Stack the speakers high

SLOW DOWN, DILETTANTE - Jam Pascual (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2016 - 12:00am

On Aug. 31, The Black Eyed Peas released a remix of their 2003 hit single, Where Is The Love?, which was, back then, written partly in response to the 9/11 attacks, when the wounds were still fresh. The star-studded rerelease, its title configured into a hashtag for optimum share-ability, seems to draw its power from mainstream music’s rich tradition of celebrity-fueled philanthropic anthems released in times of crisis, crafted in the same sentimental vein as, for example, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s charity single We Are the World of 1985. (Consider also Jim Paredes’ Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo, written in celebration of the EDSA Revolution’s success.) #WHEREISTHELOVE came into being as a reaction to a flurry of violent events that seemed to happen in quick succession. “I remember when the attack in Paris happened,” says will.i.am. “And then Belgium happened, and then Turkey, and then Orlando, and then Philando, and Alton before him. And then Dallas.”

The morning of Sept. 3 wasn’t when it happened, but many woke to the news of the explosion that happened at the Roxas Night Market in Davao, killing 14 people and injuring 60. I spent the evening of that Saturday making small talk with my girlfriend’s kuya, about how the Abu Sayyaf had disavowed the attack, about rumors of another blast taking place a little closer to home. BEP’s remix doesn’t really reach here, doesn’t show up much on the feeds here, doesn’t bandage the wounded here.

Another memory: I’m 14 on a 2007 school day and a few friends and I are trying to perfect a song in time for an audition. We used to be a thrash metal band, formed out of a mutual love of Metallica and Death Angel, and a shared desire to stick it to The Man. The song was called Protestor (it hurts to write this because it was so bad, you guys; it was so bad) and it was about rebellion, and how much the government sucked, and other lofty things that overshot my understanding but not my adolescent sense of indignation. I believed I could toss a rock song into the ether and its sentiments would rain down like medicine.

That is to say, I believed a good song could change the world. I still do. I want to.

For Pitchfork, senior editor Jillian Mapes proposed the question via title, “Is 2016 Music’s Biggest Year in Decades?” citing Beyoncé, Kanye West, Radiohead and the passing of David Bowie and Prince as important touch points. She too acknowledged 2016’s prevailing mood of unrest and its constant cycle of violent news coverage, writing that, “Historically, art has flourished in times of immense cultural shift… It’s not hard to imagine listeners clinging more closely to music in these times of fear and uncertainty, and for musicians to feel like it’s time to put art out into the world.”

There’s something be said about how a year as violent as this one is affecting creative sensibilities, so let’s look at BEP. I don’t know if it’s just me and the rose-tinted glasses of my childhood, but the tone that pervades #WHEREISTHELOVE is so different from its predecessor. No perky violins here. Not a lot of Fergie. The song sounds tempered by sorrow; lines from the original iteration are fragmented and scattered to make way for new verses and the chilling new lyric, “Mama mama mama, tell us / What the hell is going on?” At one point DJ Khaled proclaims “Love is the key!” because — get it? Snapchat? — keys are his thing, blah blah blah, virality.

I’m more interested in vice versa: how creativity can influence the workings of the world. So allow me a few uncomfortable questions. Can music, or any kind of art in general, create lasting, concrete change in society? If so, how? If so, why does #WHEREISTHELOVE exist at all? Wasn’t creative work supposed to be more vaccine than medicine, and lead us anywhere but here, to this valley of shadows?

Let me try to answer. The time that passed between Where Is the Love 1.0 and 2.0 saw the creation and release of so much music, both mainstream and underground, that could stand for total social upheaval. Rage Against the Machine. System of a Down. Pussy Riot. Beyoncé. And let’s count Hamilton as well. And a bunch of other people and works I’m missing, too. How does one even estimate how much all that music has done for how many people? The point of a song is hardly to rally anyone behind a single, focused ideology. But I’d like to think music can cultivate an insatiable hunger for change, an incurable faith that perhaps things can change. And let’s not even limit that description to explicitly political music. If Carly Rae Jepsen’s B-sides inspire you to fight another day for love, just as well.

The promise of art has never been to provide a smooth trip to utopia. Music can shape people, can fortify our coping mechanisms, but we are still beholden to systems and forces greater than us. I don’t know if it’s right, but it is comforting to believe that maybe every piece of culture we’ve ever consumed is still coalescing inside us, still forming a nebulous sense of indignation inside us, and constantly surfacing as actions which lead those around us a little further away from mayhem.

In his poem “Ode to Pete Wentz, Ending in Tyler’s Funeral,” Hanif Willis Abdurraqib wrote, “Maybe if we stack all of the speakers in this town as high as we can and begin to go up, we can escape even this.” I can’t help but think this is feasible. I can’t help but believe that the phenomenon of art flourishing in times of crisis is humankind’s way of saying creation trumps destruction, always, always. I want to believe this.

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