Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Karen in Space
The first time I saw The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” video, I was performing at Club Lower Links, an early ‘90s hub of Chicago performance art and music that nurtured the likes of David Sedaris. Steve Lafreniere, a curator who’d also turned my undergrad self on to Bongwater and Scott Walker, saw me gazing in amazement, slack-jawed, at the sight of jumpsuit-clad Karen floating among galaxies singing of telepathing to aliens, and sighed in his usual deadpan, “Oh yeah, isn’t it great?”
“Calling Occupants...” begins with a radio DJ receiving a call-in from aliens. Media historian Jeffrey Sconce has written on the connection, since the early days of radio, between the medium and aliens. In the transition of radio from a two-way, amateur, individual medium to one that was one-way, commercial, and broadcast, popular imaginations of benevolent extraterrestrial listeners of our radio waves become malevolent a la the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. You can smell this connection in the film Contact, the use of music transmissions in Close Encounters, M.A.R.R.S.’ “Pump Up the Volume,” and the SETI project.
The song was originally released in 1976 by Klaatu, a 70s canadian rock band named after the lead alien in the 1950s sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (narrated by a radio announcer in this trailer). The song was “The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day,” a 1953 experiment in worldwide extraterrestrial telepathic communication. Klaatu recorded the song presumably in hopes of a repeated attempt. Mostly forgotten today, it was one of Carpenters’s last hits, off their 1977 Passage album, going top ten in several countries and top 20 in the U.S., earning the duo a Grammy nomination in 1978.
The song crystallizes the tension so integral to the Carpenters’ appeal, which superficially appears to be one merely of gay-male camp identification with a tragic female singer, in the vein of Judy et al. “Occupants” and its video push the camp limit with the tacky radio DJ intro (new to the Carpenters’ version), singing-alien solo, bizarre bridge, and heartfelt sincerity with which Karen pleads for us to focus our mental energies to collectively send a telepathic message to interstellar policemen. It’s not quite “Rainy Days and Mondays” -- if anything, it’s more than that, an expression of the tension in the Carpenters’ music between Richard’s sappy overproduction and arrangements, combined with often banal lyrics, and the technical proficiency and emotional force of Karen’s voice and singing. When listening to the Carpenters, really listening, you start out laughing ... and then you stop. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Occupants” because you start out laughing so hard.
Contributed by D. Travers Scott, a graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. His research interests include technological culture, masculinity and sexuality, with a current focus on the history of perceptions of disease related to emergent communications media.
Posted by Popular Music Project at 10:51 PM