In a culture dictated by divas and beauty queens, few would guess that the most significant female composer of the past half-century would be a quiet, unassuming housewife from Brooklyn.
With a string of number one compositions recorded by everyone from the Beatles to Aretha Franklin, Carole King had established herself as a music writing legend by the mid-1960s. But it was her 1971 effort, Tapestry that skyrocketed her to new heights as a lyricist and performer. The collection of light and airy songs was an important milestone for both Carole King and her audience.
With pop deity and financial status, she went on to create Fantasy, an album endorsing her own ideas about current social issues and lifestyle. Although it was much less popular in the public eye, it represented a profound transformation in the music-writing world. To this day, Carole King has achieved more in the music industry than most dream of, claiming four Grammy Awards, being inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and becoming one of the most influential female songwriters of her time.
Inspired by socially prominent issues and her own life experiences, Carole King successfully connects with her audience through the lyrics of her music in a personal, relatable style that not only reflected the times but redefined songwriting for women, creating music and verse with a new, feminine point of view on relationships and the need for harmony during a time of cultural upheaval.
Carole King, an average, all-American girl from Brooklyn, developed an early love for music. Born Carole Klein on February 9, 1942, in New York, she started on the fast track to music stardom when she began singing and playing piano at the age of four. At age 14 she formed a precociously-named vocal group, The Co-Sines. In high school King began writing her own songs, and went on to attend Queens College where she fell in with two young songwriters, Paul Simon and Gerry Goffin. King left college to marry Goffin, and began their legendary era of songwriting.
This collaborative songwriting career began at New York’s Brill Building, and together they wrote hit song after hit song such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by the Shirelles, and “The Locomotion” by Little Eva. King and Goffin had made a name for themselves in the music industry, yet Carole was only the composition half of the power house writing duo. Then, in the late sixties, music’s popular style began to change to a more aggressive rock sound, and they lost their listening market. It led to the downfall of their musical partnership, as well as their marriage.
Finding herself without her lyricist husband, King decided to branch out and try to write some of her own songs in addition to performing them. She married Charles Larkey, bass player of The Myddle Class, and decided to release her own record along with Larkey, Danny Kortchmar and James Taylor. This combination of Goffin-King songs and some of her own sold only modestly.
King’s big breakthrough did not come until 1971 when she released Tapestry, “an album of surpassing personal-intimacy and musical accomplishment and a work infused with a sense of artistic purpose” (Landau 1).
It became an astounding success, selling over 13 million copies, a record for the industry at the time. With newfound status and wealth, King decided to try a different style of music from Tapestry, and created an album that focused more on the issues of society rather than centering on her own life. Fantasy was a completely different approach from Tapestry; rather than expressing her personal feelings in a candid technique, she wrote an album about war, poverty, drug addicts and the likes in an attempt to tell America her views and influence others in a positive way. Drawing from her own life experiences and popular topics of the time, Carole King’s albums and lyrics are a personal statement of her life and views.
Not only is King’s lyrical style personal, but also as a performer her genuine stage presence and warmth shine through in all of her songs. Her music has a sense of innate warmth, and her ability to communicate on a deeper level through her lyrics indicates it is an essential part of her, so the listener is reminded it is an essential part of them, too (Yeoman 1).
The lyrics of Tapestry radiate King’s feelings of empathy, dignity, and humility. And although she may seem like a huge star, unable to connect with the average person, her style of candid lyrics and vocal conversations create a pleasant mood that show the listener she is a person with emotions that match their own (Zuel 1). This conversational style makes King’s music all the more familiar to her audience.
Furthermore, at the time Tapestry was released, women’s status in society was going through major changes in America, and King’s music reflects that same change. Through her lyrics, Carole King was a part of a cultural revolution. In the 1970s women were expected to conform to the old instrumental norm or else “ooze sex.” Yet, she demolished that expectation and wrote lyrics that redefined songwriting for women (Christgau 3).
She transformed her style of music from the lighthearted pop music she created with Goffin, to more intimate, emotional lyrics. By doing so, she changed the role of women in the music industry, as well as in society. King illustrated an oral history of a time when women were questioning their place in society, realizing new roles for themselves in it, and becoming more independent. Carole King saw fit to address these very real issues that affected her as well as all women (Faires 2).
In 1973, following Tapestry, she released Fantasy where her writing style switched to lyrics that were more socially cognizant, rather than lyrics that focused mainly on the individual. Although Fantasy endures harsh musical criticism, most 21st century songwriters look back at that album as a bold, effective transition forward for King and the singer-songwriter style (Perone 58). It is evident that Carole King’s musical style reflects her life because of the topics she writes about. Whether it be friendship, love, or war, she relates to her audience by writing songs that can connect with anybody, yet seem extraordinarily personal.
