[PART I of III]
IN JULY 2009, THERE WAS MUCH ADO in the entertainment scene that stemmed from a statement on TV by OPM legend Freddie Aguilar about Charice, Arnel Pineda and other Filipino talents making a name abroad (although specifically addressing a question about Charice), on being famous by imitating—like monkeys...because we don't hold our own,1 said he—Western singers and their styles.
The issue lasted for about a month and has since died a natural death. At its peak, however, the issue dragged other Filipino singers into the scene. Needless to say, it drew all sorts of reactions especially online, and created a real-world gap between followers of the performers mentioned and those who agreed with Aguilar.
It also added a degree of stigma already attached to talents like Charice and Arnel and their respective fan bases and pouring fire into existing heated rivalry specifically between Charice’s fans and of other female singers older than she and whom she'd often been compared with.
To some extent, the issue above was aggravated by online activities participated in by fans across sectors as a consequence of technologies we currently have.
Our preoccupation with fast information and viral issues, and of the marketing and appreciation of talents we see and hear about, has in fact taken a much different approach to the traditional, even if the so-called “traditional” modes still exist, for example, through sleek local talent-search TV productions instantly available with just a click on the remote and a lot of free viewing time, but with minimal focus on the search for real talents.
These technologies, along with the current "traditional" ones like TV and radio, have also changed the way we interact with or react to issues whether they be real or perceived, and have become the defining influences in our choices.
A trichotomy | Like in most developing countries, our reality is living in a world of wide and rigid differences in terms of preferences and prorities.
For instance, we have, on one hand, premium-rate entertainment services and its selective, privileged market, and, on the other, shows on free TV that, like in murky public markets, dispense what its producers think the masses deserve. There simply isn't room for options.
Between both is the broad middle class sector, many of whom help expand the trichotomy having advanced from near-destitution to affording things on demand (thanks to remittances by relatives abroad) and have become consistent spenders on middle-class pleasures.
Charice, who comes from the masses, has made dream-like success look easy and fluid because of YouTube and her undeniable talent to sing cover songs — the big, difficult ones at that, from as early as 7 years old if we take into account her publicized starting age at joining contests.
It is interesting that, having come from a family of modest means herself, many of her detractors whom she actually represents and whose ideals she lives up to are themselves the first to put her down.
This circumstance may have to do with not just the perpetual rich-vs-poor rationale against a third world background but also with complex factors that have to do with the entertainment industry in general in which marketing and sales rule, packaging matters.
On the other hand, if popular belief is to be pursued, events related to Charice may have to fall back to status conflict because it seemed to have happened to her when she, having been a clear choice in the last singing contest she joined on television five years ago, was edged out through what many believed were unfair systems not once but twice, probably even more, of what may have been her only ticket out of poverty in her early teens.
An example is the recent admission of singer-songwriter Jim Paredes on his blog about his judging a special segment of the contest Charice was in and to whom he and his fellow judges apparently gave high scores. He disclosed that they were asked by the contest staff to reconsider their tallies which appeared to have given Charice the score advantage over all the other contestants.
I, in fact, came across a YouTube video of a segment some years ago in which a wide-grinned and visibly amused head-bobbing Jim Paredes was clapping behind the judges’ table to Charice's song-and-dance performance of I Wanna Dance With Somebody. He may have been referring to that particular special segment in which Charice won.
And then there is the legendary grand finals of the same contest in which Charice, having been called back as a "wildcard" contestant, lost.
Charice revealed to TV host Boy Abunda in a TV interview in 2009 that she held back tears on stage upon losing, only to pour out tears of pain backstage after her mother granted her permission to finally release pent-up emotions. Apparently, Charice had thought hard about re-joining it as a "wildcard" contestant after being eliminated in an earlier round, but to which she gave her all, she said, when she did agree.
A class conflict? | Charice's defeat was generally attributed to having been the result of some kind of a class conflict. Paredes, who, he says, was not among the finals judges, however suggests belatedly that Charice could have just had a bad grand finals day, was not in her best element and someone else deserved to win for she was up against male contestants by then, one of whom was soft-spoken and fluent in English, tall for his age and good-looking, fair-skinned as he was most likely of mixed heritage, had proper song-and-dance training and such. Good-looking male entertainers are most likely easier to market anyhow. He ended up winning.
There, too, is the now classic line “she does not posses enough 'star quality'” allegedly spoken of her by a female judge during the finals despite Charice outperforming all others consistently. Some, who followed this contest whom I’ve spoken to recently, attest to hearing it said on air. Whatever that “star quality” was was something only the judge knew for she was not a known star-maker or talent manager but an entertainer for laughs.
