‘No Mean Task’: The Subversive Lightness of Chris Ho’s ‘Pop Life’
by YEOW KAI CHAI
Recently, I was watching ‘What’s In My Bag?’, a YouTube series hosted by the American record store Amoeba Music which zeroes in on musicians’ shopping loot in the store, when something said by Sebastien Grainger, drummer and vocalist of Toronto rock duo Death From Above, hit a chord.
“I love these artists who are like James Brown. He’s a creature, y’know. He doesn’t exist on planet Earth,” Grainger said. “That’s why it was so shocking when Cohen and Bowie and Prince died. These are artists that… they don’t live on this planet, y’know?”
For me, Chris Ho was that creature.
He was a one-off who sounded like no one else (that rich baritone) and wrote like no one else. Since the 1980s, he had been such a fixture in Singaporeans’ lives – as musician, radio DJ, author, newspaper and magazine columnist – it was easy to take him for granted. “Forever 27,” he felt timeless, yet absolutely in sync with trends and movements. He was fully formed and opinionated; ahead of everyone, and yet very approachable.
His passing on 27 September 2021, therefore, felt unreal – even though I was told a couple of days earlier by an ex-colleague from The Straits Times that Chris was unwell, and had been moved to a hospice.
I texted Chris on Saturday 25 September, saying thank you “for all your wonderful music columns and it’s my pleasure to have worked with you all these years.” He texted back: “TQ Kai Chai” with the ‘the face throwing a kiss’ emoticon. On Sunday 26 September, I read Pitchfork’s recap of British neo-soul artist Lewis Taylor’s debut album from 1996, and texted Chris that night at 10pm: “Hi Chris, I just wanted to share a review by Pitchfork of the album by Lewis Taylor. I remember you liking it tremendously.”
This time, he did not text back.
A few hours later, on the morning of Monday 27 September, I saw a Facebook post which stated: “Our dear friend, Chris Ho (X’Ho) passed away peacefully at around 4.37am on Monday, September 27. He had been battling stomach cancer for two months. He was brave, determined and cheerful to the end. He’ll be dearly missed.”
A few months after he died, I keep thinking about his impact on Singapore and Singaporeans – and how much we miss him. Friends and colleagues talk about his lack of airs; radio listeners and music fans miss his velvety croon, and his role as Singapore’s John Peel; and political pundits cite his acerbic, no-holds-barred tirades on print.
My focus, however, is his music criticism, specifically ‘Pop Life’, a fortnightly column in the Life section, The Straits Times, which began in 1983 and ended in 2008. It was a fascinating demonstration of his acumen to speak to the masses while maintaining a streak of artistic independence.
As Entertainment Editor from early to late 2000s, I had the privilege of clearing his contributions. I viewed it as a pulpit for him to share his insights, his rhapsodies on new artists, and his continual reassessments of established artists.
Pre-Internet, and pre-streaming, resources were scant for those seeking new sounds. Most radio stations played and replayed the usual hits. Chris’s shows, Eight Miles High, Rough Cuts from Home and Weird Scenes in the Goldmine, on the cable-transmitted Rediffusion, were (and remain) the exceptions, by giving airplay to new and ground-breaking acts from here and beyond. You relied, too, on word-of-mouth, UK and American music magazines, and the occasional pilgrimage to Funan Centre, Paradiz Centre, Peninsula Plaza, and Excelsior Shopping Centre to rifle through CDs, cassettes and vinyls at shops such as Da Da Records, Valentine Music Centre and Roxy Records.
And you would turn to Chris’s writings. It was remarkable that for years, he was simultaneously writing in two of the country’s most diametrically opposite platforms – one mainstream and state-endorsed, and the other defiantly underground.
‘X’Ho Files’, his column for BigO in the 1990s, was slathered with sarcasm. Shot from the hip, each missive was a coffee-shop polemic skewering such misgivings as Singaporean kiasuism and hypocrisy. He even took on headlines and reports in the said mainstream paper. These articles were compiled into two books: Skew Me, You Rebel Meh? (1998) and Attack Of The S.M. Space Encroachers (2002).
Comparatively, ‘Pop Life’ for The Straits Times, was written in proper sentences and kept its passion for its musical subjects. Yet its apparent a-politicalness belied its impact. This being his longest-lasting column, starting in the early 1980s and concluding the late 2000s, its inter-generational influence cannot be over-estimated.
‘My musical send-off’, his last column on 25 July 2008, was as much reckoning as elegy. He pin-pointed the beginning of ‘Pop Life’ in a time when “David Bowie was just crossing over to the mainstream with ‘Let’s Dance’ and Eurythmics were creating waves with ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This’.” He noted “that way before any big-time music rag (read: Rolling Stone, New Musical Express, the like) raved about REM, this column had called attention to the then-unknown band by way of their indie debut Chronic Town”; and that the column had enjoyed a “25-year run, a long time for something as ephemeral as pop.”
