Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sound Advice: Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love

Not since the Manic Street Preachers announced that their 1998 album This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours would be inspired by the Spanish Civil War has a concept album taken on such an unorthodox subject. The announcement in 2006 that Talking Heads’ David Byrne would collaborate with Norman Cook (AKA Fatboy Slim) on an experimental rock/dance musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos was met with raised eyebrows. After all, would a rock album featuring an all-guest vocalist album made up of mostly Brits, based on the life of a notorious political dictator’s flamboyant wife, living in a former Spanish colony,  work? 

[Cue to the Blogger’s iPod shuffling to Evita. You win, Steve Jobs.]

The Blogger was born and raised in the Philippines, during the latter years of the Marcos regime. Even at a young age, the Blogger received an extremely colourful political education and witnessed the populist “People Power” uprising following the 1986 elections that swept Corazon Aquino to power and drove the Marcos family out of the country. Through it all, no matter how complicated the machinations of power worked feverishly to create history, just about everyone did focus on the colourful First Lady Imelda Marcos, her flamboyant life, outrageous manner, and of course her infamous shoe collection. (The Blogger still gets teased for this every single time he goes shoe shopping. Every time.)

The shoe closet. "Only" 1,060 of them.
Imelda, with her inappropriate predilection for luxury goods when her country was awash in poverty, was so flamboyant that she came to be known simply by only her first name. It signifies her iconic stature, regardless of whether one reveres or ridicules her, that she would need just her first name to let everyone know exactly who she is. Her love of shoes (which no one has ever referred to as a fetish, ever wonder why?) is not just the stuff of legend, but also common knowledge. There is a quote in the shoe department of a local department that has this on the wall:

I did not have 3,000 pairs of shoes. I only had 1,060.” – Imelda Marcos

So much is encapsulated in that one quote. There’s even more in some of her other quotes, showing perhaps just how out of touch with her people she was (and if she wasn't, how she grew to that state):

“Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.”

“Never dress down for the poor. They won't respect you for it. They want their First Lady to look like a million dollars.”

“I hate ugliness. You know I'm allergic to ugliness.”

“People say I'm extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage?”

And my personal favourite:

“Win or lose, we go shopping after the election.”

Despite being quick to dispel the myth and legend surrounding her, Imelda’s reputation and life has been so grandly over the top to the point that the truth, although lesser than the legend in detail, remains larger-than-life that it still teeters close to absurdity. (It’s also absurdly, unintentionally comic.)

Talk of footwear aside, Here Lies Love focuses not so much on the political motivations of the Marcoses, but on the relationship between Imelda Romualdez and the woman who raised her, Estrella Cumpas. This gives an intimate portrait into the humble beginnings of a spectacular, unique life that reaches grandeur, endures humiliation and still continues to this day. The album, a “song cycle” as indicated on its sleeve, charts an impoverished childhood where her home was literally in the shadow of Malacañang Palace (“Every Drop of Rain”), the presidential residence where she would one day reside. Her luck and life take a change for the better when she becomes a beauty queen (“The Rose of Tacloban”), is courted by a dashing young Congressman named Ferdinand Marcos (“Eleven Days”) and marries him (“When She Passed By”). The song cycle continues through her days as a well-to-do politician’s wife (“Ladies in Blue”), the emerging political unrest ("Solano Avenue"), and finally to the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1972 (“Order 1081”).  Some of these songs are structured as duets between the two women, and they give a call-and-answer nature that reflects their evolving views and priorities. It's like an ongoing conversation in song. Estrella strives to keep Imelda in check, but even though they ultimately lost touch, Estrella never lost sight of Imelda. 
Florence Welch, who sings the title track

Here Lies Love stars a dizzying galaxy of (mostly female) singers including Florence Welch, Cyndi Lauper, Sharon Jones, Kate Pierson, Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Sia, Róisín Murphy and Martha Wainwright. Each takes her turn as either Imelda and / or Estrella, and everyone is in glorious vocal form. The occasional male voice, meant to stand in for Ferdinand Marcos, is provided by Byrne himself and by Steve Earle. 

The title derives from a proclamation from Imelda herself who, in the much-discussed (and not entirely flattering) 2004 documentary Imelda, declares that this would be the inscription she would like on her tombstone when she is buried next to her husband’s embalmed corpse. Even in death, Imelda understands the importance of spectacle and giving a sense of occasion. It’s no wonder she idolized Eva Perón, and it’s no accident that this album shares more than a few similarities with Evita. (She was also derided, but some arguably justifiably, as the twentieth century’s Marie Antoinette, although she got to keep her head.)

The album first premiered in 2006 at the Adelaide Bank Festival of the Arts and was performed in Carnegie Hall in 2007, although no live performances were recorded or issued. Despite news of the concept album first reaching public ears in 2006, no commercial recording was made available until April 2010, a full four years after its initial premiere. 

Byrne, left, and Cook, right
Political history aside, the album neither deifies Imelda nor does it vilify her. Its narrative conceit hews closely to the Evita formula, as it’s told from the point of view of its protagonist and from an omniscient narrator based on a real-life counterpart. Estrella is to this album what Che (Guevara) was to Evita: its political conscience, and its espresso during the hangover. She’s the only one who can see how vulnerable Imelda truly is, whether the First Lady intended to or not.

It’s a shame that Here Lies Love has not received the attention it has deserved, although numerous critics named the album one of 2010’s very best records. Perhaps what it needs is a savvy Broadway producer to make it into a musical. Don’t scoff: Eva Perón didn’t enter the public consciousness until Andrew Lloyd Webber came along. It’s a daring proposition, and a bit over the top, but Imelda Marcos would have expected nothing less.