My middle school guitar teacher could hit all the high notes of “A Natural Woman.” I’d shown up to my lesson with my dad’s copy of the songbook for Tapestry along with my three-quarter-size guitar wanting to learn those songs. I needed to. I had to. I understood Carole King as the powerhouse that she is, a songwriter extraordinaire, a wholesome rockstar crooning about friendship, and I wanted to be just like her. I was a songwriter! I had songs written on scraps of paper and in notebooks, ideas on ideas on ideas. I was like J. K. Rowling writing her wizard story on napkins. I was like a young, female John Prine. I was like Gillian Welch wanting “to sing that rock and roll…to ’lectrify my soul!” You know, except that I didn’t stick with it or practice or make it much past the callouses phase of learning guitar, or, truth time: actually write that many songs. Now, that said, I did have regular lessons for a season, and I could play a handful of chords well enough that my teacher thought we ought to definitely perform “A Natural Woman” together at the talent show. I thought not.
I was twelve and where Carole King’s song “Beautiful” may well be right that “you’re as beautiful as you feel,” I wasn’t feeling it. Still, Tapestry was an ideal anthem for middle school me. I, too, was a skinny white girl with frizzy brown hair, and it was helpful to see her owning a look I was self-conscious of. Mood swings and the grandiosity of adolescence pulsed through me like the soda pop from a Happy Meal. Zip, zip, zip. I had glasses the size of my grandmother's and rubber bands affixed to my braces working to realign my jaw. Thank goodness for Carole—those curls, that confidence, that voice, offering up lyrics like “I didn’t know quite what was wrong with me,” that just resonated.
Carole King, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon—my parents’ music became my own, what I sought out and listened to. I was a frequenter of the CD store where I bought my very own copy of Tapestry (we only had the record at home as I remember it), and I asked a store clerk where I could find an Aretha Franklin album with "Natural Woman" on it. “For you?" he said, like it was so peculiar, like I ought to be looking for the Backstreet Boys or “MMMBop.” I left with a copy of Aretha Franklin’s Love Songs. It was the ‘90s. Weinstein was busy shaping the cultural imagination about womanness in movies with nightmares transpiring backstage. Bill Clinton was the President, and my mother, with grief in her voice, stood in the kitchen and said about his intern, “She was twenty-two! She was only twenty-two!” And who was it again who made those secret tapes? Tripp? Is that what friends are for? It was middle school. We were crying in the bathroom at school dances and trying to figure it all out—is this flirting?—in the hallways, the cafeteria, and the assigned seats of seventh grade science. And there was Carole King. That album. It could make a person feel situated in the world even as the earth moved under her feet.
While her songs often include self doubt, they don’t stay there. Out of sadness, “I used to feel so uninspired,” her songs often launch into love songs, “Oh, baby, what you’ve done for me.” And that’s not all, “Now I’m no longer doubtful, of what I’m living for.” And while we might be critical of how that move happens in many of the songs—that we go from there must be something wrong with me to bombastic talk of being saved by a romantic partner—“if I make you happy I don’t need to do more.” I’m wary of that criticism. While it’s true that other people don’t control our feelings and imagining self-worth as something we ought to seek and find in others seems like a dangerous perspective, I also think there’s something in these songs that can work to remind us of our interconnectedness and our capacity to alleviate one another’s suffering through community and kindness toward one another. The repetition across songs of moving from isolation to connectedness works as a reminder, too, that these are not static states of being. Over the course of our lifetimes, over and over, we must remember to reach out to others.
Consider a song like “You’ve Got a Friend” and those lyrics, “When you’re down and troubled / and you need some love and care / and nothing, nothing is going right….Soon I will be there….I’ll come running, to see you again.” There’s something lovely and true about the way a good friend, a true love, a welcome kiss, companionship—can make a person “feel so good inside (good inside).” Even as each of us falls short more often than we’d probably like to admit, in difficult stretches it’s helpful to hear Carole King sing what we know is true, “people can be so mean,” and for that truth to have only a comma and a “but” between it and her next one, “you've got a friend in me.” How hopeful and inspired and instructive, like those lines in “Beautiful”: “maybe love can end the madness / maybe not, oh, but we can only try.”