Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Doris Day and Beyoncé: How the Song Died

Whoever said we cannot compare apples and oranges must have lived in the Dark Ages. Or, he must have been a fruit seller arguing with a buyer who wanted to buy them at the same price. Fresh oranges are definitely more expensive than fresh apples in Manila. And I don’t know why. But as juices in tetra packs, they cost exactly the same. So, who said we can’t compare them? I just did. They are the same, both being fruits. They are different, having different tastes and nutritional values.

So then, let us compare Doris Day and Beyonce. Both are female singers. They have totally different styles and have their own separate bunch of starry-eyed fans. But why compare them at all?

We know that Doris Day sings (or sang) candy-flavored ditties that our parents and baby-boomers slurped on. On the other hand, the young ones today wriggle and pump their hips to the tune of Beyonce. But let’s forget about the beat or the itch to dance to the music. Let’s just talk about the message, the words of the song. No, let’s talk about whether we can hear or pick up the words at all.

Yes, we can see Beyonce’s lips move. We can certainly see that she is saying words and phrases (To the left, to the left….). After that the words are lost in all the wailing and scatting. So what is she saying? Phrases do not make sentences and therefore do not complete a thought or a picture in our minds. And without a complete picture, we have no story.

Without a story to connect us with others, society dies. We see images, we hear sounds, we feel the beat but we think of nothing that endures and keeps us company when we get old. And we wonder why the youth today are more confused than ever.

Doris Day sang out clear words and told simple stories. Each word came out and each thought stood out. Que sera sera, whatever will be will be…. From childhood, I heard that line and understood that there were principles at work in life. No it didn’t teach me fatalism; it taught me to be realistic. It helped me attain balance between fatalism and faith. All because a singer could not only sing well, and clearly at that, but could also live and live up to her words.

Beyonce, from what I’ve read, is a believer of Christ. Her family supports her career actively. But I still have to hear her sing of her struggles as a child of God or as a struggling Christian artist in a world of glitter and glamour. (If she has, I certainly have not heard it or must not have heard the words at all.)

Honestly speaking, I see inconsistency in believer-celebs who behave as if there was no such words as modesty and purity. This may sound harsh but I merely wish to express my disappointment at talented people who cannot stand up for their beliefs or even make the spoken word clear – if not the good word – at least the words of their songs. Or are they hiding the fact that they (or their writers) really have nothing interesting to say at all?

Too many notes and too much beat and rhythm can kill a song and its message. Or is it a given today among music producers that the message is secondary or unnecessary just as long as they get the public to plug in and pump to the music? Too much waste of talent and opportunity to do good.

Hence, the story or the message of the song has been lost in the noise of vocal and instrumental sounds. The contest has gone beyond the musical virtuosity among rival bands and singers to that of competition between the instruments and the voices themselves. The more agilely you can outplay the instrument, the better for the song. Never mind the listener. They have successfully killed the song and its story and people still buy; so why bother with the song? Just keep the music playing.

Yet, composers have the responsibility of making both words and melody merge into one functional and aesthetic composition. There are thousands of ways to do this, obviously. The Beatles did it with painful poignancy through Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby”. The first time I heard it (Note: I heard and got the story the first time without checking the song book), I felt the impact of loneliness right through the core of my being. And it still does every time I hear it. The Rolling Stones brought a similar heartfelt jolt with their “As Tears Go By”, the Zombies with “Summertime” and Harry Chapin with “Cat’s in the Cradle”. Yes, songs you don’t dance to but listen to, learn from and embrace life thereby.

When Elvis came along, he crooned ballads that spoke of tender and sweet love and belted out rough songs with gyrating music that let loose the prisoners of inhibition. Yeah, at first he spoke clearly and straight to the heart of many a young pimply idealistic lad. But when he picked up speed and shifted from his baritone to that falsetto, he had many people either confused or taken for a ride in wild abandon. The words got lost in the process. Anger and rebellion became the theme. Music became a vessel to induce a trance, a hypnotic spell that could take you to heights of passion only drugs and alcohol could match. Many more followed his steps. Once that happened, the song eventually died. Yes, the music lived on somehow (notice how they use old songs in rap songs?) but the song would take a long time to come back since the 70’s. It barely survived through the 90’s. Thanks to Josh Groban and others who have kept the sanity.

I was born and raised in an era when stories not only entertained but built society. My family would gather after supper in a half circle around the radio to listen to a comedy program. We listened, we laughed and we learned as a family. Hence, the first and foremost consideration in the ritual was a clear broadcast reception. Our radio, a wooden-framed console with a phonograph did the job well. Music and drama told stories of love and adventure. Our radio was a virtual school that relayed information and recreation.

And, of course, there were the movies back then that relived the books I loved to read: The Count of Monte Cristo, Time Machine and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The music used to be a non-distractive tool for telling the story, whether in a song or in drama. But MTV married sloppy story-telling with equally sloppy music and caused a destructive explosion. When the smoke cleared, the movie survived but not the song.

Today, through high-tech gadgets, information and entertainment come on the go. Inside the elevator and while you ride the train, hip-hop and rock fill your brain. Other mindless beats and yappity raps assault us without let-up. A few are worth listening to, to be honest, especially the ones that slow down the beat and relapse to that dying practice of telling a story with clear and well-paced words. Never mind the melody if they can’t carry one, as long as the conscious mind is involved through the story, we can ride along. A good laugh from an amusing story is good enough. But noise disguised as music – now, that, is a rip-off!

Apples and oranges. Doris and Beyonce. After all is heard and done, we all want to be filled with good nutrition or good emotional release. The thing we should be thankful for is that we still have the choice not to eat rotten apples or oranges.

