pop goes the world: election theme song

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POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  13 May 2010, Thursday

election theme song

“I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign…” ‘The Sign’, Ace of Base (1994)

The recent elections showed with startling clarity how Filipinos choose their leaders. In the United States, which has a two-party system, people side with one or the other based on the principles each embodies. The Republican Party is seen as traditional, conservative, religious; the Democratic Party, liberal, progressive, secular. Their action plans and policies are in line with these characteristics.

In the Philippines, political parties are merely groups of politicos with the same agendas, not necessarily platforms, loosely cohering because of mutual need and perceived or contrived advantage. That is why jumping ship is done as expediency dictates. Since parties do not stand for a particular set of principles, neither then are voters used to electing leaders based on these criteria, but rather on personalities.

Our elections are, like American Idol, a popularity contest.

Logically, we should select leaders based on what they stand for, what they’ll fight against. Are they pro or anti the Reproductive Health Bill? Divorce? Secularization of the state? How shall they resolve corruption in government? The entrenchment of familial political dynasties? Obtaining justice for the victims of the Ampatuan massacre?

According to one of my professors at the University of the Philippines, an expert on political communication, it’s the masa (masses) vote that is crucial, via their sheer numbers. “There’s no such thing as a ‘middle-class’ vote,” she said. It is the masses that campaign managers woo with their eye-candy ads, celeb endorsements, and earworm jingles. Given that, did we vote based on how candidates will deal with issues?

Our elections were, like cars on weekdays, color-coded.

“I saw the sign…Life is demanding, without understanding…”

In semiotics, signs and symbols are codes that, when interpreted, may connote or convey a certain meaning in a particular context and culture. The French semiotician Roland Barthes further postulated various levels of meaning. For example, on a primary level, a label with a picture of a bottle of wine means ‘wine’. On a secondary level, ‘wine’ may connote ideas such as ‘health’, ‘luxury’, ‘fine dining’.

A young Roland Barthes. In his later years, he probably would have analyzed the signs in this photo – what do the robe and mustache signify?  Why was the shelf of books used as the backdrop?

During these past elections, more so than at any other time except during the 1986 snap elections, we have seen how the candidates were defined by their media machines and tagged with sometimes essentially meaningless ‘motherhood statement’ taglines to effect maximum audience recall.

These ideas as portrayed in ads were then further abstracted by voters into concepts until the realities of the candidates’ personalities dissolved. These were replaced by symbols stemming from people’s understanding of the how the candidates were portrayed in their own ads, and what roles these candidates may play in government and in their individual lives.

“I saw the sign…No one’s gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong…”

In 1986, Corazon Aquino symbolized reform, change, and the overthrow of the dark and oppressive Marcos regime. Though her qualifications were assailed – “Just a housewife” – in the end it was the virtues that people perceived she stood for – “heroism, courage, martyrdom for Inang Bayan” – that carried her to victory in the polls and impelled the People Power movement.

In similar fashion, Noynoy Aquino as a person was reduced to a concept: “The only son of hero parents who will continue their struggle”. We don’t know that he will actually do this, but for many of us this is what he represents. Manny Villar was “The man once poor who will lift us out of poverty and give us houses while swimming through seas of garbage.”

Noynoy Aquino and his mother, the late president Corazon Aquino.

These ideas were further abstracted to symbols and colors. As mnemonics for easy recall, it was a good idea. But the tactic further distanced the person from the sign that connoted him. Aquino was yellow and the “L” sign; Villar, the orange check; Gilbert Teodoro, green. People asked each other, “Who are you voting for? Yellow or orange?” The idea of voting for the principles and platforms of people was mislaid along the way. Tossed, perhaps, into those seas of garbage.

Manny Villar, orange shirt, ‘check’ gesture, tagline…check.

Artifacts also became signs. One strongly identified with the Aquino-Roxas camp was the Collezione Philippine map shirt. I wore such a dress weeks ago – black with a yellow map – but not for political reasons. I simply thought it comfortable. A friend said, “So you’re for Noynoy!” I may or may not have been. But it struck me that my friend assumed whom I was backing in the polls by extracting meaning from the sign he took my dress to be.

Aquino wearing Collezione shirt with yellow Philippine map embroidered logo, fingers flashing ‘L’ (Laban – fight). If the shirt were longer and reached to his knees, you’d have my dress.

With the election results in, one Aquino supporter exclaimed, “Our country is now yellow!” A clueless listener might think this means our land is awash in urine. (True, if you consider those pink MMDA roadside urinals.) But to those aware of the context of the remark, it merely indicates that our new president belongs to the political team symbolized by that color.

Pink MMDA urinal. It has nothing to do really with the column. I just thought you might want to see what one looks like.

In this particular social exercise, signs and symbols played a highly significant part in fixing in voters’ minds characteristics ascribed to the candidates, whether or not these characteristics were actually possessed by that individual. Full spin is deployed in ad campaigns, that’s granted – they say what they want you to know. Yet there were deep levels of abstraction here that further obscured reality.

In the future, seek to discern the symbology and peel off the conceptual layers, from apparent to hidden, until you get to the true meaning at the core. Then you will know if you voted for a color, or for leaders with platforms and principles.

“It opened up my mind, I saw the sign!”   ***

(Photos from all over the Net, collected over time. My apologies for not being able to give individual photo credits.)

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