What can popular music teach us about migration and cultural change? How can pleasure and joy help us redefine what it means to be a “serious” intellectual?  What might be stimulating or even transformative about the sprawl of Southern California?

In Episode 52 of the Imagine Otherwise Podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews podcaster and professor Karen Tongson about music and its relationship to place, the migratory and melodic flows between Manila and Los Angeles, how the Spice Girls can help us understand Adorno and Horkheimer, and the queer and transnational inspiration that Karen draws from her namesake, Karen Carpenter.

Guest: Karen Tongson

Karen Tongson is an associate professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of the book Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including academic journals such as Public Culture, Social Text, GLQ, American Quarterly, and Nineteenth-Century Literature, as well popular venues like BuzzFeed ReaderPublic Books and Sounding Out! The Sound Studies Blog. She has a forthcoming book with ForEdge Press on Why Karen Carpenter Matters, and has two books in progress: Normal Television: Critical Essays on Queer Spectatorship after the “New Normalcy,” and Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time. The book series she co-edits with Henry Jenkins at NYU Press, Postmillennial Pop, has published over a dozen titles. Karen chats regularly about pop culture (one of her favorite topics) and the arts and entertainment industries on the weekly Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Guy Branum. Karen hails from the legendary Filipino Latin jazz family, the Katindigs, and music and its relationship to space infuses all of Karen’s various projects.

We chatted about

  • Karen’s musical roots and her namesake Karen Carpenter (2:00)
  • How going deep with pop culture shapes Karen’s way of being an intellectual (6:24)
  • Karen’s upcoming book projects and her scholarly workflow (10:00)
  • How music and place inform one another (13:08)
  • The entanglement of social justice, scholarly work, and radical politics (17:04)
  • Imagining Otherwise (19:57)

Takeaways

Karen’s familial roots in music

“I was born into the Katindig family in the Philippines, that’s my mom’s side of the family, and everyone on my paternal grandfather’s side of the family is essentially a musician, at least of his generation. My father Romeo, aka Romy Katindig, was credited as being one of the earliest innovators of Latin jazz in the Philippines. From his generation onward, music was the family business. My mother’s first career was as a professional jazz singer, and she still sings now…She also married a musician—my stepdad. My biological dad was also a singer. They met in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and used to sing in bands together that were pretty well known for original Filipino music (called OPM). Music is essentially the only business that I really know.”

How Karen got into podcasting

“I sort of fell into podcasting accidentally. It was a good friend who I know from the academic pop music worlds, Oliver Wang, who invited me to sit in a few times for this show Pop Rocket, which is a podcast produced by MaximumFun.org, Jesse Thorn of Bullseye, and NPR. I sat in a few times as a guest and enjoyed it a lot. When Oliver decided to pursue other things, they asked me to join the regular panel. Pop Rocket is essentially a hilarious conversation but a structured conversation. As we say in our tagline, it’s “All the pop culture we love to love.” It’s a panel of four, hosted by comedian Guy Branum, who is also the host of The Game Show. He was on Chelsea Lately and also wrote for the Mindy Project. The panel includes me, journalist and novelist Margaret Wappler, who’s also based here in LA, as well as digital strategist Wynter Mitchell. It’s a range of different perspectives, from the scholarly to the zany, from inside the industry to the journalistic take.”

Centering joy in one’s intellectual work

“I decided early on that I would no longer repress pleasure in order to select the ‘proper objects’ that would dignify my labor, my work, and sense of intellectual heft. It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in those things as well, in the intricacies of theory and philosophy and other disciplines. But it was important to me to remember that I got into this profession [academia] in part because I didn’t know it was a profession. I like to write, I like to think about cultural objects. I wanted to preserve that sensation and that set of affects. I decided then that I wouldn’t have any shame, after having been shamed a few times for my excursions into things that may have seemed inappropriate or superfluous in more serious contexts. I knew that they would always be a part of my work, they were always a part of the way I thought. “

The queer aesthetics of karaoke

Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time is about the relationship between karaoke and its modes of repetition and copying, the relationship of that to queer aesthetics, the imitative arts, and ways of rethinking the problem or question of imitation or originality in the contemporary age. It’s also about the media archeology of karaoke and about the different formats and forms that came into being starting in about the early 1970s.”

