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My Way or the Highway

New America Media, Blog, Rene Ciria-Cruz Posted: Mar 05, 2010

Always read official Philippine government statements with a measure of skepticism. Theyre always hiding or spinning something. Take their triumphant announcement that government troops ambushed and killed Albader Parad, chief of the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terror group. Hogwash.

According to reliable sources, there wasnt a gun battle at all. Instead, Parad was shot by one of his own men for singing Frank Sinatras My Way the wrong way. The notorious terrorist leader may have taken the campfire karaoke mic and launched into And now, the end is near... on the wrong pitch, and that was the end of him. Mind you, I didnt want to believe this inside information, but a recent article in the venerable New York Times turned my head around. The NY Times article reported that in the Philippines, you could get killed for singing Frank Sinatras My Way in a karaoke bar.

The prestigious newspaper didnt offer any statistics on how many bad Filipino balladeers have perished while mangling Sinatras classic. But the story raises intriguing questions. Could you butcher, say, Tom Jones Delilah and end up with a bad haircut? Or could you find yourself charged with sodomy, like Malaysian oppositionist Anwar Ibrahim, by giving a terrible rendition of Love Hurts? No one is sure. But croon My Way in a Filipino karaoke only at your own risk. Its like daring to eat fugu sashimi, the deadly puffer fish in Japan.

But why would a simple musical transgression drive Filipinos to homicidal outbursts? Why do we become criminally violent over a song, and yet wed fall on our knees and solemnly pray rather than take up arms against an abusive dictator? (Was it because Marcos, despite what we thought of his rule, could chirp Ilocano folksongs and Imelda could render Feelings with so much, well, feeling that we gave them a pass at a violent end?)

Some say its the song, not the singer; that My Way is way too arrogant, with too much rugged individualism for a society of conformists. I dont think so. I believe that Filipinos would kill for My Way because were truly offended by bad singers. Make that terrible singers who have no clue how bad they really are. Were simply a nation of song connoisseurs.

Appreciation for good singing is by now encoded in the Filipino genome; its part our evolved, if you may, national character. From the cradle to the wheelchair, Filipinos are programmed into thinking that singing ability is the ultimate measure of talent. So, you can paint the next Starry Night, so what? But can you sing? Manny Pacquiao knocks out all his opponents, but since he can croon Lady, he must be really special.

Filipinos' vocal training starts early. Relatives are visiting? Why get that two-year-old to belt out I Will Always Love You to show how gifted the kid is. We have amateur singing contests galore. Every town fiesta has one. The impromptu vocal solo is an unofficial part of our public school regimen. Good students mustnt only do well in recitation, but they also must be able to wail You Light Up My Life in front of the class at the teachers behest. All this isnt bad either; dont get me wrong. Singing is probably the cheapest source of entertainment and the most accessible art form. It has been the way out of obscurity or poverty for many a big time Filipino star. The Philippines broke into the world entertainment limelight with Lea Salongas pipes in Miss Saigon. Many of Filipino overseas foreign workers brighten Asian or Middle Eastern hotel bars because no comparable westernized local talent can be found. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, Filipinos' love of singing has fused with another obsession--politics as we know it. Like singing, politics is in our blood. Apart from singing, our schools also taught us that leadership means running for office and winning. What you do in office is beside the point. Just win any seat--sergeant-at-arms or hall monitor, it doesnt matter. If you ask me, this twin fetish has only led to irritating results. For example, does that new president of the Filipino American dental association really have to cap his swearing-in with a rendition of Smile?

And now that election campaign season is in full swing in the Philippines, theres the spectacle of presidential and senatorial hopefuls pandering to their rally crowds with impromptu warbling--on top of their empty promises--which actually goes over well. Theres nothing in the Philippine Constitution that says all candidates for public office (and their spouses) must be able to sing. But we might as well include said ability as a requirement. After all, Nero had to know how to play the fiddle in order to have done so while Rome burned. Besides, despite the Philippines monumental problems, you wont get the Filipino electorate to turn rebelliously and violently angry with traditional politicians, because the truth is, many of them arent bad singers at all. If only theyd mangle My Way to a man history would be made.

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