My friend Lea Salonga was completely misunderstood. No, she was not misunderstood --- her quotes were taken out of context and made to sound like derogatory remarks directed at another Filipina performer. This was so unfair on the part of the writer who either exhibited substandard comprehension (then why the hell was this person allowed to do interviews and write online articles?) or maliciously twisted in order to come up with an attention grabbing headline for that specific website.
Despite official apologies provided by the website administration to Ms. Salonga and even on-air clarifications and expressions of regret, my friend is still getting her share of online bashers on Facebook and Twitter accusing her of one thing or another. Although the complete transcript of her interview was published in the same web site (after the twisted article was pulled out), the fans of the other performer were quite unforgiving, directing their missiles at Ms. Salonga for supposedly belittling the talent of their idol.
The source of all this brouhaha? Ms. Salonga gave a comment about the credibility of Filipino singers when they venture into vocal adventures on television. All that Lea expressed was her dismay that there are indeed undeserving people who are handed the microphone and made to sing live (while obviously, unequivocally, apparently and definitely reading idiot boards across the stage) while unwittingly desecrating all that music was meant to be. That's all.
Lea's message was plain and simple: "Hey, Dude ... if you are going to muster the guts to deal with a song, can you please sing it as good as you can? And if you can't carry a tune, then opt for dancing. And if you can't dance as well ... then go back to school, to your office ... or better yet, make an effort to learn and improve your craft." Now is that so bad?
That's the problem with our karaoke nation. Yes, it goes without saying that we are a musically talented nation. We are also musically obsessed. We are a people who sing at the slightest provocation. I sometimes have a feeling that singing has become one of our defense mechanisms --- together with laughter. This whole fiesta mentality and party attitude are our ways of coping with the irony of our history and human existence.
After all, we still hold the record of being the only nation in the world that staged street revolutions while people were singing and dancing and watching their pop idols rub elbows with the politicians and the militia in what looked like a grand production number right on a highway. We are the only nation that celebrates everything with song --- marking the benchmarks of our lives with bottles of beer and a karaoke machine. And we are also a group of people who will gather together and sing --- for whatever reason there might be --- and even if there may be no reason to sing at all.
So it is not surprising that foreigners marvel at Filipinos and call us the Land of Smiles and Songs. Our musicality has brought us places --- and sad to say --- also nowhere. And that is what I am going to rant about.
I have nothing against people with limited vocal talents who are heavy into singing. As the local saying goes, "Hilig-hilig lang yan." Add the more modern footnote: No guts, no glory. Some live by guts alone and that's why they have the glory. So give it to them. If they don't take themselves seriously, then give them the benefit of having fun.
But what is even more bothering than really bad singers terrorizing our eardrums and desecrating our brains because they take themselves too seriously is that we have not had an original sounding singer for a very, very long time.
Let me clarify this further: our problem is not our lack of good singers --- for we can practically spot that in every other street corner. For instance, Eat Bulaga has a daily segment in which comedians Jose and Wally together with Paolo Ballesteros would go to nooks and crannies of urban and provincial communities to hold impromptu singing contests --- and the vocalists they unravel are sometimes not merely on the puede pasar caliber but truly impressive. As I said, blame that on the fact that even before households purchase PC's for their personal consumption, they are more inclined to buy a videoke set-up instead.
Now how does this sort of new tradition affect the way we perceive the importance of music to our lives?
We have to take the bad with the good. So let's start with the good news but that is already quite evident. Since Filipinos love to sing --- then let them sing. If it makes life easier ... if it gives a sense of happiness and hope to every day of human existence despite the rising prices of gasoline, electricity and basic human needs ... then let us sing our lungs out. If it gives a chance to improve our musicality, despues ... vamonos! If this provides an opportunity for social bonding and creating a sense of community, then let us all go to the nearest videoke and spend an entire night giving a tribute to Whitney Houston with a token Mariah Carey and Celine Dion thrown along the way.
But here is the bad news.
Has it not ever struck a great majority among us that we have not had an original sounding singer after the generation of say ... Regine Velasquez, Martin Nievera and Gary Valenciano? OK, let's not throw in the Kitchie Nadals, Yeng Constantinos and the more recent Jed Madelas, Christian Bautistas and Eric Santoses. But generally ... by and large ... aren't the new breed of vocalists that include the walang kamatayan biriteras and biriteros all impersonating the singing idols who have come before them.
Perhaps it is hard to think of anyone after Sara Geronimo who has made a great impact because of the originality of her voice. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah: there will be those who will accuse our top vocalists to be Celine Dion or Mariah Carey wannabes ... or even Christina Aguileras ... but still, you know that there is a superstar on the rise when he or she supersedes his or her influence because of the authenticity of style and voice. That is why we also have Jed Madela and Christian Bautista.
