The (Beauty) Queen and the Cross

A girl playing the role of Queen Helena in a Santacruzan parade for people with disabilities

Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) is a month long Catholic festival held in the Philippines in honour of the Virgin Mary, unsurprisingly during the month of May. It culminates in colourful processions called Santacruzan that are held all over the country, from the smallest villages to the largest shopping malls – processions that display an intriguing mix of the traditional, the religious and the modern, particularly in the way they incorporate a figure that has been a vital part in Philippine national identity – the beauty queen. Continue reading “The (Beauty) Queen and the Cross”

Pop Politics

So the UK wakes (after a long night of swing-o-meter fun) to face the reality of a hung parliament with a Conservative majority. Change has been promised by all of the candidates throughout their election campaigns, but there will be much skepticism as to what can be accomplished in the face of this result, whatever the intentions of those in charge.

In the Philippines meanwhile, voters face a tense weekend as they wait to cast their own votes in the presidential elections on Monday 10th . Here, too, the talk is of change, but election campaigning is a wildly different beast, and popular participation is something the Filipinos haven’t needed televised debates to secure. In fact, talk of policy in general is scarce to invisible, but use of the popular media certainly isn’t – Filipino television is rammed wall-to-wall with colourful adverts for each of the seven presidential candidates. Cameron may have had Gary Barlow on his campaign trail, and Eddy Izzard was on our TV screens supporting Labour, but such efforts seem lazy in comparison to the catchy campaign songs and celebrity endorsements that each presidential advert boasts.

Political Banners
Political banners hang like bunting in the streets

It’s not just the television that is packed with propaganda – everywhere you walk the streets are lined with thousands of equally colourful posters, strung up from houses and telegraph poles like festive bunting, while teams of colour co-ordinated campaigners drive round in brightly painted trucks, singing their candidate’s blaring campaign theme. It’s not just the presidential candidates that have these either – local elections, mayoral elections, and positions for senators and members of congress are all decided on the same day, and each candidate seems to have their own theme tune and team of enthusiastic canvassers to sing it, making the whole process seem entirely incomprehensible.

But the bright banners and pop songs hide a darker side to the Filipino elections and while many are hoping for a change to the corruption endemic to the current government, others are just hoping for a peaceful election. Violence, particularly in the provinces where local family clans vie for power, has come to be closely associated with election time, and already it is reported that 90 people have been killed in connection with the current campaign. Even in Manila there could be trouble if the new computerised voting system doesn’t work as planned – threats of politically organised “brown-outs” – cutting electricity in areas where the vote may go the “wrong way” – are rife, and problems with the memory chips mean that the teachers who will be administrating the polling stations on Monday still don’t know whether votes will be counted electronically or by hand (the latter option could take weeks).

Despite all of this, the expected turnout for the Philippine election is about 80% of the eligible population, and the popular appeal, or perhaps the great desire to see some change, seems to have won through. Even so, most of my friends here don’t hold out much hope for any real difference, with the current leading candidate described only as “the lesser of two evils”. Given the blatant corruption, celebrity culture and family loyalties that seem to characterise Asia’s most active democracy here, suddenly a hung parliament with a Conservative majority doesn’t seem to look so bad…

This Too Shall Pass

Let it go this too shall pass

At the bottom of this post is OK Go’s awesome Rube Goldberg Machine video for their single “This Too Shall Pass”. I’m able to embed it in my blog and share it with any readers because OK Go recently left their former record company EMI in order to self-produce under their own label, Paracadute. EMI don’t allow embedding of videos that feature the music of the artists they represent as it doesn’t generate any revenue for them (YouTube pays a small royalty, but only when people watch the videos on the YouTube site) – this meant that even the band themselves couldn’t post the video on their own website, and that the viral mechanisms that had made their previous videos so popular (see Here It Goes Again and A Million Ways) were unavailable to them. As lead singer Damian Kulash explains, their record company was cutting off its nose to spite its face, because the record industry in general doesn’t understand the basic mechanics of the internet.

The internet has brought a massive step change in the way that consumers interact with markets, and the music industry has been no exception. Never before has there been such diversity or immediacy for consumers, nor such a large community of people who can interact and share information. For music lovers, this has come to represent an opportunity for music to be created and distributed in different and innovative ways, while blogs and social networking sites offer the chance to feel much closer to the musicians who create the music than before. For the record companies and those with a vested interest in intellectual property however, the freedom of exchange that the internet enables has come to represent a deeply problematic forum for users to bypass profit mechanisms, to violate IPR and to establish their own, unregulated distribution networks.

This clash of interests has come to a head in the UK this week, and while the record companies seem to have triumphed, internet users are incredulous at the way these “dinosaurs” seem to refuse to recognise the potential the internet offers for marketing and distribution, preferring instead to cling to outdated ideals and modes of production and to criminalise those who are potential consumers of band merchandise and gig and festival tickets. However the music industry’s resistance to change is by no means unprecedented. Writing about the move towards a market economy in 17th century Europe, economist Robert Heilbroner notes the following example:

“The capitalists of the day face a disturbing challenge that the widening of the market mechanism has inevitably brought in its wake: change.

