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)


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.

Sign up for our newsletter

Podcast episodes, articles, and offers right to your inbox to help you rock your interdisciplinary career

Our Privacy Policy