Panem et circenses: bread and circuses. It’s a catch-all term that describes how entertainment is used to distract the general population from the more glaring issues of the day. It is a political principle that has existed even before the Romans coined up the original phrase in Latin. It’s pretty much how I can describe local media these days. Hardly more than unwholesome pap made to keep the masses entertained, keeping their minds off graver issues and the emptiness of their bellies and pockets. For those of us who are, thank goodness, gainfully employed, however, it’s a sad disappointment that only serves to anger and frustrate those of us in the creative fields.
I don’t listen to local radio anymore. To be brutally honest, I can’t hear anything worth listening to unless I tune into the oldies and indie stations. The FM stations of my youth do not seem to exist anymore: NU 107 is gone, LS-FM has gone bakya [masa / mass market], Magic and Monster Radio sound too young to someone who’s now closer to forty rather than thirty, and I feel like hurling the radio out of the window whenever I listen to the really loud, coarse-sounding anchors on the more popular stations. The shrill voices and cheap street lingo grate on my ears; the music, alas, hardly sounds better as local “talents” only seem to ape popular foreign acts like British boy-bands and blonde pop stars. And, oh God, don’t get me started on those novelty songs loaded with disturbing sexual innuendo, baby talk, and gay lingo that even the LGBT community would find very offensive. Not my cup of tea and, speaking as a media/advertising practitioner of a good two-decades’ standing, it saddens me: instead of levelling up, it seems like local radio is on the downgrade.
It’s like media everywhere in the country is going down the proverbial drain. Noontime shows have since stopped being sources of quality entertainment and have become little more than money-spinning shills selling cheap thrills through viral material and quirky catchphrases. Soap operas are little more than rehashed plots of previously produced programs – I mean, really: does the viewing public need a second retelling of Marimar? Wasn’t the Mexican original enough; wasn’t the first local remake enough? And, while local independent filmmakers have continued to produce flicks that have played to critical acclaim overseas, they’re still swamped under by the cheap tricks and tearjerkers produced by the older, more established studios. (Again: does the public need another sequel to Shake, Rattle, and Roll? For that matter, should Vic Sotto be allowed to produce yet another spin on the OK ka, Fairy ko mythos?!? I should think not…)
Friends and family have weighed in with the fact that the Philippines has a rich musical heritage, what with the swoon-worthy kundimans of yesteryear and the groove of Manila Sound from the 1970s. I was just about to start high school when the late Francis Magalona held sway as the country’s Master Rapper; a kid in college when the Eraserheads showed up straight out of UP Diliman to set the music world on fire – along with the local bands that followed suit. Nowadays, though, the music industry seems dominated by wannabes rather than anyone with real talent: you have “divas” who do more screeching and belting than any actual singing; teen groups aping the Brits or the Koreans; and rappers who are more menace than music. That said, I keep my ears plugged into the past: I revisit the glory days of the ‘Heads in the 1990s, a bit of Cole Porter, Tears for Fears, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, riot grrls like Alanis Morisette in her Jagged Little Pill days, sirens like Sophie B. Hawkins; hell, I even have some Duran Duran thrown in for good measure. Anything newer is mostly independently produced; music written and performed by artists who throw heart and soul into their craft. What I listen to is music that doesn’t jar or jangle my nerves; music that doesn’t set my teeth on the edge. What I listen to is music I can write by, I can dance to when no one is watching; music to help me think.
People tell me that I am old maid before my time because I don’t seem to like the same things that other women my age or younger do. It sounds very elitist, but it’s true: I don’t read romance novels or mass market bestsellers. Instead, I read high fantasy, science-fiction, tales of the supernatural and the paranormal; otherwise, my choice of reading material runs towards cookbooks, foodie biographies, and food magazines that balance recipes, alluring photography, and intelligent writing. My writing heroes are Tolkien, Gaiman, Eddings, and Pratchett on one side; on the other, I have Nigella Lawson and Amanda Hesser, Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl. There is so much to learn from both fiction and non-fiction, yet it is presented in such an interesting way that I never have gotten tired of it and I relish rereading old favourites time and again. My copies of Saveur and Lucky Peach are all dog-eared now, but they’re still so much fun to read and there is still a wealth of recipes I’ve not tried as yet.
I write for a living – something that I was dissuaded from doing when I was much younger by people left and right, related by blood or not, telling me that no one could ever earn an honest living from words. Twenty years on, I am still writing for a living and I get paid a more than decent wage by a proper ad agency. I also write poetry – something that some people still laugh at, thinking it a pretentious thing for a girl to do – and people actually read my work these days. I have a book coming out soon; an ebook, it’s true because most local publishers have written me off and told me that I had no talent, but a book nevertheless.
And I try to help people out with their writing, with their way of expressing themselves. It has not been easy either for me or those whose work I edit, but who else is going to help? Writers – and, by extension, composers and artists – need to stick together and stand for each other if need be. It’s still an “us against them” scenario: those who think independently of the system against those who won’t challenge the norms and will simply flow with the mainstream. Sure, they’ll probably make more money than we ever will; but which of us will sleep better at night? The one who simply copies from the foreign scene and tries to pass it off as their own, or those of us who have bravely – and perhaps foolhardily – chosen to do our own thing?
Given the richness of our culture, the wealth of experience upon which to build verses and songs, the colour and flavour of the world around us, why do our people still – after all these bloody sodding years – end up watching or listening to disgustingly manufactured pap? Sure, not all composers can be George Canseco or Ryan Cayabyab, or even an Ely Buendia or Clem Castro – but that doesn’t mean they have to stoop to the level of novelty writers like Lito Camo. Not all local writers can aspire to become the next Cirilo Bautista or Carlos Bulosan; not all food bloggers can match Gilda Cordero Fernando or Doreen Fernandez – but that doesn’t mean the quality of their writing should be as low as those pseudonym-using paperback writers whose “books” are peddled cheaply in sidewalk stalls.
We can do so much better, we can air better material than the dross that’s currently befouling the airwaves. We can go beyond what the mainstream offers; we can choose to express ourselves and go against the flow. We can let our creativity blossom to its fullest potential. We can do right by future generations by handing them a world made richer by meaningful music, inspiring words, and thought-provoking visions.
There is so much that the Filipino can write about and sing about. There is so much more we can be.