Here’s my first piece for a cultural studies column appearing every Thursday beginning 29 April 2010 on the Opinion Page of the Manila Standard-Today. Thank you to MST Opinion Editor Ms. Adelle Chua for giving me this chance, for believing in me.
POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 29 April 2010, Thursday
Here Lies Myth
Natalie Merchant. Tori Amos. Cyndi Lauper. Kate Pierson of B-52s fame. Our very own Charmaine Clamor. These and other artists have lent their voices to a unique project- “Here Lies Love”, a two-CD rock opera on the life of Imelda Marcos.
The genius behind this ground-breaking work is himself one of a kind – David Byrne. He was prime mover of the ’80s new wave band Talking Heads; composer of the main theme from the film “The Last Emperor”, in which wailing violin evokes the haunted soul of a China long vanished; and, with ex-Roxy Music producer Brian Eno, creator of the singular album “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today”, a blend of electronic and gospel.
In collaboration with deejay and big beat musician Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim of the electronic dance hit “Weapon of Choice”), Byrne expresses in 22 songs his own take on the mythos of Imelda.
The narrative of Imelda was evolved by her and those around her, conflated by succeeding events, until she became a creature bigger than life and entered world awareness. In one of his blog posts, Byrne tells of his visit to the Philippines in December 2005. He hoped “to catch and absorb some whiff of the Philippine ethos, sensibility, and awareness, by osmosis and conversation.”
In visits to Malacañang, Ilocos, and Leyte, he sees paintings of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos depicted as “the ur-couple of the Philippines…the strong man and the beautiful woman”; Imelda as a “nurturing goddess”. Byrne is no naïve worshipper at the altar; he is aware of how much of her image was a deliberate manipulation. A chapel in Tacloban dedicated to the Santo Niño is “really, a shrine dedicated to herself,” he observes.
In a recent interview in Financial Times, Byrne relates his fascination in Imelda grew from reading that she “loved going to clubs like Studio 54 and had a floor of her New York townhouse turned into a disco.” Here was a person of power who created her “own little bubble world…I wanted to delve into what makes this person tick, what drives them, how they can be in such deep denial about some of the things they’ve done.”
The album follows Imelda from her girlhood until she fled the country during the People Power revolution, juxtaposed with the life of her yaya Estrella Cumpas. The 3,000 pairs of shoes are not mentioned. Six music videos are part of the project, using news and archival footage of a young and dazzling Imelda in her butterfly-sleeved ternos descending from airplanes, smiling graciously, charming world leaders.
The album is a treasure box of gems. Much of the lyrics are taken from Imelda’s own words. In “The Rose of Tacloban”, Martha Wainwright asks “what lies beyond tomorrow…?” Cyndi Lauper’s breathy vocals delight in “Eleven Days”. Charmaine Clamor is smokey in “Walk Like a Woman”, Kate Pierson’s distinctive voice engages in “The Whole Man”. Disco, funk, and electronic dance energize; crank the volume high enough, you forget the subject and become immersed in the music.
Singer and songwriter Binky Lampano says “Here Lies Love” can’t be compared to Byrne’s other works. “Musically we are dealing here with other elements altogether. There are no ‘Talking Heads’ components. As a work, it’s a worthy project. The man went out of his way to come to our country to do his homework.”
As a historical artifact, the album is a keepsake. Advertising executive Leigh Reyes bought the digital edition as soon as it was released. An admirer of Byrne’s work, she says it is “strange to watch (footage of) a fuzzy black-and-white Marcos with a pensive dance track”.
And Byrne’s choice of Imelda as a subject? “She’s a global character,” says Lampano. “It’s not like Byrne went out of his way to look for her. She’s part of the world’s common currency as half of the ‘Conjugal Disco-tatorship’”.
Love her or hate her, Imelda and all that she is part of world culture. In the same way Filipinos have taken Western pop music and made it our own, with, for instance, insurgents in Mindanao call two opposing forces “The Monkees” and “The Beatles”, the world picks and chooses from our narratives to inform creative expression.
Thereby is mythos - story – continually created, added on to, until boundaries blur, and art becomes a commonality. Here, indeed, in the music and the inspiration, lies love.
The column title is that of an ’80s hit song by Men Without Hats. Lyrics go like this: “Johnny played guitar, Jenny played bass/ Name of the band is ‘The Human Race’/Everybody, tell me, have you heard?/ Pop goes the world.” and so on for more stanzas, where Jenny plays keyboard and Johnny drums, they have kids, they get into movies, they get their pictures in the magazines, and so on.
In other words, Johnny and Jenny live a life within media, producing content for media, which is distributed to the world. The song’s narrative fits smack into what I want to explore in this column – culture, as created by artists, musicians, and other content providers, selected and filtered by the news media through agenda-setting processes, and distributed through a channel with global reach – the Internet.
Culture, as seen through the lenses of postmodernity and social constructionism, in many instances can no longer be strictly defined as “high” or “low” – the boundaries are blurred, and the Internet has the effect of making the homogenizing process much faster – in fact, so fast that we see it taking place before our very eyes. Via semiotics, we also see how incidents, people, places, etc. may become symbols or signs for concepts that already exist in the different national cultures, or may be appropriated to give meaning to new concepts that have entered consciousness through media consumption.
Yet this does not mean that culture around the world will become one bland mass, like a bowl of oatmeal. Each country’s unique cultural vision will still inform the content produced in that milieu, or provide inspiration to artists from elsewhere. It is the appreciation of the varied types of content that contribute to the creation of a global culture through media.
In this column I will look at what’s trending in world news, perform textual and content analyses as appropriate, deconstruct concepts, and give insights into why this subject matter is relevant or irrelevant to Filipinos. In other words, the column deals with cultural studies informed by a multi-disciplinary viewpoint (anthropology, sociology, communication, media studies, psychology, etc.). It’s a social scientist’s way of bringing awareness of how global culture is becoming Filipino culture as well as vice versa (as in the way Imelda Marcos and Manny Pacquiao are now part of the world mythos).
Pop Goes the World – everything in the world will be popular eventually. ***