The Spinners

Here Lies Love (David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, 2010)

In Alternative, Collaboration, Concept Album, Oliver Ortega on April 19, 2010 at 7:26 am

Comparisons to Evita are unavoidable but only in terms of musical ambition, that conceit of the artistic ego to inflate historical figures best ignored or forgotten. The “iron butterfly” that inspired David Byrne’s opera or “song cycle”, of course, is far more colorful and kooky than the one that inspired Tim Rice, her own name having become an adjective for the extravagantly fabulous and inspiring legions of cross-dressers to universalize terno—the gown, mind you, not the record label. Imelda Marcos herself would have scoffed at the idea of being identified with someone whom she identifies as a whore, her being being more closely identified, based on her judgment, with the pure, the virginal, and who could ever forget: the true, the good, and the beautiful. Here lies then the matron’s menacing madness, her delusions of ethereality that makes life possible in a culturally backward nation; and vice-versa—poverty, economic and otherwise, being the social base of Imelda’s continued claim to power, even the Imelda myth itself.

There really is hardly anything new in such social equation and so it is always just puzzling and disturbing to witness this continued fascination of art with the poster girls of fascism, this desire to psychoanalyze and mystify their power, this aesthetic fantasy to unravel the imagined root of and truth in psychosis, as if this very process will necessarily lead to enlightenment, a better world, and, yes, possibly good music. If anything, Here Lies Love only obscures the historical picture that is Imelda. By its very act of further trivializing the narrative, the story which most Filipinos who lived through the Marcos era know already, the logical arc behind a person’s actions is revealed to be typically human—natural, instinctual, driven by survival, purely incidental, therefore forgivable. Not that it is not but because it is simply not just so. In history as in real life, one can’t possibly have the likes of Estrella Cumpas singing exactly the same ABBA/Bee-Gees-inspired tune, belting out exactly the same lyrical sentiment, as if she was bewildered by exactly the same predicament as that which haunted Imelda.

Byrne says that he is only interested in understanding the paradoxical imperatives of certain people in power and setting the result of that critical investigation into music, disco music in particular, as disco, he finds out, is one of Imelda’s peculiar hobbies during her heyday. Either Byrne is aware of the inherent weakness of his own production—his questionable choice of subject matter and musical form—hence the more than a hundred pages of Imelda history as supplement to the double CD, or everything is just another exercise in ambiguity so terribly typical and tiresome of late capitalist art. Whichever the case, this may explain why there is this astounding ensemble of alternative music’s finest female vocals—perhaps the only good thing going on in this album; let’s face it, when was the last time we heard Natalie Merchant or Kate Pierson of the B-52s?—to prop up its design, desire, and, of course, market sales. The songs in Here don’t sound new and that may be because Byrne wanted it to sound as dated as Imelda’s idea of disco. But alas, it is dated only in the sense that it sounds like the stuff we’ve heard from Byrne before. That it sounds like the next likely project after Grown Backwards, if not a theme-based extension of it (2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is more a Brian Eno project for this listener), does not really help Byrne’s psych experiment; the beats and the melodic arrangements are justifiably likable enough but not on repeated listen.

No big pop or dance hit is likely to emerge from Here, no track likely to become some form of gay anthem in the manner of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” as well, but it is likely that there is no such grand expectation from Byrne even if some of the songs sound like they could cross over the pop charts, like the title track, “The Whole Man”, or “Ladies in Blue”, but only if this were still the era of Donna Summer and Penthouse Live. After all Here is a concept album, which means it has to be consumed or experienced in its entirety to be fully appreciated, much like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the more recent The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, even if select notable singles are released individually from time to time as it has always been in the music industry’s marketing calendar. In fact, while many of the songs have been constructed as dance tunes, appropriating and synthesizing a number of African and Caribbean beats that have been tried and tested before in past disco hits, and while it all seems like Byrne (and Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim) just wants us to have some fun, some good time at the house/club where such music is played, at the end of the day it wants us to listen intently as well. Here, which debuted in Australia four years ago, is a cycle of 22 songs united by a fictional retelling of the Imelda story. As such, it requires fullest concentration from listeners as words narrating the varied personal/romantic laments of Imelda fill every possible musical bar.

