in The People's Album

Well it’s officially Fall. So before this blog starts to turn more spooky as well as toward some exciting upcoming movie releases, I wanted to get this bonus episode of The People’s Albums in. After all, what mega-selling album has a cover that radiates such quintessential Fall vibes?

Album: Tapestry
Artist: Carol King
Release Date: February 10, 1971
Copies Sold In U.S.: 13 million

Why Was This Popular?

Much like Jagged Little Pill years later, this album feels like a distinct product of the wave of feminism it rode, even if it’s not overtly trying to. Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue feel like the two pillars of ‘70s female-driven folk-rock and for a certain generation of women, I have to imagine feel a bit like sacred text. While I would say that my mom’s music fandom came a little bit after the folk singer-songwriter boom of the early ‘70s, she nonetheless had a copy of Tapestry on CD in my childhood living room. This of course led to me first listening to it after seeing its appearance on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list from 2003 (which was kicked up to #25 on the 2020 version).

But why has this been such a pivotal album for so many women? I think much of it has to do with the sense of self-worth that King seems to be wrestling with here, and how much she should be basing any of this on her relationships with men. Some of this manifests itself in a song like “I Feel The Earth Move”, which frames the idea of love as this cataclysmic event that can completely take over your psyche. Then there’s a song like “Beautiful” that’s more of an ode to self-love and how your inner happiness will affect the way other people perceive you. It’s hard to say that these types of sentiments feel all that radical, considering the tender melodies King imbues her fairly universal lyrics with. But I think it’s this mix of sweetness and pragmatic honesty that gives it its power.

Other than it tapping into the soft rock boom of the early ‘70s, another thing that made Tapestry a distinct product of its time was that it tapped into the idea of a woman calling the shots on her own career. While Mary Richards had provided mainstream America with a depiction of a working woman finding her way in the aftermath of a break-up in the debut episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show just a year earlier, King was doing the same for her own career. She had broken up with Gerry Goffin three years earlier, who she had also worked with as a professional songwriter for the entirety of her early career, writing hits for The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, and countless others. After this, she packed up and left her native New York for Los Angeles with her two kids and the hopes of finding something better. What she quickly found was a new husband and a record deal where she would have a newfound sense of artistic freedom.

It had initially taken some convincing for Carole King to start singing her own songs by her friend James Taylor, as she had trouble seeing herself as more than just a songwriter. While King’s voice may not have the polish of your typical pop singer, she still sings a lot more sweetly than a bunch of rough-hewn male singers that had gotten by as bastions of authenticity. I’m not sure that you could make the comparison that this album did for female singer-songwriters what Dylan’s voice did for male singer-songwriters in the mid-‘60s, since his is still a lot more unusual. Still, it’s an album that along with plenty others of the era helped proliferate the idea that a woman had every right to sing a song that she had poured her heart into writing, regardless of whether she had “the perfect voice”. In this regard, I’ve always found her version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” particularly moving, as she’s clearly never going to be able to sing it as acrobatically as Aretha, but she can still give it the same amount of feeling, dammit.

Speaking of that song, as I’ve gone through this series talking about the best-selling albums of all time, I’ve noticed that each of these massively popular albums have a few gigantic singles. However, Tapestry is a bit strange, in that it does feature a bunch of hits, but many of them were at their most popular when recorded by other artists. This includes both King’s minimalist reconstructions of “A Natural Woman” and The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, as well as “You Got A Friend”, which would become a big hit for James Taylor the same year Tapestry was released. As far as Carole King’s own versions, you’ve got the singles “I Feel The Earth Move”, “So Far Away”, and “It’s Too Late”, which still sound great any time you hear them on an oldies station. Then to top it all off, you’ve even got “Where You Lead”, which served as the theme to Gilmore Girls and introduced a whole new generation to this album.

Did This Deserve To Be Popular?

What I think gives King’s voice so much power on Tapestry is how unassuming the rest of the instrumentation on the album is. Producer Lou Adler allows both King’s singing and her piano-playing to take center stage in the mix of each song, while other instruments float in and out, not unlike the many L.A.-based musicians that seemed to float in and out of Tapestry’s recording sessions. It’s this quality that gives the album such a chill, inviting vibe, but also speaks to the album’s timelessness, as the spare arrangements don’t feel overly tied to the era in which they were recorded.

It also goes without saying that a huge reason for the album’s lasting appeal is how durable these songs are, since even though King was only 29 when she recorded the album, it feels like the work of a seasoned professional. Though seeing as she had started writing songs professionally when she was 18, in a way she was. While there was a certain amount of hippie indulgence associated with the Laurel Canyon acts that Tapestry doesn’t feel too far removed from, there’s an economy and preciseness to these songs. It in turn makes the album feel connected to the ‘60s pop song, even if it’s an unmistakable product of the dawning of the decade that would follow it.

It was both a little surprising and heartening to see so many loving tributes to Tapestry that were published earlier this year to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It’s not an album that has as overbearing of a legacy as the arena rock albums from that same era, or the same cool caché of more underground music from the early ‘70s that has become more acclaimed over the years. Some of this could be attributed to the way bombast or edginess is valued in rock music, but some of it surely also has to do with sexism. Either way, it’s an album that has chugged along over the years, remaining a reliable source of pop respite for anyone partial to its many charms and I’m sure will continue to be for years to come.

Would I Pay Money For This?

You know, I was in an antique mall a few months ago and almost picked up this album on vinyl, but didn’t. I now of course regret this, since it would’ve been nice to listen to while writing this piece or whenever I need to hear one more song about moving along the highway. Ah well, maybe next time.

Next Time On The People’s Albums: I’ll be falling into Celine Dion’s Falling Into You, which I honestly don’t know enough about to make more dumb puns.