Todd Haynes’ Pop Idols

Todd Haynes’ Pop Idols

Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine complicate our understanding of the relationship between pop culture and individuals

In a West Village café, Todd Haynes once heard Karen Carpenter’s voice. “One day I was sitting at Café Dante … where they were playing 1970s retro music, and I heard Karen Carpenter singing ‘every sha-na-na-na, every woewoewoe,” Haynes recounts in a 2009 Film Quarterly interview. “Karen had died just three or four years earlier, and hearing that music and that voice, after the death and after the new insight into this popular figure the nature of her death had given us, was suddenly very powerful.” Years earlier, Haynes had encountered David Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane in a record store. The cover depicts a pallid Bowie with a voluminous shock of orange hair and a red-and-blue lightning bolt painted down his face, while he averts his eyes from the camera, appearing both vibrant and corpselike. Haynes told Rolling Stone in 1998 that the artwork was “too disturbing for me at the time. It was too threatening. And it was fascinating. You couldn’t not look at it.” 

Haynes construes these encounters with pop idols as unwitting visitations — bits of culture drifting through public space that arrested and haunted him. He recounts these anecdotes when asked about his films Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), respectively, which depict versions of Carpenter and Bowie. In interviews, he describes his interest in these artists as beginning with spontaneous, emotional reactions to their work, which he did not seek out specifically, but encountered by chance through public-facing media. In their respective decades, the individual artistry of Carpenter and Bowie aligned with the broad dissemination of culture, filtering downard to make their mark on Haynes. 

The two films Haynes made in response to these cultural figures, and in the echoes of his affective responses to their images and sounds, centralise the machinations of mass culture. While aesthetically and formally distinct from one another, the political motivations and effects of popular music are present in both, as are the audiences that mobilised around these stars to consume their art and/or form communities of their own. Although Haynes never loses sight of the music, musical performances in both films often mark narrative and thematic turning points, visually and aurally synthesizing the films’ cultural concerns. (Others have discussed these films’ deep engagement with popular music: in a recent essay for Mubi, Luke Goodsell places them in a canon of pop films.) By centering singers’ interactions with mass culture and the sociopolitical ramifications of widely disseminated cultural products, Haynes complicates our common understandings of popular music.

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Superstar was Haynes’ first distributed film, garnering a following from festival and museum screenings, until Richard Carpenter successfully sued to halt its distribution due to its use of copyrighted music. The film has since been circulated on bootleg copies, gathering grain, blurred edges, and a persistent cult following. It opens on Karen’s mother as she enters the family home and discovers her dead body. The film then flashes back to the origin of The Carpenters, with her family immediately determining that Karen should be the lead singer for Richard’s band. The siblings then quickly sign with a record label eager to capitalise off of their “wholesomeness.” The Carpenters climb to the top of the charts but continue to lead a sheltered existence in their family home, while Karen begins limiting her food intake to control her weight and becomes increasingly ill, going in and out of treatment. She soon starts to take a series of erratic steps in an attempt to assert her independence, moving out of her family home, marrying briefly, and eventually consulting with a doctor to begin long-term treatment for anorexia nervosa. After a hasty return to recording, Karen then begins habitually taking an emetic called ipecac, and dies at 32 from heart failure related to the drug. (The film mostly follows the events of Carpenter’s life to the letter, though ipecac has been disputed as a factor in her death.)

Superstar thus follows a well-trodden biopic structure that shows a talented person’s rise and fall, while appropriating television documentary aesthetics. Voiceover narration, talking heads and interstitial text all make appearances, describing Karen’s life, the psychological motivations for anorexia, and The Carpenters’ cultural influence (one interview subject finds the Carpenters “too smooth and manipulative,” another thinks that their placid music represented a “return to reactionary values”). But the film departs from the classical music star documentary in one significant way: indeed it is notable for its use of Barbie dolls in place of actors, a technique Haynes has stated that he used to test the limits of audience identification with a narrative — how much can an audience truly relate to molded plastic, mediated through a screen? Quite a bit, it turns out, and Karen’s downward spiral becomes even more poignant and disturbing as her actions appear to be literally controlled by a hand off-camera. The usage of Barbie dolls additionally implies the pervasive cultural messaging directed toward women’s bodies. Haynes’ usage of  thin dolls with famously unattainable body shapes, marketed toward young girls, implicitly comments on the social and cultural forces which affected Karen’s body image. The unease Haynes builds within the narrative is thus amplified by the carefully stage-managed dolls that populate flat, suburban locales, visually inscribing Karen’s lack of agency. 

Likewise, in his recreations of some of The Carpenters’ musical performances interspersed throughout the film, Haynes fills the frame with psychological and political insight. When they perform at the White House for President Richard Nixon, on-screen text (partially obscured by the low quality of the existing film) reads that Nixon said that The Carpenters represented “young America at its very best.” 

