cover image Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter

Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter

Lucy O’Brien. Rowman & Littlefield, $32 (368p) ISBN 978-1-538-18446-2

Music journalist O’Brien (She Bop) reconstructs the life of 1970s and early ’80s pop star Carpenter, from the “intense musical creativity” and sonorous voice that propelled her to fame to the industry and cultural pressures she battled and the anorexia that eventually contributed to her death in 1983. Raised in New Haven, Conn., Carpenter was “driven by an instinctive rhythm and musical passion” that ignited when she started playing the drums in her high school marching band. In 1969, at age 19, she teamed up with her pianist brother Richard to form a musical duo that wove “lush soundscapes of melodic pop” and grew into “one of the biggest-selling acts of the 1970s and early 1980s,” though becoming the duo’s vocalist left her less opportunity to drum onstage—a serious blow, according to O’Brien, because Carpenter had used the instrument to express herself. Diet struggles had plagued her since childhood, and as the stressors of fame intensified, so did her determination to control her body through laxatives and food restriction, causing heart problems that led to her death. Mining Carpenter’s music, as well as original interviews with those who knew her, O’Brien paints a nuanced portrait of both an inimitable, culture-defining artist and a highly visible casualty of the music industry’s “relentless promotion” of women as uniformly thin, “saleable commodities.” Carpenter’s fans will be rapt. (Oct.)