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All it takes is a sappy song, and it's yesterday once more

Updated: 2021-03-30 07:15 ( China Daily )

Technically speaking, the world does not yet possess a time machine, but there is nonetheless music, which can transport us far back into the blurry but emotionally alluring days of our past.

It hardly matters if the songs that trigger this reaction are among our favorites, because music's nostalgic sway is irresistible. Bad songs find an audience in our head just as easily as good ones.

I remember with a grin how, in San Diego, a newspaper colleague named Jamie and I would try to plant in the other's head the worst pop songs we could imagine, for example Neil Sedaka's Laughter in the Rain. Once it's stuck in your brain, good luck shaking it loose.

No better example of nostalgic seduction is available than the Carpenters, a pop music, sister-and-brother sensation from the 1970s who somehow, almost beyond comprehension to those with sophisticated musical taste, rose to the lofty heights of superstardom.

The vapid recordings of the two siblings became songs for the ages, helped in no small part by the untimely death of Karen Carpenter, the band's singer and drummer, who succumbed at the age of 33 to anorexia. Tragedy struck a chord that brought sympathy even from cynics like myself.

I had largely forgotten the band in ensuing years. However, that same former colleague, Jamie Lauren, continued to rage three decades after the fact that Karen Carpenter inexplicably had bested Lauren's hero, John Bonham of powerhouse rock band Led Zeppelin, to win Playboy magazine's coveted "drummer of the year" award, decided by popular vote, in 1975. I shared his dismay, since Carpenter's presence behind the drum kit was, to say the least, less than striking.

Fast-forward to Beijing circa 2015. My Chinese girlfriend at the time, the quite worldly Feifei, one night was sharing with me her collection of American pop music "golden oldies". My emotions were stirred when she played Simon&Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence, and my eyes became misty when Audrey Hepburn's masterful take on Moon River followed. But I was simply befuddled by the next sounds to waft out of her phone speaker: some tune by the Carpenters that my brain's coping mechanism has since, thankfully, erased.

A couple of years later, I was reviewing a final proof of a China Daily front page with one of the deputy editors when, for some reason that once more escapes me, we began discussing the Carpenters. My esteemed senior colleague volunteered that the Carpenters' popularity in China was largely due to the fact that Chinese who were learning English, or who could speak it, appreciated the band because Karen Carpenter's vocals were succinct and, thus, easy to understand.

This was a moment of enlightenment. My colleague had not suggested that the Carpenters were in any way formidable musicians. It was simply that their sentiments came through loud and clear-the soft touch of their "soft rock" notwithstanding.

And now we come to 2021, when one recent evening I was shopping with a friend at a nearby market that just one year ago was a popular duck restaurant. The eatery, alas, had fallen victim during the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed so much of the landscape in Beijing and elsewhere.

Oh, the emotional twinges I feel every time I go there! How the world has changed in that relatively short span of time. Where not so long ago I supped on roast duck and simmering tofu, I now browsed for champagne mangoes and Goose Island India pale ale.

I also think, while strolling the aisles, of my childhood friend Ralph Marasco, the first person in my United States hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to die from COVID-19. The boyhood years of our friendship happened to coincide with the Carpenters' meteoric rise.

I think, too, of my Aunt Cathy's wedding to my uncle-to-be David in the early 1970s, when the Carpenters' hit We've Only Just Begun featured prominently. Again, a wave of nostalgia ensues.

But back to the melancholy moment that evening in the Beijing supermarket when, over the sound system, the Carpenters' Yesterday Once More greeted my ears. Surprisingly, the song did not induce the gag reflex it once did, but rather a swelling in the throat and tears in the eyes.

And then it happened. My Chinese friend began singing along softly-"Every sha-la-la-la"-and a store clerk passing by also sang along-"Every wo-o-wo-o". In that bittersweet moment, I felt a newfound joy in the unifying power of song.

Though the siblings Karen and Richard somewhat milked us of our dignity with the sappiest of songs, when it came to the strongest of nostalgic tugs, who can deny it-the Carpenters nailed it.

James Healy
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