The study of music and of place

“My origin story of being named after Karen Carpenter has a lot to do with the different movements that I undertook as a young child with my family, which were mostly non-consensual because I was a kid and as they took me to wherever they needed to. I wanted to think my way through what it would mean to experience different displacements with different degrees of psychological, emotional, and material impacts. This pervades every aspect of my lived experience, it’s not just my scholarship. I always think about what it’s like to move through a space and what it’s like to be alienated from a space or to make every effort to transform location in a way that is amenable and resonate for you. It’s an approach that I take into every bit of scholarship that I do. For example, the Carpenters book moves back and forth between Southern California and the Philippines, and follows the music as it is incubated in Southern California and has a really healthy afterlife in the Philippines. So I think that it’s about understanding oneself in relationship to different places, sometimes tenuous relation to different places.”

Socially engaged, public scholarship

“We have to imagine ourselves as collaborators, as comrades, and we have to interact with and engage with the subjects, the objects, the worlds that we instrumentalize intellectually in order to present ourselves as political and socially just beings. We have to invest the time in being present, in being there. And sometimes that means ways that are quiet and will never appear in our scholarship or in the things that will be enumerated and give us promotions or raises. I am very much committed to (it’s a very California thing to use this phrase) a holistic approach to understanding our role and relationship to social justice. We scholars are but participants, not the end-all and be-all of activating or translating or describing these things for everybody else.”

Imagining Otherwise

“What I hope for is that the work that we do, the way that we interact with the world, makes it possible to think about a compassionate collective relationship to whatever is happening in the world. The thing that was almost most stirring and inspirational for me when I encountered other thinkers who were imagining the world that they wanted were places where people were very much connected and tied together in common compassion, in a kind of ethical sense of mutual care. I think that that must happen in whatever material world that exists for us. We must find ways to foment joy, love, compassion, and understanding between one another and to give each other strength in whatever material conditions we find ourselves in. ”

More from Karen

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is Episode 52 and my guest today is Karen Tongson.

Karen is an Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at University of Southern California, and the author of the book Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, published by NYU Press. Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including academic journals such as Public Culture, Social Text, GLQ, American Quarterly, and Nineteenth-Century Literature, as well popular venues like BuzzFeed Reader, Public Booksm and Sounding Out! The Sound Studies Blog. She has a forthcoming book with ForEdge Press on Why Karen Carpenter Matters, and has two books in progress: Normal Television: Critical Essays on Queer Spectatorship after the “New Normalcy,” and Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time. The book series she co-edits with Henry Jenkins at NYU Press, Postmillennial Pop, has published over a dozen titles.

[01:28  You can hear Karen talk about pop culture (one of her favorite topics) and the arts and entertainment industries on the weekly Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Guy Branum. Karen hails from the legendary Filipino Latin jazz family, the Katindigs. Music and its relationship to space infuses all of Karen’s various projects, and in our interview we chat about the migratory and melodic flows between Manila and Los Angeles; how the Spice Girls can help us understand Adorno and Horkheimer; and the queer and transnational inspiration that Karen draws from her namesake, Karen Carpenter.

[to Karen] Karen, welcome and thank you so much for being with us. I would love to start off hearing about Karen Carpenter because you have this book about her and I know that you’re named after her. What draws you to Carpenter’s work?

Karen Tongson [02:11]: There are many ways in which I’ve felt like I’ve lived a life not only alongside her music but with her as this kind of spectral figure and inspiration for a long time. She connects me in so many ways to being home, a dream, if you will, a kind of Pepsodent smile, white picket fence, perfectly edge lawn, American fantasy that I remember being inculcated in from such a young age. So that’s part of why I wanted to explore that confluence of feelings.

And of course I love her music as well. Her voice in particular is really stirring to me. One of the things I write about in the book is how it was frequently compared to the sound of my mother’s own voice when she first started singing.