All these may seem like reading too much between Charice's timeline but allegations of preference based on superficial, albeit "marketable," qualities do fulfill a consumerist society's needs which, like ours, are largely based on colonial legacies and commercial consumption.
And there is her back-story of poverty. She embodied many singing hopefuls, many as young as pre-school age, whose families more than encouraged them to sing or act, join contests and win so they, stage-managed still wet behind the ears by their parents, could help pitch in and make their families' lives a little better.
In Charice’s case, it would be heartless for anyone to not be moved by her story. As a child whose outlet was in the joy of singing—and became fiercely competitive at it, she says—music was what uplifted her spirit to help get her through periods of hunger and scenes of domestic violence.
While touching, almost melodramatic, the kind that telenovellas are often based upon, her background is what has made her vulnerable in the eyes of her admirers and detractors, and special to her American benefactors.
Hers was the kind of story that affluent, open societies relish because its reward is like finding a priceless gem out of (third world) trash carelessly thrown away; they didn’t need appraisal as they instinctly knew of its value and returns even in its rough, unpolished state.
Delicate, gifted and under-appreciated | Charice is a petite girl and was a frail-looking child in contests in younger years. Yet she is all of fragile, accessible, approachable and of boundless energy; she is funny, awkward and street smart. She speaks loud, she talks fast and her spiels on stage, like the ones I heard her say in a concert in 2009 and on many other live performances viewable online, are of the everyday, like that of many ordinary teenagers wont to absorb the behaviors of their peers at street corners.
She surrounds herself, as I've seen, with her core family and her "barkada" (gang) from her neighborhood, the likes of whom whom we’d regularly see texting on their mobile phones while hanging out in popular malls, in public transportation terminals or fast-food joints. In fact, she could disappear in a crowd had it not been for the recent life-changing events that have now made her one of the most recognizable faces.
Yet even in her early career, she has attracted the mothers and matrons (surprisingly, even the fatherly) because she looks vulnerable and knew their songs by heart.
When she moves or dances, she does it in a snappy and almost restless way. In rare interviews where she gives longer-than-her-usual answers in the vernacular — it’s Tagalog with strong intonation to best articulate her views — she does so proudly, unconsciously of the fact that she'd inherited the dialect of heroes from Laguna and Batangas in Southern Luzon from where she hails.
Urbanized Filipinos would call it being “probinsiyana,” from the provinces. In other words, unsophisticated.
Yet so much of Charice is under-appreciated for what she’s worth, especially from the same economic strata she’s from and represents because she certainly is gifted.
Not your typical underdog | The seeming lack of approval could be because of how Charice had been treated on national television as contestant a few years back in which she came out the perennial feisty underdog. Charice was simply the antithesis to everything that they would rather have represent them because she is plain-looking and small and had eyes that revealed her tiniest, innermost emotions.
The masses usually want their female underdog-saviors demure, ala-Maria Clara, and picture-perfect despite disheveled hair in their most cunning, vengeful moments. In other words, they preferred someone else to symbolize their aspirations, which at that time, and maybe to this day, Charice perhaps hasn’t become yet to them.
It could also be because she was subject of a controversy, one which involved her age as under-declared, i.e. just the cut-off age, because the contest representatives and majority of the audience could not reconcile the fact that a mature voice was coming out of an early teen’s mouth. Surely there's something surreal about a mother who demands that the radio be toned down believing that the music coming from it was of popular singer Celine Dion's and not her 4-year old daughter.
How could it be possible that, even at the tender age of 9, Charice had complete control of her ad lib (as in 0:40 in the sample video below) when she encored her entry after winning in one of her early TV singing competitions? She sounded like a vet which, by this age, she probably already was.
|Video courtesy of pixie0904|
It didn’t help that, like many girls overly dolled up by their parents, her on-stage appearance in all other televised competitions belied her age.
From the series of videos of the last contest she joined which are viewable on YouTube and other video sites, Charice may be seen performing made up a tad too much for her age, or sometimes looked overdressed like in a fiesta singing contest or adult night club than on daytime national TV whereas her stiffest competitor towards the end was appropriately garbed and dapper.
The masses who followed the singing competition she last joined, and the fans of the other contestants, believed in the misplaced controversy this contest generated and used it as basis of their prejudice against her. It seemed that the contest’s network-producer did little to correct this defect and instead fed on the masses’ lust for blood for how else could they make the show more interesting without it?
Off-camera, she'd not be just subject of ridicule whenever she lost, she said; off-hand, a rivalry among fans of contest favorites had begun to brew.
A big-voiced dilemma | During the contest, Charice would be labeled a "young diva" but because of her big voice at an awkward age the network probably wasn’t prepared to package her as a singer other than a real “diva” had she won. However, Charice didn’t fit the “diva” mold Filipinos have become familiar with since the term evolved into their consciousness.
