Monday, July 5, 2010

Oh Natalie Merchant No!

Thanks to the ever-tasteful coffeeandink, I've been reading recent blog posts by ephemere and littlebutfierce, both of whom, it turns out, have strong opinions on David Byrne & Fatboy Slim's Here Lies Love: A Song Cycle about Imelda Marcos & Estrella Cumpas. The subtitle is a misnomer: Estrella, Imelda's childhood au pair whom the Marcoses put under house arrest for contributing to an unauthorized biography of Imelda, appears in less than 25% of the songs and as such is a supporting character like Ferdinand Marcos and Benigno Aquino. Byrne's goal, as I understand it from his website and the album notes, was to explore the self-image and self-justifications of the powerful in a danceable fashion.

Imelda Marcos is said to like what she's heard from the album.

The ephemere post linked under "strong," above, points out that the U.S. and U.K. tend to remember Imelda as that woman who stole lots of money from her country and used it to buy shoes: there's very little sense of the horrors of the Marcos regime. Byrne has offered a number of rationales for paying little attention (maybe two out of twenty-two songs, with a line or two in others) to those horrors: at one point, he writes that the crimes of the Marcos dictatorship are "in the historical record," and that's not part of his project on Imelda's inner life. The problem is that, as the ephemere post and the discussion in comments argue, that "historical record" is not gonna be generally known. Without it, we're hearing a rather clichéd story about a woman who rises from poverty to marry a powerful dictator and is still in thrall to past bitterness and resentments*: Benigno Aquino is imprisoned because he broke up with Imelda in their youth.

I don't mean to suggest that the record could be fixed by adding an opening number with some incarceration and torture, so that a listener could begin to understand what the focus on Imelda's inner life was meant to be explaining. The problems go deeper than that. Throughout the album notes, Byrne repeats that "the people of the Philippines continue to support the Marcos government" until the Aquino assassination, which "serve[s] to shock the Philippine people out of their complacency." I suppose it's good to be reminded that dictatorships often have popular support. But where did Byrne find "the Philippine people" to ask them about their views? And if they supported the regime, where did the insurgents and dissidents whom it was oppressing come from? Macedonia?

Even the song about martial law, "Order 1081," has lyrics that could be read as an ordinary Filipina's endorsement of the terror. It's partly Natalie Merchant's gripping performance that allows the song to come across as an elegy for lost freedom and a menacing harbinger of bloodshed to come.

This monolithic view of a people, a good strategy for exorcising from history its oppositional forces, is not a case of chauvinism on Byrne's part--he feels the same way about the U.S.** The sole song on the album that Byrne sings himself is an indictment of present-day consumer culture called "American Troglodyte." Unlike some of the more self-critical or tongue-in-cheek lyrics of his Talking Heads days, this one makes it clear that those contemptible "Americans" are not David Byrne and his hipster circle, but people who work day jobs and don't recycle their trash.

There's a line from Byrne in David Bowman's history of Talking Heads that made an impression on me. Something along the lines of "So we spend a few hours jamming and trying out different things, and before I know it I've written a song." That shift from plural to singular, which Bowman uses to illustrate how poorly Byrne ended up treating his bandmates, is a wonderful emblem of the artist's solipsism. Or maybe grandiosity. If a guy whose world view tends to devolve into "there's the unwashed masses, and then there's me" decides to make an album about the self-image of a ruthless dictator, he runs a lot of risks.

My question, to parallel one of the comments on littlebutfierce, is, What the heck is Steve Earle doing here? Does he too just imagine that the horrors of the Marcoses go without saying? Jebus. I'm afraid it's a point that has to be argued. Even in the Philippines (to say nothing of the pinoy diasporic community), they still have many fans. But the big disappointment is Natalie Merchant. It may seem that, given the song she performs, she acquits herself just fine in this project. But if this Times article*** is accurate (and I mean that as a serious caveat), Merchant says “Aspects of the way she lived her life were utterly despicable . . . But in other ways it was a fairytale life, a bit pathetic in its origins and very emotionally ambiguous.” I think a point is being missed here.

Still, I look forward to Byrne and his collaborators on their next album exploring the bittersweet struggle of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

*Byrne says he's never seen Evita. Maybe Hal Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber are too subtle and urbane for him.
**Indeed, he seems to think Filipino "complacency" under martial law was not unlike U.S. acceptance of the Bush regime, an analogy which, although well-intentioned (he doesn't want U.S.ians to feel smugly ahead of the Third World), contains a certain quantity of fail.
***That's the article, noted on ephemere, that says, "Compared to some of the other truly scary foreign autocrats America has supported or created in recent decades, Imelda’s crimes against human rights and good taste seem relatively harmless by comparison now," a sentence which should arouse both ethical and aesthetic horror in any thinking person.


Tallgeese said...

Thank you. The accolades for this album have been widespread, even among left wing people I know. The Marcos family still gets elected to office, as do other Marcos cronies and collaborators. The crimes of this family continue -- in fact they are a subset of the crimes of a very venal, corrupt ruling class. One which the USA has never ceased to support.

Anonymous said...

Steve Earle, David Byrne, Natalie Merchant.... all the lefty hipsters, aren't as cool as they think they are. They either understand nothing about history or they choose to ignore it for some evil gain. Earle especially bitches constantly about evil America and longs for Communism. Under such a regime, he and his "artsy" compadres would be the first to be shot.