Karen’s attire in this sequence verges on camp — the doll sports a bouffant hairstyle, a string of pearls, and a pink dress with a white ruffled neck. This does not resemble what the actual Carpenter wore at the White House performance; in fact, it looks more like Pat Nixon drag. If Karen represents the best of “young America” to Nixon, Haynes suggests through this sartorial exaggeration that it is because she has been styled and marketed to suit the sensibilities of cultural conservatives, washing away the memories of 60’s youth activism. Later in the song, a new block of text describes the Watergate scandal which occurred that same year and made obvious the naked corruption barely concealed by the anesthetising aesthetics of conservatism. Karen, costumed and crooning, is a puppet in this scene, fulfilling her predetermined duties. 

A later musical sequence marks a crux in the narrative. Karen, delirious and exhausted from too many laxatives, lies barely conscious at her backstage vanity before a performance, until Richard bullies her into going on. The first shot of the performance shows Karen’s profile in a closeup, singing into the microphone. After the first verse, the camera moves to a high-angle shot of her onstage, and slowly zooms out — in effect, we see her slowly shrink, swallowed up by the stage. With the song still playing, a montage abruptly begins of images that merge mundanity and violence: suburban roads and highways rolling by, a doll being spanked, a tapping finger, Karen staring out the window from a car’s backseat, a variety of images on decaying celluloid showing people falling from great heights. When the camera returns to Karen, she faints on stage, an image spliced together with one of a piano crashing to the ground. A newspaper headline appears on-screen in bright yellow text: KAREN CARPENTER COLLAPSES FROM EXHAUSTION

The close up on Karen at the beginning of the song suggests intimacy, but as it shows only her profile, it nevertheless remains at a remove, never revealing her full face. When the camera eyes her from above, it morphs into a creeping, controlling intrusion. While music biopics often use music montages to mark notable events in the subject’s life, the montage here is a series of abstract, seemingly unrelated images that, in sequence, create an impression of lingering submission. The suburban streets and highways recall the milieu to which Karen belongs and can never truly escape. The image of her staring out the window from the backseat of a car compounds this sense of confinement — childlike, she has no control over her direction or destination. The spanking brings to mind domestic violence and the bullying of a child or partner into submission, while the blurry images of things and people falling or crashing down evoke a careening out of control toward a violent demise. Suburban domesticity, pop stardom and violent control are thus intertwined in this sequence, probing into Karen’s psychology and the social forces pressing down on her: if the twin forces of publicity and family were imposing their will upon her, then her collapse signifies her inability to maintain her well-being under their pressure. The crumpling of the wholesome and amiable Karen, as framed by Haynes, is seized upon by the media. An unwitting display of humanity creates an opportunity to brand Karen as a failure and an embodiment of weakness; her inability to maintain a public image gives way to a new public narrative of sickness and downfall. 

Haynes ultimately crafts an image of Karen Carpenter as a manipulated, malleable subject, used by capitalists and cultural gatekeepers to propagate a politically attractive image, buttressed by her image-conscious family. That her grasp at control leads to relentless public scrutiny, illness and death reifies what was true from the start — that Karen was never steering her own life. A cold plastic doll, animated by unseen hands, is made to sing for the public. In Superstar, pop stardom is a death spiral.

Like Superstar, death hangs over Velvet Goldmine. After a series of cutting, formalist films (Poison, Dottie Gets Spanked, Safe), Haynes took a leap into glittering excess with the glam-rock fable Goldmine. The film follows Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a journalist whose latest assignment is to trace what happened to Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Bowie-esque star who disappeared from the public eye after he notoriously faked his own death at a concert. Citizen Kane-style, Arthur tracks down those who knew Slade throughout his life, including his former manager Cecil (Michael Feast), his ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), and his former lover and collaborator Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), whose anarchic, impulsive characterisation was inspired by Iggy Pop. Interweaved through the narrative is Arthur’s own adolescent experience, when he became a Slade megafan and entered the queer subculture circulating the glam rock scene. Haynes also threads in a sort of mystic fable throughout the narrative, opening the film with a UFO dropping off a baby Oscar Wilde in Victorian London, armed with a jeweled brooch that imbues its possessor with an ineffable magnetism and cultural prominence. The brooch is passed down through generations of queer men, and Brian begins his ascent after stealing it from nightclub performer Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), placing Brian as a cultural interloper and opportunist.

While Superstar places the audience in alliance with its celebrity subject, Velvet Goldmine aligns the viewer with fan-turned-outsider Arthur. As such, the film is equally concerned with the experience of fandom and community as it is with the perspective of a star, and the interplay between these parties is framed with complexity. Key moments in Brian’s crafting and promotion of his persona tend to be followed by images showing  Arthur reacting to the mediated image and forging his own identity accordingly. In an early scene, Arthur walks through the record store and finds himself glued to Slade’s record The Ballad of Maxwell Demon, which depicts Slade lying on his side before a sumptuous red curtain, nude from the waist up. When he opens the record at home, it reveals a full body shot of Slade, again nude, with the curtain wrapped around his waist. He listens to the record enraptured and aroused. Later, when Slade gives a televised press conference where he frankly discusses his bisexuality, Arthur imagines jumping up and down in front of his stoic parents on the couch, shouting “That’s me!” While Slade (and his management) engage in corporate branding as much as they do in art creation, his marketed public image awakens deep feelings within Arthur, steering him towards a new identity and community. 

