My Internet: Cat Zhang
The Pitchfork writer follows leftists, thrifters, a cool aunt and a Boston news guy on TikTok.
It's Friday, which means we're back with My Internet, our weekly feature in which we quiz an extremely cool “extremely online” person on their social media and streaming habits to get their essential guide to what’s good on the internet.
Today we welcome Cat Zhang, a writer for Pitchfork who published the widely praised feature What Is Asian American Music, Really? earlier this week, an interview with the viral young punk band The Linda Lindas last week, and has a column called TikTok Report. Cat spends most of her time online exploring the far reaches of TikTok (especially when she deactivates her Twitter, which is often), researching “Russian doomer music” on YouTube, and documenting her love-hate relationship with her roommate's cat in her Instagram Stories. —Nick
What's a recent meme that you like?
Is it bad that I literally just Googled “recent meme”? Uh, I love this video of TikTok user @poopycacalaca, edited so it looks like she is dancing to BLACKPINK’s “Pretty Savage.” If you search up “Blackpink world domination” on TikTok you’ll see a bunch of people doing the dance.
Would you say that you have an Instagram aesthetic? How would you describe it?
Hmm, something along the lines of “Little shirt big-ish pants cute Brooklyn bitch?” It’s not avant basic, because I’m too lazy to have caught up to that trend cycle, but it feels close. It’s a lot of me wearing chic little tops I stole from my 18-year-old sister—any garment in black or oversized denim jacket is mine—and then I’m usually somewhere normal like at a park or museum or party. The ends of my hair were dyed bright pink for a while, and I enjoyed flaunting that. There’s also like a random Judith Butler passage somewhere. My Instagram Stories are all over the place. Mostly they’re articles I read, Crown Heights Mutual Aid stuff, and evidence of my love-hate relationship with my roommate’s cat, Arthur.
What type of stuff do you watch on YouTube?
My entire YouTube history is basically videos I watch as research for my articles. A year ago it was “Russian doomer music.” Now it’s performance videos of Asian American artists, like grainy iPhone footage of Vijay Iyer from his Tirtha album cycle. Besides that, I like to watch Sohla El-Waylly food challenges. I’m a Patreon subscriber for the YouTuber CCK Philosophy, who formerly went under the kind of crude, tongue-in-cheek moniker “Cuck Philosophy.” He hasn’t posted anything in a while, because I think he’s working on a book, but he makes philosophy and media theory explainers connecting the ideas of Adorno, Baudrillard, Jameson, etc. to popular culture, that type of thing. As a category of content, video explainers can be a miss because they’re rarely fact-checked and they often reach the most obvious conclusions. But they can be a really engaging, immersive form, especially for people who don’t have the time or attention span to read books.
Do you use TikTok? If so, how would you describe what shows up on your For You Page?
Boy, do I. TikTok is like 60 percent of my social media life, 75 percent when I deactivate Twitter (which is regularly.) I love thrift flips, make-up looks (especially involving colorful graphic eyeliner), and cooking videos. I was hooked on watching the “washed flour” method of making seitan, or anything where you veganize a recipe—not because I’m vegan, but because vegans are very creative. I don’t think people understand how incisive cultural and political commentary on TikTok can be, if you find the right creators. A few weeks ago, people on Twitter were impressed with this TikTok by the 18-year-old creator Hailey Cheng, which expanded upon a tweet from Viet Thanh Nguyen about what Asian Americans owe to Edward Said. This isn’t surprising to me—plenty of young Asian American creators are talking about techno-Orientalism, the contemporary manifestations of Sinophobia, historical instances of Black-Asian solidarity, and more. Which is great, because I was not thinking on this level when I was a teenager. And I love learning about other corners of the Asian diaspora. I’ve gotten videos recently about Bhutanese food, Filipino soap operas, and hijras (known as India’s “third gender”). I was never taught anything about Pacific Islanders going up, and now I know a little more about colonialism in Hawaii and Guam. There are plenty of young leftists in general—not just Asian Americans—who demonstrate remarkable sophistication in their interests and thoughts.
I know very little about the fashion industry, and how historical events have shaped fashion, so I enjoy watching @guyfieri.superfan, @special_feel, and @bimbotheory. I write about TikTok music for my job, so I’m always saving audios and making note of trends.
Do you use Pinterest? If so, what's the board you're most proud of?
Are there any influencers who you would be sad to see stop posting?
If I’m deactivated on Twitter I’lI always search up “Jane Hu twitter” and “Merve Emre twitter” and click on their profiles to see if either of them have shared any writing recently. If we're going by the "writer as influencer" philosophy then I am very influenced by them. On TikTok there is a creator named Madeline Pendlelton whose brand is being your cool aunt. She’s in her 30s, runs the clothing brand Tunnel Vision, and has purple hair and a nose ring. And she basically gives advice—on budgeting for yourself, dealing with the death of your partner, getting a tattoo, and so forth. She has helped so many young people feel good about becoming adults, instead of being afraid of the future.
Do you ever tweet? Why?
Yes, mostly when I need to promote my own article or amplify a cause.
Which platform do you put the most effort into posting on?
Who's the coolest person who follows you?
Who's someone you know you should unfollow but can't seem to?
I don’t currently follow them at the moment, but I check TikTok Room all the time. I like gossip that has nothing to do with me or anyone I know.
Is there a podcast you're currently obsessed with?
Unfortunately I’ve been pretty bad at listening to podcasts during the pandemic.
Do you have an opinion about Clubhouse?
Every digital culture journalist has one platform they sit out on, and this is mine.
Do you subscribe to any Substacks or other independent newsletters? What's your favorite?
I mostly read Substacks if people share specific installments on Twitter. I keep up with two: Music Journalism Insider, which is a digest of music journalism updates and interviews, and then a fête worse than death, which is the book critic Becca Rothfield sharing her latest work and reflecting on whatever she wants. Oh, and I read the Study Hall weekly briefings.
