Dancing on the grave of history
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra () - April 23, 2010 - 12:00am

The idea of using dance music to tell the story of Imelda Marcos is both loony and a stroke of genius. This is what David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have done in “Here Lies Love,” a 22-song cycle about the former First Lady of this country and Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her.

Imelda Marcos was always destined to be the subject of a musical; the question was, What kind? She loved — loves — to sing; part of Imelda lore is that Irving Berlin himself rewrote some lyrics for her to sing to General Douglas MacArthur after his famous return. No important event can transpire in the Philippines without a soundtrack: where else do the concepts “Revolution” and “Tony Orlando and Dawn” appear in the same sentence? During the martial law years there was a persistent rumor that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita could not be staged in Manila, as it would bring up uncomfortable parallels. Anti-Marcos protesters would sing “Don’t Cry for Me. . .Argentina”.

Amazing, then, that it has taken nearly a quarter-century since the end of the Marcos regime for an Imelda musical to appear. Thankfully it is not one of those Broadway-type deals where characters burst into song in the middle of a big dramatic scene. Our recent history is dramatic enough without amping up the cheese.

So. Disco. We know that in the ’70s and early ’80s, Imelda Marcos loved going to New York’s Studio 54 and other fashionable discotheques. In the 120-page book of Here Lies Love, David Byrne notes how the rich and powerful live in artificial bubbles, full of ritual and symbolic gestures. “I imagined that the ecstatic joy and loss of self inherent in a lot of dance music might mirror some of the headiness of a person in power as well as their view of themselves as a living symbolic entity — so the combination could be a natural one,” he writes.

Does it work? Yes.

My standard for dance music is simple: after hearing it four or five times, the song has to stick in my head. Done. The 22 songs in Here Lies Love contain enough grooves to embed themselves in your memory. Some songs are catchier than others: How Are You? sung by Nellie McKay, Eleven Days rendered by the fabulous Cyndi Lauper, Don’t You Agree? by Roisin Murphy, The Whole Man by Kate Pierson (granted, when I hear the voice from The B-52s I am possessed), Please Don’t by Santigold, and Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos’s duet, Why Don’t You Love Me? The standout track is Dancing Together by Sharon Jones, an insidious disco tune that redirects neural traffic to your feet.

It turns out that the advantage of dance music is that once it’s looping in your head, you start paying close attention to the words, the vocal styles, the emotions expressed, all the nuances of performance. Many of the statements sung by the Imelda character were uttered by the actual Imelda Marcos. “Here Lies Love” is a direct quote from her — she said she wanted these words inscribed on her tombstone. “Every Drop of Rain,” in which the child Imelda and her Yaya Estrella sing of growing up in poverty in a leaky garage, takes its chorus from another Imelda quote: “When you’re poor, it’s like you’re naked. And every drop of rain you feel.”

One great thing about “Here Lies Love”: there’s not a word about those shoes. Inevitably someone will protest that this album is “too sympathetic” to Imelda Marcos, and it is. David Byrne has done an excellent job of channeling his subject: the way she conflates her personal history and the nation’s until she can’t tell them apart. In Dancing Together she sings of hobnobbing with international celebrities and designers, looking at fine art and attending fabulous parties when she’d rather be “Back in my Leyte/Back in the Quonset hut”. But she has to party, because it’s her duty to lead the glamorous life for all the Filipinos who can only dream about it. She regards herself as their avatar.

The song Please Don’t sums up Imelda’s career as a globe-trotting diplomat, meeting with Chairman Mao, Colonel Qaddafi, Fidel Castro on behalf of her country.

“I don’t need — the president

I’ll get my little bag and say:

Please don’t! — don’t let them look down us

Please don’t! — like they used to do to me.”

She associates the nation’s pain with her own childhood woes; she can’t allow her people to be maltreated as she once was. A romantic view, yes, and charming until you realize that she represents tens of millions of Filipinos. In Why Don’t You Love Me?, the tides of history are just ripples in her own story. The Edsa Revolution has happened, the Marcoses have fled Malacanang Palace, and Imelda asks her people, “Why don’t you love me? How could you be so hard? I gave you my heart.” The charges of corruption, human rights violations, electoral fraud — these do not figure in the character’s thoughts. All she sees is that her countrymen have repudiated her. Estrella, whom she has not seen for many years, sings along about her own abandonment.

The Imelda who emerges from Here Lies Love is not the greedy, power-mad virago many would prefer to see, but a naive country girl who truly believes that the story of the Philippines is her story. In her mind she IS the Philippines. Isn’t that what dance music does? For four minutes, it makes you believe that you are the invincible queen of the dance floor. It’s a match.

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