Then of course you would fire rare gems like Ogie Alcasid who does not and will never sound like any body ... yet create such great Filipino music like nobody at all.
And that is also the reason why among the new pop vocalists, we have yet to find someone who will be on the same footing as Sara G.
Some time in the 80's and 90's, there was such excitement in the local movie scene maybe because there were a variety of platforms aside from television that fostered and nurtured the development of local musical talents. Record sales mattered --- local concert performances were abundant because of the accessibility of venues both big and small. Kuh Ledesma was borne out of a hotel lounge with her group Music and Magic and within two years time became the Voice. Why? Because even if she was singing Sugar Pie Honey Bunch with her band members, nobody sang it her way. Or when she rendered her version of Don't Cry for Me, Argentina --- nobody recalled Elaine Page doing the recorded version.
Those were the years when Martin, Gary, Zsa Zsa, Joey Albert, Jam Morales, Ric Segreto ... and a whole lot of OPM artist had trademark voices. They were not mere facsimiles of each other. Music was created by and for them ... which was why there was an entire spectrum of possibilities and potentials. What kept Philippine contemporary music truly alive at that time was that --- first and foremost, the record industry and the concert scenes were profitable and second, originality was considered important --- and not mere cloning of an already existing talent or template.
But we all know that things have changed.
There are changed that could not be helped. The Philippine music recording industry is not the only one burdened by the inevitable fact that technology has overrun ways and means of controlling audio piracy. Like all the other recording industries in the world, the availability and accessibility of duplicating audio CDs as well as internet downloading has completely destroyed the mechanics and economics of selling commercial music.
Although the music scene is active in Manila, the escalating cost of mounting concerts has made it close to forbidding for producers to invest money on such ventures. Whereas before there were more venues to mount concerts of small to medium scales, the removal of theaters and lounges have left nothing but open bars and venues where either lounge singers or bands play on rotation bases for certain days of the week.
Most fatal is the fact that the investment put in the recording business has been so greatly diminished because of the dwindling sales of audio cds. Just how can initial investments in music be regained? Has the feasibility of profit been so diminished that it has now ceased to be a viable business?
As a result of this, risks have been seemingly minimized. Like commercial television programming (confronted by dog-eat-dog competition), what resulted is the obsession for more of the same. When times get tough, everyone wants to play safe --- and by playing safe, you do not want imagination, innovation ... or even originality. You want sure-fire formulas. You want what sells in the easiest and most cost-efficient way possible.
So how did this reflect in our present generation of upcoming singers? Sadly and badly indeed.
One of my friends shook her head and commented, "Why is everybody trying to sound like Regine Velasquez? Don't they realize that there is a Regine Velasquez and anyone trying to mime her style will never go farther than Square One?" More so, why is everybody trying to be the next Sara Geronimo? Is there a need for another Sara Geronimo? As long as she is up there ... complete with her persona and marketing, anyone trying to impersonate her will be nothing more than a --- uh, "second rate trying hard copycat." Splash!
That is also the sad part about all these singing contests being staged in television. What is encouraged is not originality but cover-version style of singing. I am often appalled by the way good singing has always been equated with lung-busting, throat-gashing birits as if this were the only way to prove that the power of the voice comes from the hydraulic lungs. Where is the originality? Where is the encouragement of personal style?
How can we have a blossoming of music when everyone wants to sound like somebody who is already up there and has been doing it for years? How the hell can we move on? Or are we going to be stuck with an entire generation of mime artists who need some earth shattering realization that they need to be some body in order to be anybody in this business?
Lately (and perhaps a tad too late) I have been addicted to the music of the British vocalist Adele. Observers were spot on when they said that in the age when performers dressed in every imaginable outlandish costume (even as eggs) or equipped themselves with an entire army of dancers doing everything from calisthenics to acrobatics, there was suddenly Adele --- pleasantly plump, primped up to look like a character of the 1960s and whose sheer presence is amplified by ---that voice.
Yes, she may be beautiful in a quirky way but it is still that voice that carries such magic, such beautiful pain to make her win a Grand Slam during the most recent Grammys with nobody complaining.
That was when I felt most miserable while enjoying Adele's Someone Like You or her version of Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me. I realized that what made her the international sensation that she has become was the fact that she was ... and is ... and will always be original. Anyone who tries similarly will now be a mere version.
Then I asked myself --- where have all the Filipino originals gone? We can have vocalists as powerful as Adele ... or who can sing with as much soul ... with as much depth and sparkle. Stupid of me to even ask because I knew that I had the answer right at the back of my mind. We do not look for them. We do not give them the chance.
All we want is more of the same. And look at where we are right now.