(Photo above: A high school buddy listens intently to '60's music on a radio, the size of which could contain about 20 iPods.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Idolatry Everywhere

There is a thin line between dedication and idolatry, whether we talk about journalistic profession or religious expression.

We admire those brave reporters and photographers who die while covering violent situations in their effort to take home the prized scoop or shot. We are astonished at those who have themselves nailed on the cross to keep their religious vows or at those who die in their attempt to touch an “image” of Christ. Both classes of people surely qualify for awards for dedication. But are these “sacrifices” necessary and totally unavoidable? Perhaps not. With a few exceptions, they fall squarely under the untouchable “I” word in this predominantly Catholic country and a media-dominated society like ours.

But let us make it very clear: Idolatry abounds everywhere. In Bombay, Macau, Havana, Hollywood and Manila, it is not only a way of life for many; it is the only way to live. Once it becomes a habit, everything else – one’s thoughts, one’s diet and one’s family affairs – revolves around the focused object or objective.

Unavoidably, when a person agrees to work as a field reporter, he embraces certain professional parameters that grant him the privilege of becoming what he was educated to become. Or to put it another way, one’s idealism will be slowly eroded by the realities of the bigger world beyond the campus. What used to be taboo for young, unaffected students – like dissipation, gossip or intrigue – become common fare for a newcomer in the industry, in media or in sales, which is not much different. Oftentimes, in college, the habits begin to emerge.

Age-old and newly-formed norms become the guide-posts for those who enter the busy markets and bustling fields of our institutions. For a newspaper to survive, you have to compete with others in the gladiatorial arenas of journalistic contests. Networks have to battle over fertile territories. Just as selling requires you to put your foot against the open door, getting the scoop requires you to push that mike under the VIP’s nose. A salesman hands over the pen to the prospect in order to close the sale just as a photographer pokes his camera in front of an armed rebel to take the best close-up. Tricks of the trade learned from the previous masters of the industry.

It’s always been that way and it will always be that way. The news is a god. It moves and breathes 24/7 and is eternal.

And so is the wooden or golden image. Step on the other person’s foot to keep him from getting ahead of you. No, better still, step all over him so he will not cause you to fall and be stepped upon by others. All this time, the photographers and reporters are having a heyday documenting the carnage. Idolaters – or at least, servants of idolaters -- all keeping watch over their fellow idolaters. The number of those who die in the process will be bannered or broadcast in tomorrow’s papers or radios as it has always been done before. And it will be that way again next year. And always.

The priests and religious leaders may sound an alarm but they will never mention the “I” word. Much less condemn or stop the practices altogether. There is too much at stake for the organization – as it is for the news networks. All part of a riotous but otherwise normal working day for all.

In a land full of idols – things people would willingly die for but not necessarily be jailed for – we lose our sanity and sense of order and proportion. Rights to one’s religion or one’s profession vie for equality and protection under the laws of the land. Because of their clout, the defenders of these practices prevail. In such an environment, idolatry flourishes in many forms.

A journalist would proudly claim: There is no law that prevents a reporter from risking his own life in the line of duty. Oh, yeah? Did not God say, “You shall have no other gods before Me”? Why would you die – whether willfully or mindlessly -- for something that tradition or modern culture deems more important that your own life? God precisely forbade idolatry in order to stop people from offering their lives or their infants to lifeless and inutile gods who could not see, talk or even walk a step. So why endanger yourself for something that you know could and might put your life on the altar of false-worship?

And idolatrous worship is that irrational and disproportionate dedication we place upon so many things – yes, things other than God Himself: money, position, fame, beauty, possessions, vanity and power.

The government is duly instituted by God to establish order and to preserve life. Even if it means preventing a person from causing harm upon one’s self. Obviously, it is run by people who are themselves subject to the errors and weaknesses of others. For no one is exempt. One way or another, each of us has a propensity to put too much focus, time and effort on certain idols. But the laws exist to prevent our excesses somehow.

Satan, the great Deceiver, had long perfected the art of disguise and delusion. He and his cohorts lurk behind every idol. And he does this for one sole purpose: to win over God’s entire creation and to destroy all goodness in this world. How successful he has been, we can only deduce from the flow of money (Mammon, the great idol) into such things as we have mentioned: false religion, false beauty, false entertainment, false knowledge, false power and false glory.

It takes wisdom to discern an idol. No one can claim such ability for one’s self unless God grants it. Remember that even Aaron, Moses’ own brother and the would-be high priest of Israel, utterly fell for it. And even Moses fell for it when he thought his own position and privilege gave him the right to lash out in anger against the Israelites.

Watch out then what you value in life; that is, what you pay good money for, what you spend much time with and what you have great passion for. All these things, God had given us to make us whole and for us to have abundant joy. Your health, your youth and your beauty are all gifts from Him just as the fruits of Paradise were for Adam and Eve. Just remember: In every garden, there is a poisoned fruit that looks so good, tastes truly delicious and can make you become like God. Elementary Lesson #1 reviewed: Avoid the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. More often than not, they lead to idols -- false fronts that ultimately lead to sin.

An idol, in short, puts on a false front or image that seems desirable but leads to death. The trick then in avoiding idols is to look at what is behind them. Why? Because behind the forbidden tree slithered the serpent named Satan.

Today, Satan exists everywhere and so idols also abound. Watch where you go, my dear friend.

(Photo above: The University of the Philippines Oblation in Diliman, Quezon City -- the symbol of pure, living sacrifice -- seems to glow at UP's Centennial celebration kickoff-rites last January 8. Some have misrepresented and corrupted its ideal meaning with their shameless naked run on campus. And, of course, every time, media cover it with relish.)