As applies to almost all song lyrics, “Way Over Yonder” can be interpreted to have many different meanings. One of the more popular analyses is of a religious location. And although it is unsure where King is referring to when she sings “Way over yonder is a place that I know”, the African American gospel style music makes the sacred meaning of the text come through more strongly (Perone 36). On the other hand, King could simply be referring to an earthly location. While the music style makes it seem like a religious location, the song lyrics say otherwise.
The second interpretation of “Way Over Yonder” that applies to King’s life more closely and follows the theme of Tapestry is an earthly location where she once felt comfort but has drifted away from, and is now seeking it back.
King’s message and meaning behind her music after all of the turbulence seen in the 1960s was, “It’s OK to be nostalgic, even if you’re only 18. You’ve seen fire. You’ve seen rain. Relax” (Schenck 1). She recognizes that the desire for a secure home with good values and relationships is alright:
Way over yonder is a place that I know
Where I can find shelter from hunger and cold
And the sweet-tastin’ good life is so easily found.
When she writes, “is a place that I know,” the listener gets the feeling that it is something or somewhere she was familiar with as a child, but has wandered away from that “comfort zone” while growing up. Moreover, the “hunger and cold” can either be translated literally or metaphorically, meaning she misses the carefree lifestyle of a child where there are no worries about life. Later in the song she states, “Then trouble’s gonna lose me, worry leave me behind/ And I’ll stand up proudly in a true peace of mind.” Even though King has never had to experience poverty, she has gone through tough times that she overcame and now feels proud.
These lines of prose directly apply to King’s life and the social conflicts surrounding her because she is referencing women empowerment and not being ashamed of whom she is. Throughout her life in the music industry she worked towards wealth and a position of having material possessions. But, now she wants to be thankful and proud of whom she has become and does not want to be ashamed. If this is considered to be King’s statement of religious beliefs, then the lyrics to do not seem as immediately personal as the rest of Tapestry.
continues above, in column at right...
continued from column at left
But when King’s meanings are observed as her own life’s ambitions and regrets, then it does fit with the album’s overall theme of defining one’s self through their life experiences (Perone 36).
This relates to Carole King’s life and all mankind’s, for that matter, because she used personal feelings of frustration and the longing for a better place. “Way Over Yonder” reflects Carole King’s message in life; despite her success, she recognizes the importance of happy, simple things, and uses her song to express nostalgia as a positive emotion.
“Beautiful” is an uncomplicated song about self-love and a positive self-image. Carole King uses “Beautiful” as her voice about how a positive attitude and love for self will make an individual feel beautiful. The song begins with a straightforward verse:
You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel.
King’s lyrics speak of the need for high self-esteem, self-love, and an optimistic outlook on life. Furthermore, she defines beauty not in terms of physical appearance, but in terms of being, “beautiful as (one) feels” (Perone 35). Part of Carole King’s charm is how she can deliver lyrics without sounding preachy, and this song definitely fits into that category.
Although it may seem overly pious, the reason it has remained popular is because people can relate and it hits home with real emotions. And most critics agree, “The real importance is in the overall message of inner beauty and the sensitive way in which King delivers it” (Perone 36). In the second stanza she describes a scene of frustrated, unhappy people. The mood is dreary and lifeless, set on a weekday, with everyone going about the hustle and bustle of his or her busy schedules:
Waiting at the station with a work day wind a-blowing
I’ve got nothing to do but watch the passers-by
Mirrored in their faces I see frustration growing…
King remarks that even when the day is not going well, waking up with a positive attitude can make a world of difference on an individual’s sense of well-being. Secondly, this song fits in perfectly with the spirit of feminism of the day. “You’re gonna find, yes, you will/That you’re beautiful as you feel,” relates directly to the idea of feeling good about women’s sexuality, and not letting the world’s opinions bother the listener. It applies to King’s life and personal struggles because rather than be angry about how she feels as a woman, she should feel beautiful and will automatically project herself that way. The struggle may not be alive today, but her advice to always have self-love certainly remains topical (Perone 36).