Cathy [03:05]: You mentioned your familial connection with music and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that because you come from a very strong musical family.

Karen [03:14]: Yeah, that’s basically the family business. I was born into the Katindig family in the Philippines. That’s my mom’s side of the family and everyone on my paternal grandfather’s side of the family is essentially a musician, at least of his generation. And her father, Romy Katindig, was credited with being one of the earliest innovators of Latin jazz in the Philippines. So really from his generation onward, music was the family business and my mom also, that was her first career, as a professional jazz singer. She still sings now, although she’s done a few other things since. She also married a musician, my stepdad. My biological dad was also a singer. They met in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. They used to sing in a band together that was pretty well known for original Pilipino music called OPM. That band was called Circus Ban. So music is essentially the only business that I really knew and I was on tour with my parents for a long time when I was a kid. I really didn’t go to formal schools until I was a little bit older.

Cathy [04:33]: What made you not go into the music business?

Karen [04:36]: The music industry, as you know, is feast or famine and we spent a lot of time on the road sometimes having really wonderful experiences. At other times it would be very difficult for my family to make a living, for my parents to make a living. I was also an only child and when we were traveling away from Manila, away from the kind of larger family unit with extended cousins and aunts and uncles, I was the only child. I felt a little bit lonely on the road, so I was very much attracted to the idea of being able to be in one place for awhile. I didn’t realize that academia would be as difficult a profession in many respects.

Cathy: I was going to say, there’s some interesting connections!

Karen: Yeah I mean, you know, it’s so funny because my mother used to always say, “well, at least you could always teach. You’ll have a steady job. You will always know that you’ll be employed.” It wasn’t until I got deeper into the process, when I started graduate school, that I understood, “Oh shit, what did I get myself into? I might as well become a musician.”

Cathy [05:44: Especially with all the moving around.

Karen [05:46]: Right. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough not to have to move around too much, but certainly the job insecurity was something that I meant to avoid by doing something more scholarly or “steady,” in my mother’s words.

Cathy [06:01]: Well, even though you didn’t go into the recording industry or live music yourself, you’ve spun your interest in sound and music and the cultures that are organized around music into both your scholarship as well as your podcast Pop Rocket. Can you tell folks who might not be familiar with it a little bit about what that covers and what draws you to podcasting?

Karen [06:25]: Well, I sort of fell into podcasting accidentally. It was actually a good friend who I know from the academic pop music worlds, Oliver Wang, who invited me to sit in a few times for this show Pop Rocket, which is a podcast produced by MaximumFun.org, Jesse Thorn of Bullseye and NPR’s company. So I sat in a few times as a guest and enjoyed it a lot. When Oliver decided to pursue other things, they asked me to join the regular panel. Pop Rocket is essentially a hilarious conversation, but a structured conversation, about, as we say in our tagline, “all the pop culture we love to love.” It’s a panel of four. It’s hosted by comedian Guy Branum, who is also the host of the talk show, The Game Show. He was on Chelsea Lately, he wrote for The Mindy Project. The panel also includes me, journalist and novelist Margaret Wobbler, who’s also based here in LA [Los Angeles, California], as well as digital strategist, Wynter Mitchell. So it’s a range of different perspectives from the scholarly to the zany to an inside-the-industry journalistic take, and we cover what we’re all about every week as well as a special topic every week and our favorite jams that week.

Cathy [07:51]: My favorite thing about the podcast is the unabashed pleasure that you and the other hosts and guests take in popular culture. It’s fun, it’s entertaining. You enjoy it and you weren’t afraid to say that you like it. It’s like pleasure can be just as valuable, just as scholarly, just as smart as critique.

Karen [08:09]: That’s certainly part of it. One of the things that I sort of decided early on, or at least, after a couple of years of being in graduate school, is that I would no longer repress that pleasure in order to select the proper objects that would dignify my labor, my work, to dignify my sense of intellectual heft. It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in those things as well or in the intricacies of theory and philosophy and in other disciplines. But it was important for me to remember that I got into this profession in part because I didn’t know it was a profession.

