one of my father's 8-track tapes--quickly became the antithesis of the rock music I was diving into with all my heart and soul.

A reappraisal finally came in 1994, amidst a brief rage for tribute albums. If I Were A Carpenter was a surprisingly awesome album of Carpenters covers, recorded by a who's-who of current alt.rock stars, some great (Shonen Knife, Matthew Sweet, Bettie Serveert), some less so. It forced a recognition that a lot of the Carpenters' songs were pretty damn great, at least when delivered in a style that was more to my liking. The head-and-shoulders standout on the record was Sonic Youth's cover of "Superstar." While abetted by the band's reliably off-kilter skewed guitar tunings and washes of feedback, it remained a gentle, melodic ballad. Yet what I had dimly recalled as a tender love song was anything but--Thurston Moore's subdued croon and the tightly coiled music just yearning to explode (but never quite doing so) emphasized the song's tale of groupie obsession that had gone right over my head as a kid.

And while Sonic Youth's cover remains definitive (as do some of the tribute's other covers), it finally authorized me to listen to the Carpenters for the first time since I was a kid. And, y'know, some of it was pretty good. Sure, a little ironic detachment still helps, but there's no denying the beauty of Karen Carpenter's voice and the unabashed melodicism of the band's arrangements. And, sure enough, "Superstar"'s undercurrent of unrequited obsession was right there all along, albeit under a heavy scoop of sugar.

Eventually I realized that even the Carpenters' 1971 version was a cover. The original was written by Bonnie Bramlett & Leon Russell (with input from Rita Coolidge) and appeared on the 1972 Delaney & Bonnie album D&B Together (after first appearing as a 1969 b-side titled "Groupie (Superstar)," the meaning of the song right there in the title). It's every bit as beautiful and moving as Karen's version, but with a little more R&B heft. Great stuff.

Sonic Youth:

The Carpenters:
Delaney & Bonnie: