Saturday, May 26, 2012

False Idols

Since I am in the habit of burning all my idols, the TV talent show American Idol, which just concluded its 11th season, has never attracted much attention from me. Old enough to remember watching the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” in the ‘60s, I regard such competitions as a very faulty way to discover that most dubious of gifts: talent.

So I couldn’t have been less pleased when my Filipino friends persuaded me to watch the show because a 16-year-old half-Filipino girl from Chula Vista, California had made it all the way to the show’s final round. I had to sit through the 2-hour last episode in which the winner was announced, live via satellite, at 8 in the morning. The last two contestants couldn’t have been less alike: wan and diminutive Jessica Sanchez (the half-Filipino) and the WGWG (“white guy with guitar”), Phillip Phillips. It was the first - and last – time I heard either of them perform, and I was underwhelmed by them both.

But the girl is an example of a quite pervasive cultural tradition among Filipino singers – even the few who manage to become known outside the Philippines. As I pointed out in another post of a few years ago (Bring On the Empty Orchestras), karaoke may have been invented by a Japanese man, but the karaoke (now videoke) machine was patented by a Filipino. The karaoke craze, which swept across Asia in the 1980s, remains a very popular pastime for Filipinos everywhere. I like to call it “socialized screaming”, since it doesn’t have much to do with cultivating good singers. Every day on Filipino TV, children can be seen, microphones in hand, singing note-perfect renditions of songs popularized by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey. Just thinking of the number of times they must have listened to the songs makes me nauseous. Mimicking every intonation, every vocal mannerism is one of the most important measures of this sort of singing, far more important than finding and developing one’s own original and distinctive voice.

It’s difficult for even the best Filipino singers to record original songs. I have written before about Regine Velasquez, known here as “Asia’s Songbird” (see Pussy). Her albums consist mostly of covers, beautifully interpreted songs made popular by other singers.

Filipinos it seems are always looking for ways to prove to the world, as artists and athletes, that they are “world class” and as good as everyone else. It turned out that Jessica Sanchez failed to win American Idol, and Filipinos were perplexed that she could have lost to a white guy who could play a guitar but who could barely carry a tune. But it seems to me that he won precisely because, unlike Jessica Sanchez, he didn’t sound like anyone else. Singers who can mimic Celine Dion may be highly prized by Filipinos, but they’re a peso a dozen everywhere else. Finding one’s own voice is much harder work, even if one doesn’t sound as poised and polished as every other “Diva” out there.

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