May 10, 2004
ERIC S. CARUNCHO
“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
The above is a quotation from one of the more astute observers of popular culture that rock ‘n’ roll has produced, the late Frank Zappa. The reason I am opening this rather rambling disquisition with it is that I have the same quotation framed and mounted right atop my word processor, perhaps as a reminder of the essential absurdity of the enterprise of writing about pop music.
For better or for worse, and much as I loathe the term, I have been saddled with the (I must emphasize, unwanted) occupational label of “rock journalist” for more than a decade now. At dinner parties, I am inevitably introduced as “so-and-so, the music writer” at which I have to suppress a cringe. One particularly misguided soul has even referred to me, in print, as “the dean of rock journalists.” (I’d much rather be the Dean, capital D, of rock journalists — you know a rebel without a cause. But hey, even I’m not that pretentious.)
I have tried to set the record straight in my book, Punks, Poets, Poseur: Reportage on Pinoy Rock & Roll. If I might paraphrase from the Preface:
“I am not now nor have I ever been a ‘rock journalist’. (I mean, what the hell kind of a pathetic occupational label is that anyway?) … I guess deep down I’m just another fan…I just approached rock ‘n’ roll as any other journalist would any other social phenomenon: I tried to learn as much about it as possible, tried to sniff out what the real story was, and tried to communicate a sense of what the people and the milieu in which they existed were really like.”
I chose the subtitle of my book precisely to emphasize the fact that I was merely reporting on a subcultural phenomenon, not critiqueing it: the phrase “rock critic” (and all the high seriousness it implies) is even more abhorrent to me than “rock journalist”
Of course, now it dawns on me that by writing a book on Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll I have only succeeded in burying myself deeper in the pigeon-hole so to speak.
It is also dawns on me that, in spite of myself , some critical ideas, have managed to seep into and contaminate my reportage, and that I have not really given it much thought. Until now.
What I would to do in the next half hour or so is discuss some of the major themes and patterns that have emerged in a decade or so of reporting on Pinoy popular music. Since I lack the necessary critical apparatus and the inclination, I have not formulated a conceptual framework, an intellectual armature for organizing these ideas into a coherent whole. In any case, I do not know that that would be a good idea. Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll is shot through with contradictions, and the best of it eludes neat intellectualization. That is as it should be.
The closest I can get to finding a conceptual handle with which to rasp the slippery phenomenon of popular music is to examine the many dichotomies which seems to permeate current thinking on the subject. In so doing I hope to point out why such dichotomies are wholly inadequate in understanding the meanings of Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll to our culture.
The Band Wagon Effect
In the last year or so, I have been asked by a number of college students from various universities to act as a resource person for term papers or even undergraduate theses on “alternative music”. Invariably, the first question they ask is : “Bakit putok na putok and banda ngayon?” “Why have bands become popular?” “Bakit nauso ang banda?”
The point is this: to a great many people the main distinction within current popular music is between bands and solo performes. This thinking lumps together bands as diverse as the Eraserheads, the Side A Band, Bagong Lumad and the Ex-Presidents Combo; and pits them against solo performers such as Ariel Rivera, Regine Velasquez and their ilk.
This point of view is not restricted to college students; even record company executives apparently subscribe to this thinking, at least at one time in the not too distant past. If the Eraserheads sell platinum quantities, the seemed to say, then sign me up a dozen more bands.
The result was that a whole lot of lame outfits found themselves with record deals and promptly fell into a not-undeserved oblivion. Clubs are now overbooked with bands hoping to make it in the music business. Each month the record companies churn out a host of new titles by new artist, each competing for our attention and our pocketbooks.
In short, the progress in popular music over the last few years has been mainly in terms of quantity. It is hard to say whether the advances in quality are not merely in proportion to the increase in quantity of talents waiting to be heard.
But bands are formed for different reasons, and these reasons are by in means mutually exclusive. To make money, to express one’s self, to create art, to be cool, to attract women, to let out teenage aggression and anxiety, to change society and the world at large, all of the above — these are just some of the reasons people get into bands.
As with any other art from, the writer needs to consider the artist’s intent if he is to arrive at a meaningful measure of the success or failure of the resulting art.
There is no use criticizing the Side a Band for being a commercial sell-out; that is their reason for being. If the Eraserheads are successful, it is more a by-product rather than the purpose of their art. By the same token, it does no good to bemoan Joey Ayala’s lack of commercial success; his musical approach precludes widespread without compromising his vision.
On the other hand, skilled ensembles such as the Jerks, Put3Ska and the Bodhisattvas are guaranteed to give one a good time at the club, but their impact on the culture is negligible compared with the Eraserheads, who it is widely known can barely play their instruments.
Let me start out by saying that there is no more useless word in the current critical vocabulary than “alternative”. Its meaning has been stretched to the breaking point, so much so that it now means the exact opposite of its original meaning. At one time, a band that played “alternative” music could be expected to sound different from anything you had heard before. Nowadays, to say that a band plays “alternative” rock is to say that it sounds just like any other band. Alternative rock is Top 40.
It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, “alternative” was a useful distinction.
The word first came to be used in connection to music during the mid-to late-’80s. Pinoy rock has lost steam as the ’70s ended, and was effectively dead at this time. There was a small but loud underground scene at the start of the decade centering around the punk bands that played in high school gyms and dives such as Katrina’s, but as far as I know they had not used the word “alternative” in connection with what they were doing. In any case, most of them had disappeared during the recession following the Aquino assassination. The only bands making a living were playing in hotel lounges.
The word “alternative” first began to be bandied about with the emergence of protest singers such as Jess Santiago and Gary Granada, and especially Joey Ayala and his band, Bagong Lumad.
Ayala, in fact, made a point of telling his audience — first in Davao and later in Manila — that Bagong Lumad meant “new native” or “alternative”. He was certainly one of the first to consider his music an alternative to the music currently popular, which was the usual radio crap.
Around the same time, other bands began to appear in such new venues as Red Rocks, and old ones such as Mayric’s. Slowly, a scene emerged.
All of this was largely ignored by the music industry, which at this time was enamored of novelty rap acts and syrupy pop crooners and found little commercial potential in rock bands and protest singers.
As the ’80s turned in the ’90s, musicians started thinking of themselves as playing “alternative” music, which largely meant that they had an audience that was too small to attract record company interest. Mainly for their own satisfaction, they began to record and produce their own independent albums, which they often marketed themselves at their concerts.
But even during these early days, there was no one “alternative: sound. The label covered everything from the protest folk of Jess Santiago, to the ethnic experimentation of Joey Ayala, to the roots of the Jerks. The one thing they had in common was that their music was too adventurous in either subject matter or form to attract the attention of the play-it-safe mainstream music establishment.
Two things changed this forever: the commercial success of an erstwhile “alternative” band, the Eraserheads; and the Bistro sa Amoranto concert in which record company executives realized the potential market for this newfangled “alternative” thing.
The rest is a matter of record.
Now, of course, “alternative” is nothing more than a marketing tool. You can actually go to a record store and find discs that bear the sticker “alternative music.” Ariel Rivera’s joke has come true; nowadays, he’s the alternative.
The point of all this, I guess is that much of the vitality of rock ‘n’ roll — Pinoy or otherwise — lies in its rebellious spirit. To be “alternative” means to violate conventions.
When rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy and pop music means easy listening, it was all alternative. By the ’70s, when rock was past its prime and had become big business, punk rock itself evolved into “alternative rock”, and musicians are continuously trying to violate its hegemony over the airwaves and the record business by embracing new forms at an ever-accelerating rate — dance, trance, ambient — that fly in the face of convention.
But given the realities of the marketplace, where music is above all product, yesterday’s alternative is today’s mainstream. New trends are continuously emerging in reaction to the old, but the music business is so huge and powerful that it can co-opt, package and market these trends as fast as they emerge, and the cutting edge is only one step ahead of the mainstream, no matter how far out it may seem at first.
I recently had the opportunity to hold a discussion with students of the College of Mass Communication as part of a course called Music in Broadcasting, in which they proposed a model for “alternative” music. The main opposed to “mainstream” music. The main characteristic of alternative music, according to this model, was that it existed to question the status quo — not just the norms of the mainstream music industry, but of society at large as well.
The main problem with such a model, I argued, was that the norms of the mainstream were constantly shifting. The music industry was like a giant amoeba — it was so big that it could absorb an independent movement outside it with very little effort. An example of this is the phenomenon of small “independent” labels is being distributed by giant music conglomerates, an arrangement which is currently perceived to be mutually beneficial.
As an example, the Eraserheads might have been perceived at one point as subverting the norms of the music industry, through their use of putang ina in one song, their rejection of slick production values, their adherence to the do-it-yourself ethos and their refusal to follow the rules of self-promotion, i.e., lip-synching on TV variety shows, etc.. Now, of course, these very qualities have been shown to be the large part of their appeal and their record company, which knows better to mess with a good thing, lets them do pretty much what they want. All of which begs the question: Who is now subverting who?
