The Meaning Behind “Superstar” by The Carpenters and How They Tweaked It to Make It Their Own

“Superstar” somehow epitomized the output of The Carpenters and deviated from it all at once. On the one hand, it’s a song that’s so gentle that it wouldn’t break an egg, putting it in line with their other massive hits. Yet it also goes to darker corners than the typical song by the duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter, in terms of both the haunting arrangement and Karen’s wounded vocal.

Videos by American Songwriter

What is “Superstar” about? Who wrote the track? And how did the Carpenters adjust it to make it their own? The story begins in the late ’60s with a loose musical collective that included, among many others, Eric Clapton.

Before “Superstar,” There Was “Groupie”

That’s right, the original title for “Superstar” was “Groupie (Superstar).” It was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. The melodic underpinning bears the stamp of some of the piano ballads penned by Russell.

As for Bramlett, she was making a name for herself with her then-husband Delaney in the blues-rock collective Delaney & Bonnie. This group included a who’s who of instrumental superstars, including Eric Clapton, who would take a few of these folks with him for his famed Derek & the Dominoes project.

Delaney and Bonnie and Friends released a version of “Superstar” (with Clapton on guitar) as a B-side in 1969. From there, the song started making the rounds of top female vocalists. Rita Coolidge (who is credited by some with coming up with the idea for the song based on seeing groupies swarming male rockers) sang it live on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album. Cher took a crack at it, as did Bette Midler.

Midler turned it into a torch song very much in her style. In promoting the album which included the song, she made the pilgrimage to Johnny Carson’s stage. “Late one evening during the period in which we were recording our third album, I happened to tune in to The Tonight Show,” Richard Carpenter wrote in the liner notes to the Carpenters box set From The Top. “Bette Midler, who was then relatively unknown, was guesting and on this particular show sang ‘Superstar.’ I felt the song was a hit and a natural for Karen.”

Richard’s arrangement featured ace members of the Wrecking Crew Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums) delivering the moody rhythm. Richard brought the drama with an assortment of keyboards, while the wistful emotional tone emanated from oboist Earle Drumlet. Of course, Karen provided the most important aspect of the recording with her chilling vocal performance. Amazingly, it was a first take where she was literally seeing the words for the first time as she sang them. The Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” hit No. 2 in the U.S.

What is the Meaning of “Superstar”?

Every word of the lyrics to “Superstar” hits hard, as they tell the story of an avid fan who was lucky enough to strike up a romance with her favorite musician. Unfortunately for her, the joy and passion of their coupling can’t match the sorrow she now feels at his absence, especially when she’s constantly confronted by his gifts: Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear / But you’re not really here, it’s just the radio.

The intensity of her feelings for him has transformed into delusion, as she anticipates a reunion that’s not likely to occur: And I can hardly wait to be with you again. His words haunt her every waking moment: Don’t you remember you told me you love me, baby /Y ou said you’d be coming back this way again, baby.

She’s reduced to chanting his name, mantra-like (baby, baby, baby …), as if that will somehow manifest his return. When Karen delivers her final words of love in “Superstar,” there’s an air of resignation and defeat in her voice, as if this character is finally admitting the truth. It’s a bravura performance and the definitive one of this bittersweet classic.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Tony Russell/Redferns

Leave a Reply

Morgan Wallen Arrested, Released From Nashville Jail After Allegedly Throwing Chair From Rooftop of Eric Church’s Bar