Six Damn Fine Degrees #102: The Carpenters in Nixon’s White House (and other sweet and horrible stories)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

US presidents have had an often particular relationship to music, some more political than others. When Mege touched upon Dave Grohl’s performance at the Obama White House in last week’s post, I immediately thought of the 44th President’s curated playlists and the many high-profile artists (indeed from Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé) who were happy to grace what still is by far the most musical and literary modern presidency. Contrast this with the difficulties Obama’s successor had in finding A-list musicians to perform at his functions, let alone use their music at his rallies: anyone from Bon Jovi, Neil Young, Brian May, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and Adele flat out declined being politicised by Trump. The former president himself apparently considers Peggy Lee’s disillusioned “Is That All There Is” his favourite song. Go figure!

If we look a little further and ignore George W. Bush’s idea that (country) music was mostly a way to get his heartbeat going when exercising (and his dad George H.W. feeling much the same love for country when antagonising Saddam Hussein), we cannot ignore that other musical president: Bill Clinton did not only perform on his saxophone on many occasions at White House events and on TV, he was also friends with most major stars of the music business – and one of the three presidents to win a Grammy for Spoken Word albums (Obama and Jimmy Carter being the other two). Also, who could forget what Clinton did to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” for his first presidential campaign? Or, by contrast, what Ronald Reagan did to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, making Springsteen a fervent supporter of the Democrats ever since?

Whereas Jimmy Carter enjoyed an earful of Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt and Gerald Ford prefered navy hymns and swing classics, it’s that president’s predecessor who understood music as an expression of political stance and a soft power weapon against his enemies both home and abroad: Richard Nixon was classically trained in music and even composed – and he is said to have been the first President to officially recognise jazz as America’s original music by awarding Duke Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More so, however, he used musicians as pawns in his domestic struggle against Americans protesting his war in Vietnam. By 1973, Nixon had won his second term despite his “Peace with Honour” and Paris peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese falling to pieces. The Watergate scandal hadn’t quite hit the fan, and Nixon was looking for that squeaky-clean group of young Americans to counterpoint the angry protest crowds. He found them in The Carpenters.

A duo of siblings, Richard and Karen Carpenter had risen to chart success and, between 1969 and 1971, had turned out one hit after another, “Close to You“, “Top of the World” or “Ticket to Ride” among them. Their sound was smooth, their rhythm deliciously light and Karen’s vocals hypnotically sweet. Nixon apparently saw in them two young Americans whose sound cushioned an unwantedly troubled and turbulent era. In two performances at the White House between 1972 and 1973, the duo simply ignored Vietnam and Watergate and felt naïvely honoured by the president’s invitations. In the video above, Nixon is seen introduce the two to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, calling them “young America at its very best” and drawing parallels to the peace the two men were working on for young Americans like them. It’s chilling to think that for Nixon, the other young America was literally protesting outside his lawn and soon, the cushiony sound would be gone, replaced by his resignation address and farewell. The repercussions of Vietnam and Watergate, of course, have been felt ever since.

The Carpenters went on to more successes, among them “Jambalaya” and “All You Get from Love Is a Love Song“, but things did not turn out well: Richard went into rehab from hypnotic sedatives and Karen infamously suffered from anorexia nervosa, dying of a heart attack in 1983. Nixon is said to have sent a handwritten note of condolences. Despite Karen’s passing, the music of The Carpenters never went away, and their songs and albums have featured on many playlists and streaming services up until today.

The eerie quality of their sweet sound – some called it “elevator music”, some “sickeningly sweet” – and the mismatch of their music with the other popular genres of the ’60s and ’70s was not lost on filmmakers and TV producers. Some like “Close To You” or “Top of the World” have served for comedic effect, for example as Marge Simpson’s favourite song or in episodes of Derry Girls, Saturday Night Live or After Life. Others have been used to harrowing results in horror tales: The incessant use of “We’ve Only Just Begun” in 1408 (2007) is bone-chilling and the same can be said of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” in American Horror Story or “Rainy Day and Mondays” in Mr. Robot.

It seems that America is still undecided to this day whether they should melt or shudder at The Carpenters’ uniquely sweet tunes and dizzyingly innocent lyrics. I have come to reappreciate the much-maligned Carpenters sound after watching BBC’s The Carpenters Story recently, marvelling at the classical dimension of their music and the intricate technical details behind Karen’s still uniquely sensitive vocals. Since then, there is no better soundtrack to my Mondays than an earful of “Rainy Days and Mondays” – with the occasional shudder on top (of the world).

A complete list of Carpenters songs in movies and series episodes can be found here.

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