Brian Slade’s development as a pop idol and Arthur’s coming-of-age converge in a delirious performance of the roiling, seductive song “Baby’s on Fire” from Brian and Curt (written and originally performed by Brian Eno). In Haynes’ hands, this performance becomes a site to interrogate the broad social implications of mass cultural products. Like many of the songs in Superstar, the performance becomes a montage, consisting of three intercut scenes: the glittering performance; Arthur masturbating to newspaper images of Brian and Curt; and an orgy including Brian, Curt, and their inner circle. The intercutting of these scenes blurs the line between mass culture and private experience, as seen most keenly through the scene centering Arthur. In their performance, the two musicians perform with unbridled sexuality and a glossy sheen. Wearing tight leather pants and a bejeweled open shirt, Brian intently writhes and grinds, while Curt bounds on stage with looseness and hunger, his blonde hair cascading down his shoulders. At one moment, Brian gets down on his knees and licks Curt’s guitar; the film then cuts to a photograph of this moment being printed into a newspaper, followed immediately by shots showing Arthur masturbating to that very image. When Arthur’s father enters the room and sees his son, Arthur does not stop and barely seems to hear him — his erotic experience has virtually put him in a trance. Following this scene, Arthur leaves home and joins a community of glam-rock musicians and fans that will forever re-shape the texture of his life. What was a provocative, colourful performance becomes a black and white photograph that reconfigures a teenager’s erotic imagination and sexual identity.

If Superstar presents a relatively clear-cut narrative of a star’s downfall at the hands of an uncaring industry and selfish family, Velvet Goldmine provides more room for contradiction and complication. The stunts pulled by Brian, whose sole convinction appears to be self-advancement, lead others to profound inner awakenings and to the formation of queer communities, suggesting that popular music can have influence stretching beyond profit and the reification of the dominant culture. The eventual outcomes of Brian and Curt represent an interesting thought experiment in this regard. After rejecting Curt and faking his own death, Brian reinvents himself as Tommy Stone, a purportedly separate pop star with an expressly conservative agenda and massive mainstream success: ditching the formation of queer subcultures, he has capitulated completely to a broadly palatable, culturally regressive persona. Meanwhile Curt, now virtually irrelevant, emerges as a critic of Brian/Tommy through a chance conversation with Arthur at a bar. In this scene, a series of flashbacks reveal a tender overnight affair between Curt and Arthur years before, when they met at a concert commemorating glam rock (“Death of Glitter”). At the bar, Curt leaves Arthur the brooch worn by Oscar Wilde, which Brian had initially gifted to him, implicitly tasking Arthur with carrying on a tradition of queer artistry. The portrayal of the two former bandmates draws a sharp binary: Brian’s pursuit of popular success at all costs indicates a hollowed-out soul, while Curt’s clear-eyed kindness is linked with his retreat from the public eye. The dichotomy is simplistic, but effective. Haynes shows empathy and care for young people impacted by pop culture, while suggesting that the relentless pursuit of popular success ultimately benefits a repressive social order.

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Instead of crafting traditional biopics of Karen Carpenter and David Bowie, tracing the trajectory of their careers with a predilection toward hagiography and an accompanying greatest-hits soundtrack, Todd Haynes uses their lives and myths to examine and critique the cultural effects of popular music. (He would do the same in 2007’s I’m Not There, with a sprawling cast of actors portraying fragmented versions of Bob Dylan). Of the two films, Superstar is more neatly crafted, with distancing formal techniques and a devastatingly simple plot that create a steadily growing sense of suffocation: by this film’s close, pop music begins to seem like a tool of mass indoctrination that slowly kills its figureheads. Velvet Goldmine is messier, with a fractured narrative, sparkling music videos and grimy concerts, and contradictory viewpoints on its subject. Its disorganisation and formal excess, however, are assets to the complex narrative it puts forward. Emphasising the queasy intersections between commerce and genuine artistic passion, Velvet Goldmine eyes the celebrity cult of pop music with suspicion, and its fans with care and grace. 

Popular music is sustained by massive cultural permeation — it reaches deep into public life, leading people like Haynes to encounter its stars while casually sitting in coffee shops or passing through record stores. Superstar and Velvet Goldmine examine what it takes for pop to reach cultural ubiquity, and what ripple effects it causes. Far from benign or mundane, the music of mass culture in Haynes’ films is heavy with political implications, imbued with the power to destroy individuals or create communities. Haynes’ early encounter with Aladdin Sane presaged his compromised, compelling pop machinery onscreen: “It was too threatening. And it was fascinating. You couldn’t not look at it.”

Robert Stinner

Robert is a freelance film and culture writer based in Pennsylvania, often writing about queer aesthetics and musicality. His work can be found in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Crooked Marquee.