“Ephemeral as pop” – the irony was not lost on him, but the very ephemeral quality of pop was also a ticket to cover anything and everything. It allowed Chris to be agnostic, ranging far and wide, without baggage. A literature graduate from the National University of Singapore, he parlayed his self-confessed “prac crit” (short for “practical criticism’) chops to appreciating “poetic words” of a subject which was “rather undervalued at the time.”
The levity of ‘Pop Life’ was both invitation and sly subversion, and the name a blithe misnomer. ‘Pop Life’ isn’t honestly about pop only. In it, he could explain his devotion to Joni Mitchell and, by extension, his raison d’etre: “With her powerful lyricism and brave experimental style in the mid-1970s as primary influence, I felt I had connected with the very core of what rock ’n’ roll is. Very simply, it is about being free with an eye on redemption.”
That was the existential calling of ‘Pop Life’ – to spark in his readers a sense of freedom, a spirit of limitless possibilities, and great redemptive power; and where he could declare: “I felt I could ride with the bravado of Bowie, the punk of Iggy Pop, the decadence of Lou Reed and still take on the wild wonders of New Wave-dance-alternative-hardcore and whatever left-field noise or extreme metal there was.”
Applying “prac crit” to an overview of ‘Pop Life’, you notice an idiosyncratic combo of casual parlance and a generous sprinkling of music references, mainstream and obscure. The off-handed way with which he could rattle off the names of all sorts of artists and albums, without assiduous backgrounding, was disarming and, significantly, non-patronising. It was as if he was talking to a peer, a confidante. There was mutual trust.
As a result, it allowed him to assert grand statements and make them palatable:
“I am guilty of being a stylistic scavenger hunting down all in search of that X-factor called great music. Blame me for sounding egotistical, but my biggest regret in not being able to write this column anymore is the thought that from here on, no one is going to bother much about Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris… Or, what if no one here recognises the great music of our own local players – from the late Michael Isaac to the new Max Shanti?”
Chris’s belief in his role as “stylistic scavenger” underscored his omnivorous music consumption, always attuned to Top 40s as well as murmurings from the underground. As contrast to the ‘X-Ho Files’ curmudgeon, his amiable ‘Pop Life’ persona is an excellent medium for advocacy – for home-grown artistry, for the love of stellar singer-songwriters, and for the marginalised.
After all, he reasoned: “If my taste in music had, through the years, appeared esoteric or unfathomable, it is only because I am as much a “trainspotter” as I am a dedicated supporter of great substance. For what good is following the ever-changing tide of fashion or flavours-of-the-month if one is not blissfully grounded by the subliminal wow of true heavyweights?”
His pride was “in seeing what slipped through the cracks.”
For home-gown musicians, Chris was the patron saint. Over time, his even-handed and matter-of-fact championing of Singaporean acts elevated the game for all, and sent a strong signal to both artists and audiences alike that Singaporean music was a force to be reckoned with, and worth a listen or two. That was how Chris used his cachet and given platform – to treat and cover otherwise unknown artists and genres oft-dismissed, or worse, maligned in the mainstream, fairly and objectively. In all likelihood, without him, they would not have been given much print acreage in the nation’s paper of record.
For instance, he periodically covered Oi-punk (or skinhead punk) bands, such as Generation 69, putting the picture of fresh-faced, 24-year-old Wan Shah (cousin to Dean Aziz, drummer for Concave Scream) in a column titled ‘Lion City punks’ (22 September 2006). Pre-empting the moral police, Chris wrote: “The ‘look sharp’ couture of skinheads with its shiny Doc Mart boots and bomber jackets” and Wan Shah’s love for “rowdy music, which, he is quick to defend, does not translate into social trouble-making.”
In ‘Playing Punk’ (20 January 2006), he quoted Zul of Oi-punk band Secret Army: “We are often portrayed as trouble-makers when we are really not. Skin and Oi are just another form of music and culture like punk, rock ’n’ roll and metal. So the bias is unfair.”
Chris also observed the evolution of soft-spoken songsmith Leslie Low, and his bands Humpback Oak and The Observatory. In ‘Low on a new high’ (4 July 2008), he said that “in this busy world of fast pop hypes, the contemplative and low-key music of Leslie Low can be taken for granted.” He had extolled Low as “an important home-grown singer-songwriter” and “perhaps the finest singer-songwriter from these shores.”
As much as ‘Pop Life’ tracked trends, it also exalted the pantheon of classic singer-songwriters. In his lifelong crusade to educate all and sundry about the transcendence of Joni Mitchell, he would “nerd out” over particular releases, taking great care to compare and rank them in her discography.
