The Carole King musical is beautiful but also totally desperate

beautifulSongs can be clingy. They stick in your head. But they’re also another kind of clingy. Songs often tell a story about someone who really wants to be in a relationship with somebody else. Yesterday I went to see Beautiful, the Carole King musical, and hearing a lot of her early songs together in quick succession mixed in with the story of her personal life I realised: man, was she hormonal and desperate. I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot—I’ve written about them here previously and I’ve been reading books like Michael Warner’s ethical polemic against marriage, The Trouble With Normal, and Julie Bindel’s assessment of queer politics today, Straight Expectations.

You might not be used to a queer analysis of a Carole King musical but here goes.

The musical follows King’s life from age 16 to around age 29, when she released Tapestry, a megaseller debut album, in 1971. From her late teenage years to the age of 28 she was writing songs with Gerry Goffin for big stars of the 60s like The Drifters and Bobby Vee. King and Goffin, who were also in a relationship, kept writing hits—and so many of them were really bloody needy.

“One fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl,” goes one, belted out by The Shirelles. “I stay home the whole day long and think of you,” goes another, crooned by Bobby Vee.
The musical has a way of conveying the desperation in these lyrics by weaving King’s personal story into the making of her songs and all the way through to the performances by the famous singers. The Drifters appear briefly, their pleading eyes matched to King and Goffin’s words, their arms outstretched all the way to their fingers. These enormously popular groups in the 60s made a musical cheese board, but they also told us something about the idea of love.

beautiful2We get to watch Gerry and Carole falling in love, with King as the humble girl from Brooklyn who just wants to be married and pregnant, and Goffin as the kind man who wants to do right by his woman (at first). They become a super-duper songwriting duo, and they have a baby and get married (“the right thing, just in the reverse order,” says Goffin). King is portrayed as being over-the-moon in love with Goffin, but they’re both a bit neurotic about how much in love they are, what it means, and whether they can stay together.
So that’s why they write such flipping desperate songs. The most needy is probably one of my favourites. It goes like this: “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes…But will you love me tomorrow?”

When I was watching the story of how this song came to be, and hearing the fake Carole on stage singing it as she looks on at the fake Gerry, I really felt her desperation and I could even imagine myself feeling this way towards somebody else. This is totally bizarre, because I have never been in that position. I’m 30 and I’ve never been in love or felt like I wanted to be or felt like I would know what it feels like if I was. But listening to this song play out brought up thoughts in my little head for a friend of mine who is smart and caring and sexy and lots of other things.

Now, hold on, readers. I’m not saying I’m falling for him. (I’m not against falling for anyone, by the way.) I’m just saying that the song made me think of him and how warm I feel towards him. We’ve been intimate physically and emotionally but we’re not dating or in a relationship with each other. And yet… there was something in that song—Will you love me tomorrow?—that pulls on the heartstrings of even someone like me: a radical queer who is sceptical of conventional relationships.

I suppose my overriding interpretation of what happened in that moment as I sat in the cavernous West End theatre and heard Carole crooning was this: I could have thought of many of my friends in that moment. I have lots of close friends who I’m intimate with, who bring me pleasure, magic, love (in the words of the song). Sometimes this is emotional and sometimes it’s physical, and when it’s physical it’s not always sexual. The question, Will you love me tomorrow?, could be asked of any of them. I love them and I think they love me, and to me, as someone who doesn’t seem to have coupled relationships, Carole’s question is valid.

I won’t deny that when I hear that song I do hear a very specific kind of love being portrayed. I do think that King and Goffin were thinking of a pretty conventional male-female partnership/marriage when they wrote it. And I did have that reaction myself—well, as near to that as a queer person can get, of course. Mine involved me being a bloke and thinking of the “lasting treasures” of being in another man’s arms. The feel of facial hair against my cheek and all the other lovely things.

And let’s not forget the story outside the story, which I haven’t told you yet. I went to see Beautiful with my mum for her birthday. She and I are both fans of King, and we both had a great time. But she’s not happy that I’m gay, especially not happy because my sister is gay too. Mum’s mostly resigned to the fact that we’re gay, and she’s not fallen out with us (any more; long story) but she would rather we were ‘normal’. So here we were cramped together in little theatre seats watching a very conventional love story played out and leading to success—and with all those beautiful songs too! I did wonder what was going through my mum’s head as her queer son sat next to her…

Of course, King and Goffin are not successful in every way. Their relationship, like most, ends. One of the reasons is Goffin’s troubles with himself. He’s portrayed as having classic man problems: he doesn’t really want to settle down, he wants to have sex with other women, and he feels like he bottles up his emotions and then wants to explode. These are so often seen as ‘classic man problems’ (as I said)—and therefore they’re dismissed as such. People say, “There’s nothing you can do, he’s just a man…” Not many people stop and think about doing something about why it is that men think like this.

Instead we continue spinning songs like Goffin’s and King’s—about the perfect relationship when both sides love each other tomorrow.

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