Are you nostalgic for Vine or Tumblr? Why?
I wasn’t on Vine but I was very active on Tumblr. I miss the anonymity and the freedom to be imperfect online. I wrote so many awful, florid poems and mini-essays but I wasn’t that self-conscious about my output because no one I knew was reading it. Being able to write freely and refine my own voice really helped me out as a writer later on.
Who's a digital creator more people should know about?
On TikTok, @carlaxmariee is helpfully recapping developments in the NYC mayoral race and where candidates fall on different issues. In a similar vein, @bostopianews gives daily Boston local news updates—great use of the platform.
Which big celebrity has your favorite internet presence?
I don’t know! Dua Lipa? But not because of anything she specifically posts, mostly because she's very pretty.
Are you regularly in any groups on Reddit, Slack, Discord, or Facebook? What are they about?
I’m in the Facebook group “Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens.” It’s very amusing, in the way that most groups run by lost 20-something boys who are a little too into reading dense books are amusing. Someone just posted a photo with the caption, “What would Derrida, Fisher, Baudrillard have said about this haunting photo?” The “haunting photo” is a grainy snapshot of three turkeys. The poster was being serious, and the commenters are taking the question seriously. I’m also in a few Who? Weekly Facebook subgroups, but more passively. And I’m in a bunch of Discords but never check Discord because it’s overwhelming—I just use it to connect with sources, because that’s the only way to get to some teenagers.
Do you consider yourself part of any specific online communities?
Are you a gamer?
I don’t game. I think I would be much better at my job if I did, because there’s so much going on at the intersection of music and gaming.
Do you have a go-to emoji? What does it mean to you?
The smiling devil, and self-explanatory.
Do you text people voice notes? If not, how do you feel about getting them?
I love a voice note. Intimate, but casual and fun.
Do any of your group chats have names? What's the best one?
Yes. But I have friends who like to show affection via bullying, so I cannot disclose.
What's the most basic thing about you online?
My Instagram captions are pretty boring. And I’m regularly embarrassed by my own earnestness.
What's the most specific or niche Spotify playlist that you like?
All the playlists I follow have very functional names, like “Spring 2021.”
Who topped your Spotify Wrapped last year?
Carly Rae Jepsen, but I reviewed her album, so I think those results are not a true reflection of what I actually wanted to listen to last year. Music journalists tend to have messed up Spotify Wrapped results.
Are you signed up for any "alternative" movie/TV or music streaming services, like Mubi or Deezer?
Do you have any "guilty pleasures" online or in terms of what you stream?
Not really, I haven’t been streaming much lately.
Do you ever comment on or reply to posts? Which platforms? What inspires you to do that when you do?
Yes, usually when I want to be supportive.
Do you regularly use eBay, Depop, or other shopping platforms? What's a recent thing you've bought or sold?
I’ve purchased a few things on Depop, like a corset. And I get most of my apartment knicknacks from Etsy. I heard eBay is where it’s at, though.
What's one thing you do online only because you have to for work, and one thing you do strictly for fun?
I don’t think there’s anything I do exclusively for work. For fun? Logging books on Goodreads. It's the most low-key social platform.
Is there any content you want that you can't seem to find anywhere online?
I want to see smart, dynamic music commentary on YouTube and TikTok. Right now it’s basically Anthony Fantano and his imitators, and I have nothing against Fantano, but there needs to be more diversity. I don’t really gel with his style of commentary, or the general idea of having a cult of personality developed around one guy. The Needle Drop’s YouTube audience is only 6.5 percent female.
But Fantano is one of the few critics who’s meeting young people on the platforms where they are, which is why The New York Times called him the only music critic who matters for people under 25. (For the record, I’m under 25.) I’ve really respected his approach to building an audience on TikTok—he’s stitched and collaborated with several well-known TikTok music personalities, like Dev Lemons of Song Psych, and he also participates in a lot of memes and trends … he just generally understands how the app works.
Beyond Fantano-types, born and bred TikTok music journalists—the so-called “future of music journalism,” according to Rolling Stone—mostly traffic in recommendation content, continuously spotlighting the same artists and sounds you’d find on Spotify’s Lorem playlist. It’s so easy to make fun of, but at the same time, there are not many “”“serious””” music writers or music brands willing to compete in this space, who want to invest in making rigorous, edifying music content that’s also playful and engaging to Gen Z. Instead of being condescending about the “TikTok generation” and their lack of knowledge, collectively as a community we should be doing more to give young people the historical context and analytical frames to think more critically about music. (Personally, I’m happy to support any music journo who wants to branch over to TikTok, but for harassment reasons I’d like to avoid showing my face online as much as possible; that’s why I haven’t tried making videos myself.)
What's the worst thing about the internet in 2021? How about the best thing?
Worst thing? Circular discourse and consistent bad faith interpretations. Too much posturing. Best thing? I learn so much.
Recommended in this post On TikTok: videos about thrift flips, make-up looks, veganizing recipes, Bhutanese food, Filipino soap operas, and hijras, plus the “Blackpink world domination” dance and the creators Hailey Cheng, Madeline Pendlelton, @guyfieri.superfan, @special_feel, @bimbotheory, @carlaxmariee, and @bostopianews; Crown Heights Mutual Aid; Sohla El-Waylly food challenges and CCK Philosophy on YouTube; Jane Hu and Merve Emre on Twitter; TikTok Room and Dua Lipa on Instagram; the newsletters Music Journalism Insider, fête worse than death, and Study Hall Digest; the Facebook group “Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens” and Who? Weekly subgroups; Depop for things like corsets and Etsy for apartment knicknacks; and logging books on Goodreads.