In ‘Both Sides Again’ (15 July 2005), Chris re-assessed her albums’ standing after she retired from making music to concentrate on painting in 2002. Whereas other critics have “unanimously lauded Blue (1971) as her greatest achievement,” he always held Hejira (1976) in higher regard, saying that “there is a certain resonance that may be too idiosyncratic to the fleeting ear.”
He justified: “If Blue was a perfect piece of confessional introspection up to that point in Mitchell’s career, Hejira took serious artistic liberties to vaunt that introspection to greater heights. For one thing, it is almost impossible to imagine anyone covering its highly personal set of songs and getting away with it.”
Chris’s proclamations are expressions of undimmable ardour as well as astute judgement steeped in an understanding of contemporary pop history. That was why he believed that “Jhelisa’s Language Electric is the 1990s’ feminine equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Goin’ On. And that Billie Ray Martin’s Deadline For My Memories is the unique Joni Mitchell-meets-Donna Summer foray into Studio 54’s shuttered VIP-room of dire romantics.”
An exemplar of such foresight can be seen in his appraisal of Erykah Badu in ‘Erykah! There’s old soul in new Badu’ (7 March 1997). Introducing the neo-soul star who was on everyone’s lips with her debut album Baduizm, Chris predicted her name would appear on the nomination roll for the Grammy Awards the following year – and, surprise, she did, getting nominated for four awards, and winning two, for Best R&B Album, and for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (for the single ‘On & On’).
He saw her ascent in the context of predecessors like “D’Angelo, Maxwell, Digable Planets and the Fugees [who] have already prepared listeners for a fresher ride on a wave of no-nonsense black-soul.”
Wary of “all the critical hype” which might “backfire when listeners start comparing her with, say, Jhelisa, Carleen Anderson, Shara Nelson, Nicolette, Martine Girault and Portishead,” he averred that “these cult faves have certainly paved the way for someone like Badu who will probably be seen as a co-opted answer to the real thing.”
Nonetheless, he recognised her success as “no mean task” in that she “has chosen to work within a very ‘American’ musical framework that would put her in some form of competition with the likes of Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Janet Jackson on the charts.”
Likewise: Looking at ‘Pop Life’ from the vantage point of 2022 – more than a decade after the column ended – one starts to appreciate the discreet, mainstream framework within which it operated, and what it managed to accomplish, far beyond its lightly sketched lineaments.
Try naming any other arts/entertainment column helmed by a Singaporean columnist which had lasted for a quarter of a century. This is even made more impressive, considering it was achieved without the convenience (or inundation, depending on your appetite) of social media. Or perhaps, because there was no social media then, ‘Pop Life’ was given ample time and space to reach out and embrace tribes, or “intracultures” – what musicologist Nolan Gasser describes as “cultures that take place within a culture.”
Gasser says: “A lot of it has to do with where you grew up and what kind of musical influences are in the air, but we participate in so many subcultures of affinity, just based on what we like. Intracultures provide us with access to music just because you’re a part of a group, and that group means something to you.”
As we grow up, Nasser argues, our musical allegiances help us forge our identities. “Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am’,” says Gasser. “But at the same time, the music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. When they grow up, that music will be part of who they are, tied in with memories and growing up. All of these powers are why music is so important to us.”
Whether intended from the offset or not, Chris in ‘Pop Life’ was the music equivalent of natural historian David Attenborough; an avuncular ethnologist; an open-minded docent who welcomed us into strange and intriguing intracultures, ranging from electroclash to goth to thrash to industrial to bluegrass to, yes, Oi.
‘Pop Life’ was, decidedly, no echo chamber, algorithmised to issue you more of the same. Instead, the column was an expansive sanctuary to discover something unexpected; and to get to know other music folk who were like, and also unlike, you; hang out with them, find out what they were passionate about, and dispel a myth or two. He made us see: This is who we are. His final words in ‘Pop Life’ summed up his approach:
“Best wishes always from me, an ardent music fan.”
Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, and editor. He has held editorial positions as well as covered music, films, and television for various media platforms, including The Straits Times, where he helmed ‘Sound Bites’, a weekly music review column for the Life section from 2000 to 2019.
 The Straits Times, 25 July 2008
 The Straits Times, 22 September 2006
 The Straits Times, 20 January 2006
 The Straits Times, 4 July 2008
 The Straits Times, 6 October 2006
 The Straits Times, 15 July 2005
 The Straits Times, 4 July 2008
 The Straits Times, 7 March 1997
 Nolan Gasser, Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste (New York: Flatiron Books, 2019)
 The Straits Times, 25 July 2008