Karen Tongson’s Diaspora Jukebox Playlist

From the Philippines to the Inland Empire, George Michael to Taylor Swift, Songs That Chart a Queer Awakening

Karen Tongson’s Diaspora Jukebox Playlist | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Author and USC professor Karen Tongson contributes to our Diaspora Jukebox series with songs that quite literally moved her from the Philippines to Hawai’i to the Inland Empire—and led her to embrace her queer identity. Photo courtesy of author.

As part of Zócalo Public Square’s 20th birthday, we’re sharing the sounds of the Southland with “Diaspora Jukebox,” a series of playlists that celebrate the unique communities and musical traditions that represent Los Angeles. Our fifth Diaspora Jukebox playlist features tracks from queer studies scholar Karen Tongson’s life—songs that quite literally moved her from the Philippines to Hawai’i to the Inland Empire, and moved her to better understand the inner workings of love, life, and herself.

The songs I’ve selected for this collective “Diaspora Jukebox” come from those parts of me that are activated by moments when I was moved, both literally and figuratively. This includes the many times I was moved from one place to another, which happened a lot with my musician parents—from the Philippines, to Hawai’i, back to the Philippines, and eventually to Southern California, which I’ve been lucky to call home since 1983—when I was 10 years old—with only a few excursions north and east.

These songs are also the irresistible hooks and beats that moved me: Songs that made me acutely aware of love, even if I wasn’t on the receiving end of it. Songs that made me anxious with lust, or that offered the first stirrings of queerness before I ever gave myself the permission to be who I was destined to become. This music forced me to overcome my butch awkwardness and lack of aptitude for choreography to get on the floor and move with the people who would eventually become my community, my world.

Love songs do a lot of work, but now, squarely in middle age, I recognize the cycles of longing that evolve inside and around us. When I was young, I’d hear these songs and say, “I hope to feel that way someday.” When I became a full-fledged adult, I said, “I know now what it means to feel that way.” As someone older, wiser, happily settled into who I am, where I am, and who I’m with, now I hear the life-and-death ardency in this music and say, “Oh, to have once felt that way.” While I’m grateful that my limbic system is no longer flooded with that level of anxious uncertainty, re-inhabiting these songs sends me through and across time and space, tumbling through that cycle of unknowing, knowing, and back again. I invite you to hear it too.

“Mr. DJ,” Sharon Cuneta (1978)

This voice belongs to one of the Philippines’ grande dames of cinematic love teams and saccharine song-stylings: Sharon Cuneta. “Mr. DJ” was her breakout hit back in 1978, the year my mom and I first left the Philippines to move to Hawai’i. I was 5, and Sharon was 12.

Sharon Cuneta was my first unrequited crush. Her crooning on “Mr. DJ” sounds mature for its age, yet it’s still a little coltish. She asks Mr. DJ (quite politely, peppering her refrain with lots of thank yous and apologies) to play her favorite love song, just in case her dear-heart will hear it and remember their time together. Sadly, her beloved is with someone else now, and the song itself has grown old.

“Mr. DJ” was the score for my many movements back and forth across the Pacific before I finally made it to the mainland in 1983. Even though it is in Tagalog, something about it always anticipated “America” for me. Maybe it’s the lilting, waltzing heartbreak that could very well be out of a Doris Day song. Cuneta’s scooping, mellifluous voice is on the verge of falling completely into rubato, like the old timey voices on the radio she sings about. That resemblance makes it a song accented by empire—by that ’50s All-American girl next door, as well as by her more wan, cinematic echo in 1978: Olivia Newton John as Sandy in Grease. But there’s also something undeniably and persistently Pinay about it. Maybe, the lilt is not simply a waltz, but the doubled upbeats of a folk dance from the Visayas.


“The Ghost in You,” Psychedelic Furs (1984)

When I was 11 years old, only a year into living in a tract home in Riverside, my parents saved up to buy me a banana yellow 10-speed from Sears with a brown pleather seat and handlebars. I deeply appreciated the fact that my dad insisted I get the boys’ version of the bike with the bar that ran straight across, instead of the girls’ with the scooped frame, which I always found weirdly patronizing—one’s femininity shouldn’t be threatened by throwing one’s leg over a bicycle bar. But then again, I was never the type to wear a dress or skirt while riding a bike.

Once—I don’t remember why—we were somewhere in the woods, and my parents let me ride freely across the flat trails with my Walkman on. I’d recorded this song off the radio and listened to it over and over and over again as I rode, flush with my first sense of freedom while simultaneously lulled into contentment by Richard Butler’s accented British voice telling me that “ayngels foll lyke rayn…”


“A Ray of Sunshine,” Wham! (1983)

I’ve never quite sorted out whether my love of Wham!, and of George Michael specifically, marked the dawn of my homosexuality or the peak of my heterosexuality. At the very least, my adolescent lust for George was an elaborate pantomime of what I thought straight behavior was: thirsting over a naturally hirsute man who was meticulously manscaped to show off his tanned, toned leg muscles.

A child of the ’80s, I didn’t know much about disco, and knew nothing at all of the leather gay aesthetic of Tom of Finland, so, I didn’t register that the “boys like you … so bad through and through,” white-rapping like they were Blondie on tracks like “Bad Boys,” were actually disco-dancing leather daddies in capri jeans who “woke up every morning with … a bass line, a ray of sunshine.”

Now, I joke that George Michael was my first gay love. This song taught me so much about myself and my desires, and it continues to do so.


“Lover to Fall,” Scritti Politti (1985)

Green Gartside’s voice—legibly post-pubescent, yet indeterminately gendered—became my proto-queer siren song in the mid-1980s, as I was transitioning out of my pubescent attachment to the tortured, whiny virility of New Ro’ tenors like Simon Le Bon and, of course, George Michael.

