SUMMER SONGS 08: KAREN TONGSON



(Editor’s Note: I met Karen Tongson through Josh Kun – she’s part of an impressive set of faculty talent over at USC working on issues around race, sexuality, identity, and of course, music. Like Christine Balance, Karen’s also part of the (un)holy trinity who run Oh Industry! and she’s got another blog for her intriguing, forthcoming project, The Inland Emperor. Appropriately enough, for her summer songs post, Karen examines the songs of her youth, growing up Inland. –O.W.)

Written by Karen Tongson:

    When I was recently asked to host a listening party about the suburbs, this phrase sprung to mind as I re-traced the soundscapes of my Pinay immigrant youth, through the stucco jungles of Southern California’s Inland Empire:

    Music from your room. In the Parking Lot. Fresh Off the Boat.

    Coordinates to and from nowhere in particular, and yet to everywhere you turn. It isn’t quite the So. Cal fantasy pimped nationally by our neighbors to the coastal west in Orange County. Our shiny OC rivals not only figured out a way to make Sun-In look “natural,” but they perpetually taunted us with their superior air quality, totally bitchin’ beaches, and bumpin’ teen clubs like Studio K at Knott’s and Videopolis at Disneyland.

    Summer in the I.E., meanwhile, meant smog alerts and creamsicle sunsets radiant with toxicity. On some southland days—110 fahrenheit garnished with the brown muck of a stage 2 alert—we weren’t even allowed to play outside. Instead we retreated to our rooms with our window units cranked to the max for full apocalyptic ozone effect, and let the music take us to the paradises we were promised to begin with: somewhere poolside with free umbrella cocktails, sunglasses at night, and gaudy flourishes of slap bass.

    Wham!: Club Tropicana
    From Fantastic (Columbia, 1983)

    While my tingly, proto-queer self was delirious with visions of a manscaped George Michael in a white Speedo, and delusional enough to believe Andrew Ridgeley was actually singing the airtight a capella lathered in reverb that serves as the song’s outro, my folks were in the next room learning how to play this:

    Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66: Pais Tropical
    From Foursider (A&M, 1972)

    Corny though it was with its unison co-ed verses, and call-and-response shout choruses, the folks actually preferred re-arranging Sergio Mendes’ A&M tropicalia to working out the Weekly Top 40 with their instrumentation (rhythm section with dad on the piano, 2 jazz trombones and mom on vocals). I preferred it too, especially after one particularly scarring Fourth of July incident at the Riverside Fireworks Spectacular staged at the football stadium at Riverside Community College. My folks were the headline act. At the age of 12, with my entire softball team of tough, pubescent girls watching (see previous remarks re: “proto-queer”), I had to endure the spectacle of my mom singing Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” while she danced in a sequined top. Dear reader, please remember this moment anytime you even THINK about envying a kid for growing up in a family of musicians

    Now, with the “proto” plucked from my queer, and my folks pretty much retired from replicating Billboard smashes, I think about how the sound of those sedentary summers carried over into my other sonic worlds, into summers spent elsewhere. My penchant for the slightly amped gay cocktail jam a la “Club Tropicana” morphed into a love for the more languorous, hip-hop lilt that would close out the open-air dyke tea-dances on Sundays in the SF Bay Area. With the fog crawling over the Mission’s micro-climate, this song always signaled the transition from late afternoon to evening, from flirtation to whatever else all the pints of Red Hook ESB and “herbal infusions” would give you enough courage for…

    Queen Latifah: Weekend Love
    From Black Reign (Polygram, 1993)

    More recent summers have found me back in the parking lot, back in L.A. on what feels like a perpetual tailgate party in twilights thick with brushfires. In the book I’m currently working on, titled Relocations—the same book that’s keeping me from enjoying summer break at its fullest—I argue that there’s something tremendously creative about turning convenience into pleasure, about the acts of imaginative transformation that can turn a parking lot into a new socialscape without leaning on the crutch of “cool.” The artist Paho Mann’s work on rehabbed Circle K’s (featured in the image above) is just one example.

    Like an earnest, yet otherworldly cover version, these spatial improvisations take the familiar hum of someone else’s song and make them fulfill another purpose—make them speak to other places, bodies, desires. So in that spirit, I leave you now with four artsy girls from Brighton exploding a classic, daddy-drama slow-roller by Jersey’s (and for that matter, the U.S. of A’s) resident Boss. While Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” is all about the quiet tension of self-control, Electrelane’s rendition outruns discipline and threatens to come unhinged, (d)evolving into a queer, feminist YAWP.

    Electrelane: I’m On Fire
    From On Parade (Too Pure, 2003)

    And just like summer, it’s over too soon.


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