Book Review: Pop Song by Larissa Pham

Pop Song by Larissa Pham. Catapult Books, 2022.
“It was the intimacies that let us know we were intimate,” artist and writer Larissa Pham tells us in Pop Song. Addressed to a former lover “You,” Pop Song is Pham’s curation of art, theory, and pop culture, a poetic “catalog of intimacies” in essay and list form. A young Asian woman experiencing pleasure and pain in her relationships, she is always desperately searching for, scraping, and “mining [her] surroundings for significance.” Despite being a way to refigure herself in space, her obsessiveness with documenting intimacies – such as taking photographs of the people she slept with and admitting “it was a taking,” a theft, evidence that she could be loved when she felt unlovable – ultimately displaces her from being in the present. Pham’s collection begins with the essay “On Running” and concludes with “On Being Alone” as she learns a little more about sitting still, in her body, in peace, accepting that she is in pain, without physically or metaphorically running away. Pham frequently meditates on the ways that the pain and vulnerability in formal works of Western women artists have resonated with her, from Nan Goldin’s photograph Heart-Shaped Bruise to Louise Bourgeois’s fabric pieces of Hours of the Day. Yet, for me, the pop song essence of the collection comes through most through the tender, nostalgic way she writes about the intimacy she found in the online community forums of Tumblr and YouTube. 

“It was the era at the end of twee, approaching the age of new confessionalism, which carried with it that sweet, melancholic angst that can feel so self-indulgent to step inside,” Pham playfully describes of 2010s Tumblr culture, where she came of age alongside her online cohort of “young, feminist, self-aware sad girls of color.” I had wanted Pham to devote as much time analyzing the lives and works of Asian female artists and writers as she did of Western artists across her essays, but besides Yayoi Kusama, the Asian female artists in her life are depicted only as a collective, her contemporaries who engaged with critical theory to talk about sex, being fetishized, and never feeling whole

Through Tumblr, I’d been drawn to other Asian women like me, who had come to third-wave white-feminist sex positivity expecting the same sort of liberation and been started by men’s capacity for cruelty, or worse, indifference…Reading Mohanty ought to have warned us. But we weren’t strangers to pain, anyway; we’d read Sylvia Plath together; we’d taken pictures of our bruises. We’d been dumped by men who would go on to date white girls with nearly indistinguishable haircuts.

Pham’s writing pays homage to Tumblr as a sacred digital space circulating canon texts of critical theory, to feminist poetry “which we posted on our blogs at regular intervals, as though it was our way of showing up to church.” This “church” also provided community. Pham conveys how Tumblr was an accessible, intimate, generative space that gave her the vocabulary to speak of her experiences as a Southeast Asian woman. To have bloggers like her around as a sounding board was invaluable.

Similarly, Pham sees grainy YouTube videos and their comment sections for the community contributions that they are. To Pham, YouTube is the most authentic “audio copy” because “it’s video, which necessitates a kind of visual articulation. Some choice of image must be made, which reveals the hand of the person, who, out of passion or duty or desire to preserve, uploaded a certain clip.” Even low-quality visuals have significance – Pham treasures a 1981 recording of Stevie Nicks singing live for its visual and audio distortion, “which serves to enhance the spur-of-the-moment aliveness of Nicks’s performance” and “become[s] an obstacle to fully comprehending the song, which paradoxically encourages us to listen closer, ears pricked.” Its imperfection is endearing and magical to Pham in the same way that “a blurry photograph always looks more in love” – it’s the human touch, trying to capture something intangible, a moment bigger than oneself. Moreover, the YouTube comments on her favorite live recordings are an “accumulation of praise and unabashed poetics.” Each comment is a note someone left, and Pham scrolls deeper until “they start to feel like diary entries, or postings of a bulletin board gone faded with time.” Pham is attentive to the timestamps on these comments, publicly archiving fleeting emotions evoked by art.

Pop Song is a beautiful work of criticism as it is a memoir, with Pham’s articulation of doubt, fear, and her attempts at love so raw and poignant. In one passage from her essay “Haunted,” Pham writes of the effects of trauma, how the bodily anxiety and dissociation that follows makes you lose yourself, your worth, until you are a ghost: “There was too much inside me that made me ugly, and unlovable, and impossible to care for. I have been so many people in my life, and on my worst days, all my selves seemed stacked up inside me, too full to allow anything else in, like trash shoved in a compactor.”

With the same vulnerability and humility, Pham admits to the mistakes she’s made in her past relationships, and even to the limitations of her writing about it. “It’s always seemed so unfair to me that I could write paragraphs and paragraphs and yet all that could be felled by a song,” Pham says. But Pham’s briefest section in the collection, “Ways of knowing when it’s time to go,” made my heart swell, drop, and shatter with 18 short lines, 18 objects or moments of connection, of yearning, of beauty. The section precedes the final chapter, “Breakup Interludes,” where Pham shares how her relationship with her lover ends. One line reads, “You’re the happiest you think you’ll ever be at this party” – a bittersweet realization, to know that this euphoric moment will fade. Another reads, “The sun is setting.” The last line reads, “The sun is rising and a song you love has started to play.” I imagine belting my heart out to this last song, being more in the present moment more than I’ve ever been – it is the acceptance that things end.

Or, you can go, the party can end, but the song you love can still play – in your own head, for others. Pham writes with incredible openness with the reader, but Pop Song unlocked a door for my own emotions when I felt Pham stepping farther away from me, and more toward herself.

I read Pham’s essays like she was an older sister, my chị, sharing with me the art and wisdom she’s collected in the few steps she’s stumbled ahead of me, including the years of Yale we had between us. Pham’s incredible, emotional language can be the soundtrack for your twenties, and the intimacies you’ve collected for your coming-of-age. 

Pop Song
by Larissa Pham
Catapult Books, $16.95

Cathy Duong is a current Masters student at UW Seattle Genetic Counseling program. In her free time, she enjoys traveling to Little Saigons, playing V-pop on her ukulele, and analyzing diasporic Viet literature.


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