And here lies Here’s real problem: these words, these very lyrics that betray a complete misunderstanding, if not the lack of requisite knowledge, of Imelda’s place in Philippine history, our country’s history itself, and how everything (history, social conditions, etc.) helps to define, or ruin, a person’s psychology. Here is the foreign eye, the outsider’s point of view that seeks to present itself as rationalized and, precisely by virtue of distance is at times uncritically presumed to be autonomous and objective, which only wants to tell the story allegedly as it is: a liberal humanist account of another tragic and damned personality that universalizes that undying trope: man’s desire for love. Here then is human nature abstracted through a pastiche of Imelda quotes from books, PA accounts, and the rumor mill. That the whole Imelda experience—her triumphs and travails—is no different, or could never be different from the rest of us, laboring professionals, below minimum wage contract workers, domestics and househelps like Cumpas, even ordinary, say, working class Americans who likes watching the NBA and reality TV as Byrne depicts in “American Troglodytes”, a song/political statement that looks miserably misplaced in Here.

Which is not exactly surprising, given that class reconciliation has always been the fantasy of liberal multicultural minds—to draw, in Here’s case, to compose, the improbable, as it has always been, through art. (Madonna’s “Music” immediately comes to mind here: “Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel”.) But then, there really isn’t any grand expectation here that Byrne’s sizing up of historical reality will arrive as cleverly as possible (and judging from the gang that gathered to assist him in his “field research” when he went to Manila a few years back, a section of the cultural bureau of the alta de sosyedad, there absolutely can’t be/it would be madness to even assume such an expectation), given that every perception of reality is a form of madness itself. Byrne’s contained version of Imelda history is nothing but a structured lie in the same way that Cumpas’ alleged story is a probable lie too, one that has been designed to draw sympathy to the wife of a former dictator. In an interview as regards the song “Pretty Face”, Byrne thinks that underneath the Imelda façade probably lies a truly good-natured person, a human being responsible for a thousand miles of concrete / schools and dams and parks / two thousand day care centers / and a center for the arts.

What Byrne does not recognize here is the political imperative behind this allegedly innocent act of altruism (as if in this country, the president builds green footbridges all over the metro because she truly “cares” or that local councilors build basketball courts and waiting sheds because they’re just being generous). He may of course say that in his songs it is Imelda speaking, not him, so it would be completely unfair to make a judgment against him for something he did not actually say. Ah, the problem of voice in the writing of fiction and history: how do we draw that line between the speaking voice and the authorial voice, how do we assess what the truth is if we are unable to even discern the truth behind who the articulator of the professed truth is—a dilemma further complicated by the fact that not even the real Imelda herself could attest to the truth or falsity of Byrne’s psychoanalytic picture of her, given that whatever she is likely to say is based on an imagined, if not neurotic, projection of herself and simply because Imelda, former partner of the world’s second most corrupt leader ever according to Transparency International but who has unfortunately managed to breeze through all her legal cases thanks in large part to bureaucratic stupidity and corruption itself, can’t be trusted.

However, before it becomes necessary to throw evidentiary truths before a court of law to ascertain the accuracy of Byrne’s portrayal of Imelda in, (goodness!) of all things, a disco opera (as if this very gambit is evidently necessary; historical accuracy of Imelda’s psychology being the least concern of this discourse), what Byrne chooses to omit or gloss over in his reworking of the Imelda narrative, its gaps and silences, reveals a lot more than what he has actually written. His deliberate attempt to depoliticize this patently political piece of story and to focus instead on the “personal” (as if the personal is always never political) is exactly the expected recourse of the liberal-minded artist: to inhabit a privileged neutral position in order to protect his artistic interpretation/work from getting dragged into exactly this sort of discussion. Like, what the fuck, it’s all just music man. As Rolling Stones says, let’s “just surrender to the inexorable beats” of Byrne’s latest opus.

Only if it could be that easy. For in the end, Here is nothing but a joyous celebration of humanity’s humanity, or the humanizing of the elite, via the veneration of a life of a state-made and state-sponsored celebrity responsible for plundering a nation and depriving the humanity of millions of Filipinos. Shall we just surrender to the music? Can’t we forget about the politics and just dance to it? By what standards do we measure good and bad music anyway? One singer reportedly refused participation in this project. For most Filipinos who have not really heard of David Byrne, such act of rebellion may not be a problem. But then most Filipinos no longer even care about what Imelda or the Marcoses did in the past judging by how successfully they have reinstated themselves in our society today. Imelda in high heels is still wildly swinging the nights and days away.

– Oliver Ortega

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