The dilemma of rock ‘n’ roll, then, is basically the same as the dilemma of the revolutionary. Once you succeed in overthrowing the establishment, you become the establishments, and it is only a matter of time before a new generation of rebels emerges.
Speaking of rebellion, an interesting sidelight in the history of Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll would be when activists first learned to dance.
Nowadays, of course, it is not all surprising to find a gaggle of workers belonging to the more bohemian fringe of the NGO world — with their batik clothing, ethnic accessories and Mojo sandals — doing the reggae to the music of Grupong Pendong at 70’s Bistro. Horrifying, maybe, but not surprising.
But there was a time when the more doctrinaire among the young Left considered rock ‘ n’ roll to be bourgeois, decadent, imperialist music, churned out by the capitalist music industry to erode the resolve of the proletariat.
There was a time when folk music was the only acceptable revolutionary music, coming as it did from the masses. Bob Dylan was booed by folk purists at the Newport Music Festival in 1965 because they thought he had “sold out” by playing rock ‘n’ roll with an electric band.
At one point, I could tell a friend’s political inclinations by whether he preferred Blowin’ in the Wind to Like a Rolling Stone.
I don’t really know when activists first learned to dance. One scholar figures that it was during one of the street protest in the ’80s when Buklod played their anthem, Tumindig Ka.
In any case, it would certainly counts as one of the turning points in the history of Pinoy rock ‘n’ roll.
Where is all of this leading?
For one thing, the “message” of rock ‘n’ roll — and before its meaning — isn’t only in lyrics.
Un the early days, for instance, what the old fogies found most disturbing wasn’t the lyrics — most of which were admittedly thinly-veiled references to sex. The term “rock ‘n’ roll” is after all derived from a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
The music itself was aimed directly at the nether regions: syncopation, distortion, volume, the use of microtonal “blue notes” — all of these combined to bring out the darker, more instinctual urges of the listener.
Rock ‘n’ roll was Dionysian where classical music was Apollonian. It celebrated the body through its invitation to dance. No wander the conservatives called it “jungle music”. It would take a while before this would be considered a compliment.
We have been talking about “alternative” music as that which questions the status quo, i.e., “protest” music in its broadest sense. Unfortunately, most musicians who set out to do this type of music concerns themselves almost entirely with the lyrics. There is a school of protest music, running from Joey Ayala, Bulod, Grupong Pendong and Gary Granada back to Asin, Jess Santiago, Heber Bartolome bands in order pioneers of “politically-correct” music making.
All of them have been successful in composing lyrics decrying social injustices and economic inequities, they have not been equally successful in setting this lyrics to music. This is a concern, since in order to work as protest, “protest music” first of all has to work as music.
The Uses of Pop
Another question that frequently crops up in connection with the new music, is whether kids from bands in order to voice their alleged angst and alienation from mainstream society.
The whole “Generation X” thing has by now become a chicken-and-egg question: is alternative music angry and nihilistic became the kids making it are, or because they think music — in order to be “alternative” –has to be angry and nihilistic?
Who can tell? As with “alternative” music, the media and the marketing conglomerates routinely cannibalize the youth culture to such a degree that “Generation X” and all the attitudes it supposedly represents are today little more than a gimmick for selling Pepsi and Levi’s jeans. Today’s angry rant is tomorrow’s commercial jingle. The supposed generational rift between “baby boomers” and “slackers” is little more than a tool for niche marketing.
In any case, the reasons we listen to pop music are far more complex than any of the preceding “rockcrit” celebrations might suggest.
The uses of pop are various as a subcultural badge reinforcing one’s allegiances to a particular group and world-view; as a springboard for motional response; as noise for drowning out some other noise; as pressure valve for adolescent or adult anxieties; as background muzak.
Any or all of these might come into play in explaining why we like a particular song.
Rock ‘n’ roll, in particular, invites a visceral response in which all sorts of non-verbal and non-rational processes come into play.
One critic, Dave Marsh, once defined rock ‘n’ roll as the expression of a truth. Another critic, whose name escapes me now, held that the underlying theme of all rock ‘n’ roll is freedom.
Truth and freedom. Things we all aspire to. Which perhaps explains the continuing vitality of pop music, even in the face of the concerted efforts by the media and entertainment conglomerates to reduce it to a marketing formula.