Archive of ‘cultural studies’ category

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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pop goes the world: the invasion of the jejemons

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  6 May 2010, Thursday

The Invasion of the Jejemons

“mUzta nA pOw u. jEjEm0n aQ, kAy0w?”

Much has been made in the news media recently about the “jejemon” phenomenon – a style of spelling mobile phone text messages that leaves many people confused at best or angry at worst.

(Image from

There are many origin stories, one being that Jejemonese was developed to save on texting costs. The word “jejemon” comes from “jeje”, the Spanish spelling of “hehe”, denoting laughter; and “Pokemon”, the ‘90s Japanese anime featuring cuddly monsters. Perceived to be used mostly by teens and young adults of the lower socio-demographics, the current ubiquitousness of the trend has language purists and snobs up in arms, spawning “We hate jejemons!” groups on social media networks and other Internet forums.

Why are jejemons so disliked? Among the comments against them are that they are maarte, making things complicated rather than simplifying them; their messages are difficult to interpret, “which wastes time”; that they highlight mediocrity and incompetence in the use of language. Other remarks are more judgmental – “baduy, stupid, cheap” – casting aspersions on jejemons’ taste, intelligence, and economic power.

Snow Belarmino, a 21-year old female bartender, explains why she became a jejemon. “I’m an ‘addict texter’,” she said. “Jejemon is just a style of writing your text messages. It’s cute to text by adding symbols and changing the spelling of words. Nakakagana, sikat, cool, astig. I like doing it this way because it reflects my personality.”

How does she feel about the haters? Snow is calm; it doesn’t bother her. “Other people just don’t understand the format. Some people ask me to spell the normal way – my mother, a cousin. I adjust, depending on the person I’m texting to.” She estimates that among the people she knows, around 85% of teens are jejemons.

Is Jejemonese really so hard to understand? Its language base is Tagalog and it follows certain internal rules. Spelling is transformed. For instance, the first-person pronoun ako (“I”) may be rendered “aQ”, “aKoH”, “Ak0w”, and so on. Snow says this is “style”. There is heavy use of intercapitals, some doing it for every other letter; unusual symbols such as exclamation points and the rarely-used letters x, q, and z are sprinkled here and there, again for style; and symbols are substituted for others (the numeral zero instead of the letter O). Apart from style, one notices the almost excessive use of the honorific po in jejemon messages.

The difficulty of interpretation is present at the beginning, but I’ve noticed that over time, one picks up on the peculiarities of jejemon spelling quirks, which are fairly consistent for each individual. There is certainly a learning curve, which I don’t mind, as a communication scholar with a special interest in jargons of subcultures.

But others are not as patient or as curious. Facebook, to name just one social media network on the Internet, harbors many anti-jejemon groups. “I hate jejemon!” has 4,411”fans” (or “likers”, now that Facebook has done away with the “Become a fan” button); “Anti-jeje”, 4,869; “I hate jejemon ka pa jan! Ganyan ka nga dati eh!” 2,269; “Weh? Anti-Jejemon ka? If I know jejemon ka rin dati!” 1,325; “STOP using irritating language such as the JEJEMON language!” 459; “Jejemon Haters”, 24,713. By far one of the largest groups is named “GOTTA KILL ‘EM ALL JEJEMON!” with 167,587 – the population of a small city. Now that is scary.

(Image from

Jejemons, on the whole, remain unperturbed. One commented at a hater’s group: “Does this mean war? Not that I’m interfering, but aren’t you being rather harsh to jejemons? What’s objectionable with their words? It’s just spelling, isn’t it? They still use Tagalog. Aren’t you being bitter?” Of course, it was written in elegant Jejemonese.

Another jejemon set up a tongue-in-cheek Facebook group called “Jejemon Evolves to… Wakekemon!” with 1,994 members. “We are evolving – be afraid!” “Wakeke” is ‘90s hacker-speak and denotes laughter, just as “jeje” does.

Language has always been used primarily as a means of communication, but it is also a tool for self-expression.  Jejemonese has been likened to the American “leet speak” of gamers (which uses alpha-numeric symbols to save data ) but is not its exact counterpart. Leet is acknowledged to be more “intellectual” and used primarily by geekdom. American jejemonese is like this: “!f yUh t!yP3 Lyk3 DihS Don’t talk to me!” (It’s the title of a Facebook group with 824,267 fans), and is used mostly by non-geeks, non-techies, and Justin Bieber fangirls.

Dean Rolando Tolentino of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication says the rise of the jejemons is a symptom of the partitioning of society into sub-classes. For linguist Alex Maximo, the phenomenon is linked to hegemony: who has power, who doesn’t, and how the conflicts that arise from the concomitant societal stresses are expressed.

For writer Sarah Grutas, it’s a matter of exclusivity. “It’s like gay speak. (Jejemon) is a form of exclusive language – if you don’t understand it, you don’t belong to the group.” She scoffs at claims of jejemons being poorly educated. “They aren’t stupid, because they had to know the original spelling before they can transform it into jeje. In fact it requires more creativity to type that way. I won’t use jeje language myself, the same way I do not use gay speak. I therefore belong to the out-group.”

I agree with Sarah – jejemons are not dumb. In fact, I have less patience with those who voice their irritation of jejemons and claim to be better educated and more adept at using language, yet use words like kalurkey, a variant of kaloka. What’s with that?

Jejemonese may be considered by some to be the jargon of a sub-culture, but I don’t see jejemons as a true sub-culture. A sub-culture would be horseracing fans, for instance, with their salitang karera, or otaku anime fans. The meanings of their codes – jargons and gestures, the secret words and handshakes – are agreed-upon by in-group members in the pursuit of their activities and are understood only by them.

But jejemons come from many walks of life. Their spelling style that has grammar nazis on the warpath is just a fad. We’ve seen them come and go, from beatnik to hippie to jeprox. Then there was punk and chong and jolog. Now we have jejemons and their evolved forms the wakekemon. People will, in time, get tired of this and move on to the next “cute” fashion.

So chill, people. Next time you get a message like “mUzTah nA yEw poh?”, reflect, instead, on the fact that your jejemon friend is concerned about you and is asking politely how you are. Yes, the medium is the message. But let’s focus on the meaning behind the message, which is the primary reason we use language in the first place. aY0wZ p0w bAh? ***

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pop goes the world: here lies myth (column debut)

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.

David Byrne (Net)

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.

Fatboy Slim (Net)

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. ***

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