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Karen Tongson’s “Sound Migrations”

2009 March 20
by Nat

So I went to that talk that I mentioned at the beginning of class on Wednesday, Sound Migrations: Queer Suburban Soundscapes and the FilAm Imaginary, and decided to do a little bit of graphic facilitation! woo! so here is what I came up with:

(click the images for a closer look)

So at first I couldn’t really think of anything particularly relevant to our discussions to ‘report back’. But after mulling over it for a while, I realised that there were actually plenty of connections in what Karen had to say. The main theme behind her presentation was trying to catalogue the queer immigrant suburban experience. She did this by tracing her own experience (as a Filipino American) through the music that she listened/listens to. Her presentation, which she called a ‘sound party’, was a series of musical excerpts and video performances, each one representing some facet or stepping stone to her complex queer Filipino American suburbanite identity. Cool huh?

Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of tickytacky
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers, and business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university
Where they are put in boxes and they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Karen used the song and its many versions to describe the paradox that she considers the suburbs to be. She described the suburb as a place that is constantly changing yet constantly the same. Just like the song, which describes the manufacturing of the suburbs, but is also constantly changing and taking on differet meanings through its various interpretations by different artists. What this reminded me of was the (re)-cycle of change that the social science majors brought up with regard to Metropolis and The Handmaid’s Tale. The song was written in 1962 and yet the suburbia that Reynolds critiques in her song is not far removed from images of the suburb today. While ethnic, sexual and gender diversity in the suburbs may have increased, changing the inner make-up of these areas, suburbs are still essentially what they always were. Just like in Gilead but reversed, the same people live there, but the structure of their society has changed dramatically. Ever-changing, yet sedentary.

  • Another point that Karen brought up that got me thinking was the origin of the word ‘suburbia’, a combination of the two words ‘suburb’ and ‘utopia’. This got me thinking about Gilead, which I interpret as being quite a suburban place. Did Gilead once represent the picture-perfect, ‘ticky-tacky’ suburb and end up becoming a different kind of suburbia, a combination of ‘suburb’ and ‘dystopia’? Or perhaps because of the extreme restraints and regulations put in place, Gilead is more ‘ticky-tacky’ and prefabricated than before, just slightly less picture-perfect?
  • More technology related, Karen talked about the influence of the radio, specifically the car radio, in the construction of a common suburban immigrant identity. She argued that the radio was the crux of suburban sociability and connection and that the popular music it transmitted addressed differences of race and class, well… differently. This brings up music as a technology that we have never really explored before, a technology of influence. Perhaps what differentiates music from other technologies of influence like the media is that, unlike magazine ads, tv shows etc that project the ideal beauty or the ideal display of gender or whatever, music allows for interpretation. Why have we shied away from discussing music (not the music industry) as a technology of influence? Is it because it could be, shockhorror!, a technology that influences us positively? According to Karen, the music we listen to, and the ways in which we interpret it, play a huge role in the shaping of our identities, be they our cultural, class, ethnic or sexual identities.
  • The reason, according to Karen, that music plays such a significant part in the shaping of our identites, is that music provides us with an outer, imaginary space, in which we can construct what we want, how we want. This ‘sound = space’ idea reminded me a lot of that outside space that we were discussing with regard to films. Was it called the ‘third space’? I don’t know but it was the space OFF the camera, outside the frame, that we said is often inhabited by women with agency, people representative of alternate sexualities etc. The difference is that people are banished to or pushed into this ‘third space’, whereas we have the choice to travel to the space that music creates for us. Basically, one is an escape and one is a prison. But why? Film and music, I would say, are probably the most influential types of media that exist, and the artists that produce them are highly aware of this. So why does film choose to alienate some while music appears to accept all? Is it perhaps because of the nature of consumption of both types of media? While both are publicly released, is music, and one’s intrepretation of it more private? But that doesn’t really work because one’s interpretaton of a film could be equally as private and personally specific? Is it because you can’t see music? And so it’s more open to interpretation? I don’t know but if anybody ever did figure out why it’s such a positive technology of influence it could totally be the solution to our problems with all the negative influences of other technologies! hah. maybe. As Walter Pater once wrote, “all arts aspire to the condition of music”.
  • Another interesting connection that I made was with regards to something that Karen said about ‘auditopia’, which she describes as a ‘musical map’ of the conscience, identity, or nation. She said that the accents (both literal and figurative) present in popular music and its various re-enactments (e.g. in the multiple versions of Little Boxes, or in this video of Filipino prison inmates re-enacting Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video) speak volumes about the axes around which identities are constructed. Empirical accents and native subcultural accents evident in original songs and covers (for example, by America Idol contestants) often are related to attempts at affiliation or ‘passing’ by immigrant populations, but can also be about creating an immigrant group identity. As Maddie brought up in an older post, ethnically passing is not so different from gender passing. I would think then that different accents in music would represent attempts at gender passing. A good example (given by Karen) of accents displaying a complicated palimpsest of axes of identification is Journey. Yes.. the 70s/80s rock band. Arnel Pineda is the new lead singer of Journey. He is Filipino. He was discovered in Manila singing in a Journey cover band. When he sings Don’t Stop Believing, the ultimate working class american’s anthem, he sounds just like the previous lead singer, with the tiniest (tiniest) hint of an accent. The accents in this performance are numerous. The Philippines is home to the most cover bands in the world and probably the most karaoke singers. Is it significant that American popular music is what is normally sung by these bands/karaoke enthusiasts? Yes. Empirical accents are in play here, and how could they not be? The influence of hundreds of years spent as a colonized nation doesn’t just disappear when the colonizer does. And this is part of the reason that there was so much discussion and argument when Journey named Pineda as their new lead. Did he represent the dreaded ‘white love’ phenomenon? Was he trying to pass as westernized? Is he westernized? Is that ok? Or was he just trying to affiliate himself with the working class struggles shared all over the world? Was he intruding into the sphere of what was considered of ‘all-american’ (often all-white) music because he wasn’t american (or white)? And what about his Filipino accent? When it came down to it, all the band cared about was his singing, but Arnel, and the various accents that he represents when he sings for Journey, open up all sorts of different means of appropriating musical interpretation into the creation and solidifying of identities.

All in all, it was incredibly eye-opening conversation, both personally and academically. I hope that some of Karen’s ideas might open up some of our conversations…

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 21, 2009

    thanks especially for the concept of the “musical map” that is an “auditopia.”

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