Like the giant woven image that it represents, “Tapestry” is a combination of separate themes that, once woven together creates a picture of life. Of all the songs on Tapestry, the title song is undoubtedly the one most personal to King. It is difficult to determine how much of “Tapestry” is autobiographical because Carole King has always been deeply personal and scarcely ever speaks out about the meanings of her work (Perone 38). Therefore, critics are uncertain if it is about her own life or is just about a fictional character’s. Yet, Tapestry is too much of a personal statement reflecting her life story for Carole King to not have meant it that way. The tapestry King refers to represents her life, each verse seeming quite intimate, yet ambiguous to her audience, possibly having a plethora of different meanings:
My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous, woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold
King refers to her life as a complicated tapestry that was woven together by different events. The sad times (blue) and the good times (gold) have all been intertwined to form an intangible tapestry that represents her life. The overall metaphor is that “everything one experiences in life and love becomes part of an elaborate, interwoven tapestry” (Perone 38).
Throughout the song Carole King mentions a man, causing the audience to believe she is talking about a past love or her ex-husband, Gerry Goffin. In the second to last stanza King writes “He sat down on a river rock and turned into a toad/It seemed that he had fallen into someone’s wicked spell”.
This can be interpreted a few different ways; one is that the man she talks about represents Goffin, and she is reflecting on their marriage and the hard times that follow a divorce. The final lines of the song are: “In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black/Now my tapestry’s unraveling—he’s come to take me back.” The ending of King’s story could either symbolize the end of their relationship or even death. The figure at the end of the song could be death or sadness come to take her back. Each verse seems to represent a profound event in her life, whether it be love, fate, disappointment, sadness or death, which as a whole are the stages that make up her life.
It is hard to stay at the top. After experiencing unimaginable success and becoming a pop sensation, Carole King released her follow-up to Tapestry, Fantasy. Although she tried to reach out and make an impact on society, critics have not seen Fantasy in the same light. “The whole adds up to a formalized song cycle in which the Carole King Institution issues its summary social and philosophical expression to date…the overall impact being the equivalent of an early Sixties soap opera,” recalls one critic of Fantasy (Holden 1). Clearly, opinions of this album varied and were controversial.
King deserves credit, however, for trying to reach out with words of wisdom for others after improving life for herself. And, even if the music was not up to par, with her newfound wealth and musical freedom, she was trying to make social comments that would have as large an impact as her last album did. Subsequently, it was not very difficult for Carole King to find influences for her new album. In “Being at War With Each Other” King draws inspiration from the many contentious racial and social topics of the time.
Everyone comes from one father, one mother
So why do we complicate our lives so much
By being at war with each other
King speaks in her role as a humanitarian empathist. The war she is referring to could be between teens and adults arguing over the generation gap, men and women disagreeing over women’s place in society, or most prominently the racial divide in America between blacks and whites. Later in the song King writes, “Why do we seem to vote to dig more holes/ It’s such a waste of planet.” This could either be a reference to the way society is acting as a whole, causing more problems than are necessary, or literally the damage humanity is doing to the planet. Also, Carole King wonders why people are so content, despite all of the problems they are causing in the world (Perone 62).
Although she was not an activist to the extent of some of her peers, she did feel strongly about endorsing a responsible, clean lifestyle.
By creating music and verse with a new, feminine point of view on relationships and the need for harmony during a time of cultural upheaval, Carole King successfully connects with her audience through the lyrics of her music in a personal, relatable style that not only reflected the times, but redefined songwriting for women.
After losing her marriage and career, Carole King bounced back to create a record phenomenon. And although her later album Fantasy was less successful, she was able to express her views to the world on social issues.
By drawing from her own life experiences, Carole King wrote song lyrics that were not only enjoyable to listen to but more importantly, reshaped society with a positive, empowering outlook on women. And by doing so, the plain housewife from Brooklyn showed people the love in her heart and taught that “you are as beautiful as you feel.”
* * * * *
* * * * *
Author Allison Bolger is a high school student from New Jersey.
To re-visit last month's featured songwriter, Bob Nolan, please click here.
Here's Carole performing a highly energized version of "I Feel the Earth Move." Please note that you have to click the arrow twice to make the video play.
Here's the Carole King album that you probably have; we provide this link just in case yours is one of those beat up vinyl copies that was on the turntable so much that the dustjacket probably sat on a coffee table for months at a time, where it no doubt functioned as a coaster. If you don't have a good CD version of this, you might want to click the link. It's only one of the most important albums in the history of recorded music, and it sounds just as good today when that earth moves under your feet. The link goes to Amazon.com, where you can sometimes find used copies at incredible bargains. Their return policy is second to none, so you can shop with confidence. Each sale gives a tiny percentage to help fund PopularSong.org.
Here's a cool way we have to enable you to listen to a couple of key selections for free. These are "mp3 downloads" from Amazon.com. Don't ask us what you do with these; we're still spinning vinyl. If you like the songs, you can buy them for a buck, and a small percentage is used to help fund this website. Either way, you can click and listen for free, and enjoy these songs penned by Carole King.