Perhaps the network needed her and the other contestants to remain as kids and sing in 4/4 beat for its juvenile shows until it knew what to do with them later on. If it didn't, however, they could just be dropped from its roster of talents.
If Charice had won, there’d be no available songs or fitting program segments in their network they could offer her that could showcase her abilities. Besides, there was a dearth of anything significant on Philippine television at that time, anyway, outside of over-stretched game shows, imported dramas, series that fulfilled fantasies, gossip programs and noontime song-and-dance variety shows which were already overflowing with contract talents who also sang covers, never mind if only less than half of its cast could actually sing and dance. The Philippine recording industry2 was barely breathing3, too, a casualty of piracy4 and an industry’s slow action.
The network, some say, belittled the little girl with the big voice it didn't know what to do with. It propped up the contestant who fit the formula of a potential “next star” who they could easily make money out of without having to exert further effort; someone who, eventually, would blend in the variety show background should things go another way.
Luckily, being eliminated from the contest meant periodic appearances for Charice on some of the network's shows but little else. She did not have a definite singing career in show business to speak of, however, as she chose school over TV after losing in the contest, avoiding further disappointments as she may have developed a wariness with the industry.
Comparisons | All this makes up Charice’s brief experience in the local entertainment business that, even after she lost and was nearly out of the limelight when the contest ended, Charice seemed to still harbor hatred and endless comparisons from fans of other singers.
A point of interest is how she evolved to be the perceived rival of not the contest winners she lost to, but female singers older than she: the reigning "pop divas" and veteran belters who had established careers well ahead of hers and were, of course, definitely more popular with the masses.
Charice would be compared to them even before her appearance on the Ellen Show in America in 2007, or two years after she lost in the contest when she was still practically an unknown outside of the pool of talents of the network that produced it.
At that time, her appearance on Ellen would be seen only by those who could afford cable TV subscription. Charice describes that moment honestly in many interviews as “(my) mom not knowing who Ellen DeGeneres was” when they received the invitation to guest, and "not knowing who Oprah was" when it was Oprah’s turn to invite.
It therefore seemed incredulous to many who knew of "Ellen" and "Oprah" how someone living very ordinary circumstances would be extended such extra-ordinary requests and be given special treatment especially since it could have been the kind of career break any local producer would wish for the singers they’d have spent fortunes on building up for years. It was also alleged Charice had to sing to the network executives when she got invited to Ellen, perhaps to convince them more that she deserved to fly to America for the first time with their backing.
Imaging a generation, a virtual war map |
If one were to gauge the development of word wars amongst fans in the past four years, the war map was the entire YouTube website, the new battleground of the "masa" (masses) that seemed to have nothing better to do with their spare time—and loose change—than go to the back-alley internet shops and spend idle time heaping praises on their favorites or writing invectives on video pages of singers they despised as was in Charice's case.
Charice had to eventually learn to bear the unsolicited insults from fans of these other female singers especially of comments made on many uploaded videos of her performances on YouTube, a majority of which were user-generated and which she had nothing to do with in the first place.
When videos of hers started becoming more popular, the comments became more rabid to say the least, even if these were written in the street “jejemon” language comprehensible only to her generation at the time, and to a sector of society aimed at by cellphone companies for their “sari-sari” store pre-paid reloading services; the slime slung forthwith and back on these pages could be overwhelming.
Still, Charice seemed publicly oblivious of it all. After all, she had her own platoon of followers to defend her and she had gotten used to rudeness, she’d say.
The online word wars became the equivalent of a similar rivalry a generation ago when Nora was versus Vilma when each of their sets of fans pulled hairs and clawed at each others’ faces inside jeepneys and studio backyard lots. The present generation of the “bakya” crowd of old, those forever shodden in wooden clogs, had moved its venomous action online.
Throughout all this, the Pinoy teens driven to school in chauffeured cars, chilled out in Starbucks and went to front-row concert seats of foreign acts, and the yuppies who landed the right jobs, simply didn’t care. They were too busy fiddling with their new gadgets most of the time. Those who were neither "masa" nor the regular Starbucks habitué were closeted within the comfort of their cubicles pounding away at their computer keyboards or were in the streets screaming their lungs out at institutions clamoring for change.
1 From Spot.ph entry; another reference can be read from its PEP.ph news source here.
2 The Recording Industry at a Glance, PARI, with entry on music piracy (par. 33, line 980);
3 The Business of Making Music, 17 April 2008, PCIJ;
4 State of Piracy in the Philippines, 24 Oct. 2007