…the button makers guild raises a cry of outrage; the tailors are beginning to make buttons out of cloth, an unheard of thing. The government, indignant that an innovation should threaten a settled industry, imposes a fine on the cloth button makers. But the wardens of the button guild are not yet satisfied. They demand the right to search people’s homes and wardrobes and fine and even arrest them on the streets if they are seen wearing these subversive goods.”

Robert Heilbroner (2000) The Worldly Philosophers, 7th ed.

It isn’t hard to spot the parallels with the Digital Rights Bill that has been rushed through Parliament this week, and that, among other measures, threatens to cut off internet access for anyone found downloading or sharing copyrighted material. The Bill was passed despite widespread public disapproval, and, according to many MPs and commentators, without adequate time for proper debate or scrutiny. But will this really be a win for the record companies? They may be wiser to take a lesson from the ultimate end of the button makers guild – after all, despite their efforts at the time, people have been wearing cloth buttons for a great many years now without fear of prosecution.

Economists know only too well that change is part and parcel of the way markets work, and even such aggressive resistance from the record companies is likely only to delay the inevitable. Anthropologist Daniel Miller describes in Material Culture and Mass Consumption (2nd ed. 1991) how manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1960s “attempted to construct a highly predictable, homogenized and consistent market, which would allows for longer factory runs and higher profitability”, however this attempt failed in the face of consumer demand for greater diversity of goods, and industrial production was forced to adapt to the trends it had attempted to dictate. The relationship between consumers, producers and demand is by no means clear cut and there is a lot of debate in social theory on this point, but anthropologically demand can be seen as a process of negotiation between the two sides, that is played out in the arena of a fluid and responsive market. If one side tries too hard to maintain the status quo, the negotiation breaks down. The internet provides a solid ground for organising resistance, but so far the demands of the consumers have fallen on deaf ears. However, the internet has also shown itself to be a space where consumers can interact more directly with the producers – the bands and artists who create the music in the first place, and if the record companies refuse to meet them on this ground they could easily write themselves out of the picture altogether.

The UK Government maintains that the Digital Rights Bill is a necessary measure to protect the creative industries from collapse. However, stifling consumer voice is no way to ensure creativity remains possible – quite the opposite – particularly as everyone in this debate seems to agree on the point that good artists and musicians should be able to make a living from their work. Consumer demand for the products of the music industry is stronger than ever, particularly in the face of the hugely effective marketing medium the internet affords, but the demand for a change in the way these products is delivered is just as strong, and this demand will continue to change as the market, the internet and the world continue to develop. The record companies need to accept that change is integral to the way a capitalist economy works, and that like everyone else in the world they will need to adapt and keep on adapting to survive, because, at the end of the day, this too shall pass.

The Reunion Dilemma

High School
At High School in 1999

If you’ve ever watched a teen movie in the last twenty years, you’ll know the drill. There are the popular kids, and there are the geek kids. That’s the way high school works. The geek kids have bad haircuts, worse glasses and shapeless, unattractive clothes. They like books more than people, maths more than snogging, and none of the popular kids would ever dream of wanting to date them. Then, just towards the end of the film there is a turning point. A transformation. A girl who was one of the geek kids takes off her glasses, gets a trendy haircut and appears in a beautifully stylish dress that shows off the amazing body that the shapeless slogan t-shirts have been hiding all along. She turns up at the party and no one recognizes her, and everyone wants to date her. When they find out who it is, the popular kids feel sheepish, get their come-uppance and the geek girl lives happily ever after with some popular guy who turns out not to have been so shallow after all.

Christmas Party
At a Christmas fancy dress party, 2002

Much as I hate to concede weakness in the face of effective marketing, I have to admit that as a shy young geek girl, this fantasy had a bit of a hold over me. I had a string of terrible haircuts, awful NHS glasses and clothing that belonged in another era, and I often dreamt of the day that I’d turn up to the party as a hot, successful young woman who no one would recognise. Well, ten years after I left high school, it appears that my time has finally arrived. I look at old photos and I barely recognise myself, I’ve become confident, outgoing and adventurous, and tomorrow some of my old classmates have organised a high school reunion. There may never be a better chance to live out my classic teen movie fantasy in real life. And yet… I hesitate. Because now I’ve made it here, I’m not that sure that I actually want to go.

At a wedding in 2009

My actual friends from high school who I might want to see – those who could have been stereotyped as “the other geek kids” – seem to be sensibly steering clear. But in the teen fantasy they wouldn’t be important of course – after the transformational moment they usually appear as an afterthought, if at all. The real irony is, that having completed my “transformation”, I’m not much less a geek than I was before. I may look different, and I may be more sociable and confident than at school, but the upshot of all that is I’ve just reached the point where I really couldn’t care less what the old so-called “popular kids” think of me anymore. The fantasy seems to only work as long as it’s never played out, because once it is, its banal meaninglessness is shamelessly exposed and you start to wonder what on earth you might have in common with the people that you barely spoke to when you were all actually at high school. And after all, who needs real reunions when Facebook exists to tell you every tiny thing everyone you once knew has been doing for the last ten years…?