Dramatizing adolescent fantasies
- PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua () - October 21, 2001 - 12:00am
The threat of the flu and end-of-the semester homework did not stop the fans of a1 from going to the Araneta Coliseum last Oct. 7. They arrived in full force: the teens, the "tweens," and even the kindergartners whose parents were probably wondering why a band named after steak sauce could cause so much hysteria. Although some rows of seats were conspicuously empty, the Coliseum was adequately full, and the crowd (the young ones at least) frenetic. The screaming, as to be expected in a boyband concert, was plentiful, "I love you Ben" being the loudest.

Such energy, however, seems disproportionate to a show that one might call bare: a bland backdrop, four microphones, four stools, and a keyboard. Although there were occasional "acoustic" moments, the music was mostly canned and synthesizer induced, a fact which makes one suspect that the boys were miming a few numbers. The reverb and feedback occasionally marred songs and spiels. The dancing, finally, ranged from the gauche to the downright silly. Considering the low-key production, one certainly has to wonder at the audacity of the boys – or their managers – for calling the tour "A List."

Still, the crowd did not seem to mind. They lined up (some as early as 7 a.m.), bought the a1 merchandise they had already bought elsewhere, waved posters and homemade banners, sang along, and applauded every number. One is prompted to ask what Ben, Mark, Christian, and Paul have to command such outpouring of devotion despite the show’s obvious limitations.

There are the boy’s good looks, of course: Ben’s big baby eyes, Mark’s slightly droopy cheeks, Christian’s protruding jaw. There is also the bit of flesh the boys exposed, although like most boys they have essentially deltoid-less arms. (There was none of Nick Lachey’s beef, which, for some folks, is hot enough with or without the A1 sauce.) As musicians, they are competent but not remarkable. Their voices are not unpleasant but hardly distinguishable from those of the next boyband. Each a1 member plays at least one musical instrument – a definite plus, which allows a1 rightfully to claim the label band. The boys write much of their material, but their songs hardly go beyond the commercially acceptable. Like some other boybands, they cover numbers done by respected artists – in this case, the Beatles – perhaps in a bid to make themselves respectable; but they only succeed in affirming what their crtics believe: that their artistic gifts are nil.

(The Beatles, it must be said, were rebels. Today’s boybands, because they conform to the dominant ideology have little in common with the "Fab Four." They reinforce, for instance, heterosexualist assumptions behind the code of courtship in love song after love song, although, interestingly, their constitution as a boy-band potentially undermines such assumptions.)

But what else does one expect? One buys it or doesn’t.

It appears, then, that the magic of a boyband concert – and I write this after sitting in three such concerts this year – lies as much in the audience as in the band. Such shows work to the extent that they dramatize adolescent fantasies – fantasies which admittedly everyone harbors at one time or another and, hence, about which one need not be embarrassed. The way to get one’s money’s worth (and in these hard times to spend P2000 in one night is a lot of money to blow away in one evening) is willingly and willfully to suspend one’s disbelief – or better judgment.

That is to say, one must believe that the "you" in every song, especially if it happens to be one written by the boys, refers to oneself. When the boys in the band remark how beautiful the girls in the country are, one must forget that they invariably say that of the girls in whatever other country they go to. When they promise to come back because they love their stay (heat, traffic, and "most of all, the people"), one must take their word for it, even though they never do come back once they succeed in the United States.

All this is a kind of "calculated sincerity," an oxymoronic game played according to the "rules" of 13th century court poetry. The boys are today’s equivalent of the wandering minstrels who played for pay; the audience, the willing patrons. To steal a line from one a1 song, it’s the "same old brand new" show. a1 played the game expertly – and scored many a good point. During the encore, for instance, Ben serenaded an eight-year old girl onstage. When he knelt and handed her a rose – he was singing (can you guess?), "You treat me like a rose" – the sighs were collective. Never mind if the imagery in the song lends itself to an erotic, if not perverse, reading – the rose being a yonic image – quite beyond an eight-year old’s comprehension.

Alas, such fantasies, unlike 13th century verse (commissioned or not), evaporate quickly. The game is over in a little over an hour. The morning after a1’s show finds one with a throat sore from screaming and with the TV flashing images of B-52s dropping bombs on Afghanistan.

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