I like to write. I like to think about cultural objects and I wanted to preserve that sensation, that set of ethics. So I decided then that I wouldn’t have any shame, after having been shamed a few times where my excursions into things that may have seemed inappropriate or superfluous in a more serious context. I knew that it would always be a part of my work. It was always the part of the way I thought. Things that are more serious or arcane would often be opened up for me by thinking about, like, the Spice Girls. You know, I thought about [Theodor[ Adorno and [Max] Horkheimer through the Spice Girls and that allowed me to understand and access the text in ways that were more salient and ended up being more enduring than if I only were to do the serious or the severe.

Cathy [09:52]: In addition to the Karen Carpenter book, you’re also working on two other ones, as if you don’t have enough projects on your plate!

Karen [10:01]: It’s very difficult to work on projects simultaneously. I tried for a little while, but now I have them sort of stacked in a scheduled way. I actually can’t work on big projects simultaneously. There has to be one big one and a couple of small ones.

Cathy [10:19]: Yeah, that’s useful because I know a lot of our listeners have questions about workflow and organizing creative versus scholarly projects. So I think this is good information.

Karen [10:30]: So I am working on two other projects. The first thing that I’m going to be working on next, which I actually started before I wrote the Carpenters book (that’s another part of my workflow: I’ll start something and interrupt it with another big project and then get back to it). But the project that I’m going to be working on when I’m on sabbatical for the first time in a while starting in January is a book that some people might be familiar with because I’ve been giving talks about it. It’s called Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time, and it’s about the relationship between karaoke and its modes of repetition and copying and queer aesthetics, the imitative arts’ ways of rethinking the problem or question of imitation and originality in the contemporary age.

[11:29] It’s also about, in many respects, the media archeology of karaoke, about the different formats and forms that started in the early 1970s. So it’s a mix of all sorts of stuff. Most of my work isn’t just straight up one thing or the other. It’s also a very personal work because in many respects I had already experimented with karaoke as a methodology in my first book Relocations, singing along to or thinking my way into more gnarly intellectual problems through pop music and pop songs and having that crack open some of those ideas. So I’m really interrogating critical practice alongside a relationship to aesthetic theory and some of the technologies that make available to us different ways of thinking about these problems.

Cathy [12:33]: You mentioned your first book Relocations, which has some really fantastically interesting things to say about space and I’m curious how that book connects with what you were talking about earlier with your kind of thinking through on a familial level or a personal level, I guess, questions of home, of belonging, questions of land, questions of space. How did you see those things mesh with each other in writing that book?

Karen [13:04]: I really began from that place and in many respects have always started from that place. The origin story that I was sharing with you in relation to being named after Karen Carpenter has a lot to do with the different movements I undertook as a young child with my family, mostly nonconsensual because I was a kid and they [my parents] took me wherever they needed to. So I wanted to think my way through what it means to experience different displacements with different degrees of psychological, emotional, and material impacts.

I think that it sort of pervades every aspect of my lived experience. It’s not just my scholarship. I always think about what it’s like to move through space and what it feels like to be alienated from a space or to make every effort to transform a location in a way that is amenable and resonant for you. It’s an approach that I take into every bit of scholarship that I do.

The Carpenters book moves back and forth between southern California and the Philippines and follows the music as it is incubated in southern California and has a really healthy afterlife in the Philippines. So I think that it’s about understanding oneself in relation to different places, sometimes tenuous relation to different places, and realizing the significance of that and the profundity of that.

Cathy [14:44]: It seems like southern California plays a pretty big role in a lot of those stories. And I’m originally from southern California, myself, although I haven’t lived there for a long time. I’m curious, what do you love about SoCal?

