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She understands TikTok music better than anyone
Why you should follow Pitchfork assistant editor Cat Zhang
Here’s the second segment from Friday’s episode with Switched on Pop co-host Charlie Harding. Read on to learn about Japanese City Pop, why some music on TikTok sounds intentionally s**tty, and more.
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ERIC: Charlie, let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for someone that you're jealous of, and you said Cat Zhang, who is on Twitter @CatZhang1. Cat is an award-winning assistant editor at Pitchfork, and she specifically covers the intersection of music and internet culture, which means I should probably get her on this show ASAP. But why does she make you jealous?
CHARLIE: Just because she finds stories that I wish I'd covered. There are people who work in your field who you're always watching like, "Wow, you got the story that I wish I'd found." I think that she not only reliably does that but also has a way of thinking about the role of the internet and music in a way that I'm never capable of doing.
What I mean specifically is that she frequently covers the TikTok beat, which I think is an extremely hard thing to cover. A, because we all have specific algorithms. So, how do you know how to cover TikTok? The actual navigating is hard enough.
But TikTok puts me in a total malaise, an absolute stupor. It's the thing of just melt-the-brain escapism. And she's able to apply the critical theory level of thinking around what's happening on TikTok and then write highly entertaining, very well-done journalism about TikTok culture.
ERIC: Because there are certain songs that I think of as TikTok songs that are more like meme songs, where they're playing underneath videos. But it's also this incredibly important launching platform for new artists. This is the place where they are all fighting it out now to get noticed: Can their songs be used in a TikTok video?
CHARLIE: Totally. I think that most "how did a song happen via TikTok" stories are not interesting. Because it's like, there was a song, someone made a silly video, that silly video went viral, that became a trend, that song is now huge.
That story has been told many times, and people have made music careers out of it. Now, it is like trying to play the lottery. It's a very hard thing to get that to happen. The story around it's not that interesting, whereas Cat is going to be like, "Let me tell you why this song on the Billboard in the 1980s, this Japanese city pop song that has not had a major life in forever, actually has much larger cultural resonance, where it comes from, why it's happening. It's not completely random. And I'm going to write a 10,000-word feature-length article about it and totally blow your mind."
Now, full disclosure, we had Cat come on our show and re-report that story to us about Japanese city pop.
ERIC: Okay. Here's another thing you're going to have to define. What is Japanese city pop?
CHARLIE: Japanese city pop is a genre of music that was very big in the 1980s that is a very laid-back, groovy kind of thing. It is its own music. You might feel some genre connections to disco, fusion, jazz, new wave, maybe even yacht rock. It was like peak 80s, Japanese economy's booming; it feels like 80s music.
ERIC: Right. So, it's come back, thanks to the internet, thanks to TikTok and other folks who have found a way to incorporate the sound of city pop into new music that they're making, right?
CHARLIE: There's a whole little mystery that you have to uncover. And I'm not going to tell you this one right now because you're either going to have to go read Cat's article about the history of Japanese city pop, or you can listen to her on our show.
ERIC: Yeah, spoilers. Without spoiling anything too grand, what's something from one of Cat's appearances on your show either about TikTok or about city pop, what's something that she has taught you that has surprised you, blown your mind?
CHARLIE: She first came on the show a couple of years back to report on when TikTok was having its first wave. And she was able to define some very particular aesthetics that exist on TikTok, particularly, that there is a desire to show things in a very DIY way.
We see artists like Lil Nas X going on TikTok with the blurriest background, nothing high fidelity. The music that was preferred on the platform started to mirror that.
Specifically, people would create bass that sounded really bad; earth-shaking, distorted, kind of like what bad bass sounds like coming out of your iPhone or out of your laptop. They would actually want that sound to be the sound in the underlying track, because it sounded more "real," if you will.
So I think that the visual component of TikTok has had a very significant impact on the kinds of sounds that people want to hear. Less polished; it sounds like you could have just done it in your bedroom or recorded it with your phone.
ERIC: Is that of a piece with that YouTube video that everyone watches, "lofi beats to study and relax to" or whatever? Is that lo-fi, is that the same thing? Or musicologically, is that a different thing?
CHARLIE: I think that's a different phenomenon because that's more of a YouTube phenomenon. We've reported on that one as well. That's more people truly needing something to do in the background.
Obviously, a lot of music on TikTok is in the background, but one of the other trends that she talked about is that a great TikTok song often needs to have a significant moment of change, or some funny sound effect that would then accompany a strong visual moment. It's kind of like music that works well with slapstick comedy.
ERIC: Yeah. Going back to Lil Nas X again, like Old Town Road, the song that made him crazy famous, it has that drop, where suddenly the song shifts from, "This plausibly could be a country song" into, "No, this is a proper hip hop beat."
CHARLIE: Exactly. And that's just when a content creator is going to make some wild visual change in their video.
ERIC: Exactly. That's when everyone turns into cowboys for the Yeehaw Challenge.
Well, before we move on to your next follow, is there anything else that we should say about Cat? Anything else about her writing or anything else that makes her such a great follow?
CHARLIE: Yeah. I think for a lot of people, following music can be a kind of inside baseball. A lot of Pitchfork was developed off of sub-scenes of music of people who are really dedicated to reading blogs.
I think everybody should read Cat's writing, because she has a way of connecting music to larger issues within culture, and it's so smart, so well-researched, and so well-written that it's music writing that everybody should read.
ERIC: Very well said. Well, that was Cat Zhang, who is on Twitter @CatZhang1.