There's an L.A.-based podcast called Pop Rocket, in which a panel of local luminaries weighs in on the pop culture issues of the week — topics ranging from President Trump's eating habits to depictions of lesbianism on television.
“A deep, hidden desire for d” is too often the denouement in small-screen sapphic tales, cohost Karen Tongson lamented on a recent episode.
Tongson is the “fifth Beatle” of Pop Rocket, a frequent guest who eventually became a permanent co-host. It's no surprise that a woman who was born into a family of musicians and named after Karen Carpenter would have an innate interest in all things pop culture. But her ability to turn it into an academic career is a more remarkable feat.
The USC professor had moved to California as a child, after living in the Philippines and Hawaii. She had toured around Southeast Asia with her parents' band, Pacifica. Her mom, Maria Katindig Dykes, sang in a voice that reminded many of Karen Carpenter.
“She was famous in the '70s in her own way,” Tongson says of her mother. “She was part of these ensembles. She never necessarily established herself as a solo artist; the girl singer doesn't get to be famous. I've written a lot about that.”
In fact, Tongson is currently writing a book called Why Karen Carpenter Matters. “It's a really short book about Karen Carpenter as a vocalist and as a drummer and her sound, and how that was cultivated in Southern California, in Long Beach in the choir rooms of Cal State Long Beach, playing the Jolly Roger, venues in the greater Downey region,” Tongson says.
“L.A. never ceases to surprise me. I never feel like I have it figured out.” —Karen Tongson
Tongson's pop sensibilities have led her around the world: She's delivered dozens of lectures about karaoke, from Riverside to Germany. She's written journal articles on topics from Downton Abbey to the collaborations of pop music artists, and gave a talk in London about the legendary Studio K, the Knott's Berry Farm all-ages nightclub that was a hot spot throughout the 1980s. The classes she teaches at USC range from gender studies to contemporary literature to the culture of Southern California.
Tongson also has turned her attention to the less talked-about aspects of SoCal culture — or, perhaps more accurately, the parts that are apt to be derided. She writes about Riverside in terms of the British industrialists who capitalized on the citrus industry and imbued the area with Victorian architecture and sensibility. She explores the sprawling suburbs of “lesser Los Angeles,” to borrow a term from writer-performer Sandra Tsing Loh, the neighborhoods that stretch toward the desert and are full of seemingly cookie-cutter houses.
“They're actually deeply customized,” Tongson says. “People have decided to add this fence or to paint it a particular way or put a bouncy house in the front yard. … And with that, they bring with them their sense of style, their sense of what makes a home.”
Tongson sees herself as a culture “concierge” for Los Angeles, both lesser and greater. She delights in exposing her students, some of whom barely leave campus otherwise, to art galleries in Chinatown and music genres that originated in Long Beach.
“L.A. never ceases to surprise me,” she says. “I never feel like I have it figured out. Just when you think you have something figured out, it will confound you. It will frustrate you. Or you will find something completely out of the blue that you had no clue existed.
“You never know what's going to be up with L.A.”