Karen [14:57]: Relocations says a lot about it, but one of the things that I love about southern California, and I think about this in relation to Los Angeles in particular, is precisely the thing that people hate most about it: its impenetrable sprawl without any real logic is something to me that’s really compelling. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of other cities I’ve lived in other cities that are more vertical, smaller, more amenable to walking cultures. And it’s not that I love driving, but I love Los Angeles in all of its mysterious sprawl and southern California in general because it’s all interconnected. It never ceases to surprise me. It never ceases to be transformative in many respects. It never ceases to surprise me in ways that are both affirmative and expressive and wonderful and yet also horrifying and depressing and worthy of further inquiry. I do think that that my relationship to southern California in particular is really driven by the sense of its constant transformations and the transformations that are wrought by the people who come and flow through this place from throughout the Pacific Rim, from throughout the hemisphere, Latin America and Central America, and from the rest of the country.

Cathy [16:28]: A lot of your work, I would say most of your work, engages in some way with issues of social justice, whether that’s from a scholarly critique perspective or your approach to popular culture or the way that you read the relationship between migration and space. And I’d love to hear a little bit from you about how you conceptualize the kind of braiding of academia, art or maybe creative practice, and activism or emphasis on social change across your various projects.

Karen [17:03]: Well, I think of it all as a very holistic process. One of the things that probably upsets me most when thinking about the relationship between activism and the academy or politics in the academy is that I’m always fundamentally irked and depressed by really loud displays of political stances or radical stances that don’t have any backing or expression in I wouldn’t say the “real world” but only in other aspects of scholars’ ways of moving through the world and being in the world. So I would say, it’s time for us to put our scholarship, our radicality, the things we express things about our political commitment to social justice somewhere other than in the work that we give talks about and receive applause for.

I do think it’s a more holistic relationship that we have to have with the cultural producers, the artists, the people who we write with, not just about, whether or not that’s creative work or whether or not that’s scholarly work (I don’t really tend to differentiate between the two).

[18:18] I do feel that we have to imagine ourselves as collaborators, as comrades, and we have to interact with and engage with the subjects, the objects, the worlds that we instrumentalize intellectually in order to present ourselves as political and socially just beings. We have to invest the time in being present, in being there, and sometimes in doing things in ways that are quiet and will never appear in our scholarship or will never appear in the things that will be enumerated, that give us promotions or raises or what have you. So I’m very much committed to this very (I suppose it’s very California thing to use this phrase) holistic approach to understanding our role and relationship to social justice. We are but participants and not the end-all, be-all of necessarily activating or translating or describing these things for everybody else.

Cathy [19:28]: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do and the purpose behind this podcast. Obviously the title of this is Imagine Otherwise and one of the things that I feel privileged to be able to talk with so many smart guests about is their vision of a better world: that world that you’re working towards when you teach your classes, when you do your scholarship, when you work with artists and musicians and collaborators on these kinds of projects. What’s that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Karen [20:01]: Well, if you’d asked me this question about a year ago, I’d probably, I think a lot of us would probably, have said something different. It’s something that I’ve really been struggling with, to be perfectly honest. It’s very difficult to see a way out of the dark and disturbing world that seems to be coming to life before our very eyes. It’s really scaled my sense of ambition about the world that we imagine because on the daily I just think, “well, I just want the world to exist when I wake up.” Those are very bleak and dark thoughts.

But what I hope for is that the work that we do, the way that we interact with the world, makes it possible to think about a compassionate, collective relationship to whatever is happening in the world. I mean, these are the things that were always most stirring and inspirational for me when I encountered other thinkers who were imagining the worlds that they wanted as places where people were very much connected and tied together in common compassion, in a kind of ethical sense of mutual care.

[21:18] I think that what must happen in whatever material world exists for us is that we have to find ways to foment joy, love, compassion, and understanding between one another and to give each other strength in whatever material conditions we find ourselves. So that’s the world that I cling too, that I try to imagine even in moments of feeling utter desolation at where we’ve been headed.

Of course, I would also love a world where we could at least abate the forms of climate change, the forms of species annihilation, that are accelerating much faster and faster. So I want all species and beings to find a way to tap into the kind of compassion, love, and joy that will help us get through and discover something enduring.

Cathy [22:14]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing a little bit about how you imagine otherwise.

[22:24] [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]