When music writers gush about Cupid & Psyche ‘85, the album “Lover to Fall” appeared on, it’s for its airtight samples and soulful-but-robotic pop sound that would become ubiquitous by 1988. But relatively little is said about the strange power of Green’s voice, an oddly thin and flaccid one for a white male singer to brandish in the pop landscape of the mid-1980s, which was ruled by the turgid Miller-Lite rockism of Huey Lewis and his Sports-bros.

Green gushes in “Lover to Fall” (which bears a spiritual resemblance to Madonna’s 1989 song “Cherish”): “I found a new hermeneutic; I found a new paradigm; I found a plan just to make you mine.” This song made seduction as a wordy enterprise part of my proto-queer toolkit, showing me how to transpose gender trouble into beautifully gnarled, stupefying phrases (like this one). It’s a tool I still use today as a queer scholar and writer.


“Good Beat,” Deee-Lite (1991)

I became a bona fide queer when Deee-Lite came into my life. Though “Groove is in the Heart” was the track that became an unofficial anthem for my 1991 high school graduating class—alongside Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” which was performed at my grad night at Disneyland—“Good Beat” wins a spot on this list because it created the occasion for my gayness to fully blossom.

My friend David Diaz introduced me to Deee-Lite. I’d known him for as long as I’d gone to school in SoCal. When we were in sixth grade together, people tried to pair us up, assuming that his effeminacy and my tomboyishness would make for an appealing and respectable straight couple. But neither of us would surrender to the social pressures of bearding. By the time we started community college together, and just before I transferred to UCLA, we were having house parties all night, transforming ’80s-era Spanish-style tract homes in the Inland Empire into mini rave dens, where we flaunted our thrift store finds and consumed Boone’s Farm by the gallon.

It was on one of those nights, riding the high of “Good Beat” in my sequined “wizard dress,” that I first kissed a girl and liked it very much.


“First of the Gang to Die,” Morrissey (2004)

No matter how you cut it, Morrissey was going to end up on this list. And if my California-inspired Anglophilia wasn’t problematic enough (read all about it in the Inland Empire chapter of my first book, Relocations), I’ve picked a song on the cusp of the “Bad Morrissey” era, when he began to speak all too freely about his disdain for immigrants and pop artists of color. Writers like Melissa Mora Hidalgo and others have gone deep into why his music and his popularity endure amongst the communities he insults most, so I needn’t go into that here.

Suffice it to say, this song made it to my playlist because it captures the moment I returned to Los Angeles after seven years of graduate school in the Bay Area, where I lost touch with the queer-of-color worlds that had nurtured me in my Southern California adolescence. Animated by new friendships, especially with writers and performers like Raquel Gutiérrez, Claudia Rodríguez, and Mari Garcia (who collaborated on a performance project called Butchlalis de Panochtitlan), I spent those first few years back in Los Angeles reveling with them in the lights that never went out, watching “the stars reflect in the reservoirs …”


“Maroon,” Taylor Swift (2022)

Like any basic butch, for the better part of the last 17 years I benignly appreciated Taylor and enjoyed most of her hit songs. But it wasn’t until March of 2023, when my sister-in-law invited me to my 5-year-old nephew’s first concert—the opening night of the Eras tour in Glendale, Arizona—that I fully blossomed into a “Swiftie at Fifty.” Not only was I properly stunned by the breadth and depth of Taylor’s oeuvre, I was impressed by her capacity to entertain us for over three hours, with a set of 44 songs that barely scratched the surface of her catalogue.

Shortly after that, I spent some time in Australia as a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney—including several nights out on the town during World Pride, dancing at the Stonewall Hotel to remixes of Taylor, Miley, and, of course, Kylie. Building on my transcendental experience at the Eras tour, these excursions morphed me into one of those most twisted and passionate over-readers of the Swiftian universe known as “Gaylors.” While it’s unlikely I—or anyone—will ever truly verify Taylor Swift’s “gayness,” the veracity of such claims is far from the point. Listening to Taylor Swift’s music feels gay to me because it keeps bringing me back to myself: to the longings, hopes, disappointments, and painful outcomes irrevocably bound up with some of our happiest moments.

In this sense, Taylor Swift is a consummate writer of torch songs. More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde committed many clever and intricate sentences to describing how romance and realism are interwoven. “Maroon” does this splendidly, elevating “your roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rosé” into an accidental totem of intimacy that reaches its peak just before it spirals toward a shattering end. “That’s a real fucking legacy to leave.”


“Getting to Know You,” Julie Andrews (1992)

In her final hours, barely able to open her eyes, my grandmother Linda Katindig waved one of her hands in the air in time with the music on a playlist I had made of her favorite songs. A smile crept over her face as she gently slipped away into the embrace of a familiar melody. Or at least that’s what I told myself then, to soothe my unbearable grief.

Call me morbid, as Morrissey used to say (before we knew what he really thinks about to eschew the earworms he wrote), but I’ve been thinking a lot about what songs might welcome me when I am eventually “called home.” I don’t necessarily mean when I die, though I don’t NOT mean that either. I’m talking about the music lodged in our unconscious. The tunes that live “rent free in our heads,” as the youth (or at least people younger than me) like to say—in the inner landscapes of ourselves. These unconscious terrains of attachment, longing and love are also, at least for me, the pathways to material environs: the real places and hardscapes that shape our lifetimes.

Karen Tongson is the author of Normporn: Queer Viewers and the TV that Soothes Us, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, and Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. She is a professor at the University of Southern California.

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