In Pinoy music criticism, everything is personal

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

Rapper Curtismith’s rendition of old Filipino favorite “Kanlungan” sparked a social media debate on how we take criticism personally — and the reasons why we shouldn’t. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every so often, the glaring dearth of proper music criticism in the Philippines pops up, like the way loneliness hits you after the alcohol subsides. When it does pop up, it’s usually for reasons that remind us why that void exists.

The latest trigger, the reason this is a thing again, is rapper Curtismith and his rendition of the Buklod classic, “Kanlungan.” Performing for the TV5 music program Coke Studio PH, Curtismith raps in the verses, using new, self-penned lyrics, while singing the iconic chorus —“pana-panahon ang pagkakataon, maibabalik ba ang kahapon?” — in a way that can be objectively described as 6 a.m.-videoke bad.

The performance instantly drew flak online, most prominently from Ang Bandang Shirley lead singer Owel Alvero, who had a particularly strong reaction (“Ilang layers of basura puwedeng magkasya sa isang video?”, reads his Facebook post). Curtismith’s cousin and business partner Gio Limjoco responded on Facebook, saying, “If you’re not going to say anything nice or constructive at the very least, tumahimik ka na lang,” among other things. Alvero apologized for his choice of words but didn’t back down on his opinion, which is mainly that Curtismith’s performance sucked. He posted a long explanation on why it bothered him, relating his personal history with the song and how Curtismith’s version clashed with those memories.

The exchange ignited a discussion among musicians and fans alike as it touched on two important issues: support within the local music industry and the question on what constitutes “constructive” criticism. What I find more interesting is the fact that I just quoted heavily from a Facebook exchange to bring up the subject of music criticism in the Philippines. This, to some, may seem like an indictment on legitimate music criticism in the country and how it has somehow devolved into a bunch of social media screeds. But I think it’s an actual solution to the problem. You want honest criticism? Well, here it is, available in countless social media accounts — not monthly, or weekly, or even daily — but literally by the minute. Lester Bangs is alive and he is everywhere.

But let’s take a breath and answer this important question first: What do we mean when we say “criticism”?

There are two definitions of the word, according to the Oxford Dictionary: (1) the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults and mistakes and (2) the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work. In the Philippines, the neutrality of the second definition is largely discarded for the negativity of the first. The few times the word “criticism” is used, it is usually in the form of “criticize” — the verb form of the first definition and not of the second which is “critique.” The latter is hardly ever used, even when referencing a positive opinion; “review” is the much preferred choice. So no one really “critiques” and everyone “criticizes,” which is to say that everyone’s “hating.”

Music is all about feeling. There is math and theory in its DNA, but their existence is an argument against academic criticism, not for it.

This is what happens in a society that was founded on the concept of pakikisama. Our Spanish and American lords taught us that, to succeed, you have to be liked by the right people (i.e., them) — not work hard or do objectively good work. This is deeply ingrained in our oldest institutions, while the newer ones, like our modern artistic communities, were born with these built-in kinks.

So music criticism, in whatever context of the word, is considered personal in this country. This is ostensibly okay because music is often discussed in personal terms; they serve as cues for memories and feelings both active and dormant. These discussions are inherently personal. I just wish musicians wouldn’t take them personally.

I don’t mind the near-absence of a critical tradition in local music, especially now that we’re already building one on social media. I’ve always felt that formal criticism doesn’t provide the ideal language for discussing music. Sure, you can do it, but it does not have the same effect to music that formal criticism has on, say, the state of the novel. You can apply academic concepts to fiction because both traffic in words. But music is all about feeling. There is math and theory in its DNA, but their existence is an argument against academic criticism, not for it. Music is the most abstract of the arts and pointing out its intricacies is just an invitation to drown in the abstractness. What we need is to sail through it.

Music criticism, in whatever context of the word, is considered personal in this country. This is ostensibly okay because music is often discussed in personal terms; they serve as cues for memories and feelings both active and dormant.

Herein lies the beauty of social media “criticism.” You can call a song or performance whatever you want. You can wax nostalgic on how a song lived inside you throughout your life, like what Alvero wrote in his second, more measured post. You can express your thoughts however you like as long as you’re being honest.

Watching Curtismith’s rendition of “Kanlungan,” I noticed that he replaced the song’s specificity with motherhood statements, which is an odd way of interpreting a song known for its intimacy. So I wonder how honest that performance really is. I really don’t know. But if you’re truly comfortable with your truth then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. You can’t take something personally if there was nothing personal in it to begin with.