The question of supporting Original Pilipino Music (OPM) is one that isn’t simple anymore, not in these times when cultural systems are so intricately intertwined, and television networks and cultural empires are kings. In this series I look at contemporary Pinoy music’s production(s) and unpack the contradictions and discriminations inherent in, and the context(s) crucial to, the fight for OPM as we know it.
In the book Culture and History first published in 1988, National Artist Nick Joaquin asserts in his essay “A Heritage of Smallness” how our notions of greatness and grandness and complexity, is represented precisely by our seeming inability to even think on that scale:
“Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay. Geography for the Filipino is a small locality: the barrio. History for the Filipino is a small vague saying: matanda pa kay mahoma; noong peacetime. Enterprise for the Filipino is a small stall: the sari-sari. Industry and production for the Filipino are the small immediate searchings of each day: isang kahig, isang tuka. And commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi.”
When Mang Nick talked then about our heritage of smallness, he might not have been able to imagine these times for Pinoy music. These times when, for P99 pesos, you can get a prepaid digital album card, much like a prepaid phone card, scratch the back for your PIN, enter that on a website, and get to download four pre-selected songs in lieu of getting the whole CD.
It’s Original Pilipino Music by the tingi.
And you know I can’t even resist something like this, especially when the Odyssey store cashier said: “Bestseller po si Piolo.” And I wanted to say, naku Ate, bestseller din siya sa puso ko. But also it seemed like the perfect opportunity to listen to Piolo’s singing prowess, and his Decades albums – yes, in the plural – where he covers songs from the 50s to the 90s, was his most interesting singing project as far as I was concerned, but it was a wee bit too expensive for freelancer-critic me.
Ah, but the advantages of the culture of tingi!
Piolo’s singing to me as I write this, across two decades in four songs, and across different genres: Rupert Holmes’ “Terminal” (1974), Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” (1991), England Dan and John Ford Cowley’s “It’s Sad to Belong” (1977), and Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (1997). Granted that these are not original Pilipino songs, but right here is an original Pilipino musician, whose work is made more accessible through Star Records’ prepaid music cards. Here is an ownership of songs that’s being done piecemeal, a sign of the impoverished times for sure, but also proof that there are Pinoy artists being consumed by a mass market, no ifs and buts about it.
On the Star Records website you can even buy each song for P30 pesos. P30 pesos! It’s tingi shopping par excellence.
The market seems even bigger for Juris Fernandez, as her EP If You And Me was released in South Korea in CD and digital formats, and released only in digital in the Philippines. All of six songs in the original EP, Juris’ prepaid music card gets you four of those songs, all covers, though unconventional and less known than the usual.
“Altogether Alone” is by Japanese duo Be The Voice, a light happy ditty about love; “Don’t Forget” is by Korean singer Baek Ji-Young, a slow quiet goodbye song; “Wishes” is by Japanese singer Emi Fujita (half of the duo Le Couple), a paean to waiting; and “If You And Me” by Taeyeon of the Korean group Girls’ Generation, a love song of uncertainty.
Now at the risk of stating the obvious, the digital format allows for a bigger audience, though for Juris this has also meant making a name for herself in South Korea – where those two Korean covers are actually translations into English of the original songs in Korean. Then here’s the downside: if you listen to the original Fujita version of “Wishes” and Be The Voice’s “Altogether Alone,” both also available online, it does become clear that Juris’ versions were but poor copies of the originals, with no excuse of translation to fall back on.
Which of course isn’t to say that Piolo’s versions of his set of songs was extraordinary. But Piolo has a voice that’s distinctly his, not brilliant mind you, but one that’s different enough from every other balladeer of his generation (and yes, there aren’t a whole lot of them anyway). Juris falls into the trap of mere copy; Piolo, given the limits of his voice and diction, can really only be himself no matter the song.
But of course the question of talent or originality seems secondary to what these prepaid music cards and P30-peso-per-song downloads actually stand for, and it can only be about these times, yes? When music can only be a luxury, original music even more so. When even the pop artist must be content with having his songs played on the radio and getting some TV time, instead of actually selling and earning from his CDs. When covers are proof not necessarily of a lack of talent, but of the need to ascertain an audience already, before a song is even recorded and put on a CD. When the pretty boy matinee idol can also sing, and by the powers vested in a cultural empire like ABS-CBN Corp., can be made into a voice so familiar and unique, it is difficult not to fall for it to some extent.
When marketing has come to play such a big role not so much in providing access to cultural products, but in generating interest around what is an unoriginal product.
Piolo’s prepaid music card actually gives you what’s called The Piolo Pack: a folder with the four songs and the album cover, another folder with high resolution images with lyrics, and another folder with four different Piolo wallpaper options. And while he doesn’t appear topless in any of these images, much might be said about the kind of money spent on giving me different photos of Piolo looking me straight in the eye almost as if telling me to go get the rest of his songs, if not his whole darn discography. Such is the power of a cultural empire knowing to hold its market by the neck.
And such is a version of death for the things we wish for original Pilipino music, for Pinoy cultural productions in a time of crises, where creativity and change are sacrificed for thinking small, because it is easy and profitable.
“Have our capacities been so diminished by the small efforts, we are becoming incapable even to the small things? Our present problems are surely not what might be called colossal or insurmountable – yet we stand helpless before them. As the population swells, those problems will expand and multiply. If they daunt us now, will they crush us then? The prospect is terrifying.”
Oh absolutely, Mang Nick. Enough for me to wanna go get myself a bottle of Pale.
Note: this series was previously published in the now dead Pulse.ph in the stretch of June to August of 2011. the premise of this series meanwhile was and is that OPM is alive and now more complex than we’d like to think. as i wait for my editor Aldus to send me his edited versions, am putting this up, with all mistakes mine.