Mean Imelda Blues

Here Lies Love will play off-Broadway next year.  Written by David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Fatboy Slim, the musical is a take on the life of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of The Philippines.  The songs, drawn from the 2010 concept album of the same name, generally reflect Imelda’s penchant for clubbing.  Vocals are clearly intended for the stage and are delivered by the likes of Florence Welch (Florence and the Machine), Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Filipino jazz singer Charmaine Clamor, Sharon Jones, Kate Pierson (the B-52s) and others.

It is a far cry from my cup of tea.  But the idea is interesting, and it gives me a pretext for writing about the Philippines.  Given I don’t like David Byrne’s songs, I’ll go with Elvis Presley’s ‘Mean Woman Blues’ to accompany this post.  I think it’s quite fitting, as long as you take mean to be nasty or callous, not tight with money (which she definitely is not).

Famous for being a beauty queen and for her gargantuan shoe collection, in many respects Imelda Marcos is a grotesque figure.  Although many have drawn parallels between Imelda and Eva Peron (aka Evita), Imelda’s origins were far from humble.  In fact her father was a law professor from a prominent, wealthy family.  Imelda’s mother died when she was nine years old.  After finishing an education degree in Tacloban she moved to Manila where she worked in music stores and gave singing performances.  She married Ferdinand Marcos in 1953.  He was elected President 12 years later.

On 23 September 1972 Marcos declared martial law in response to violence led by the New People’s Army, an alliance between Communists young and old in the forms of the Communist Party of the Philippines (a group of young Communists who had split from the more established Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) in 1968) and the Huks – the Hukbalahap, a peasant army set up by the PKP, initially to resist Japanese occupation.  The US supported the martial law declaration, keen for stability on their military bases.

During the protracted period of martial law Ferdinand suspended the country’s constitution, removed the two-party system and allowed only his own party to operate.  He installed Imelda in a number of important government positions, including as a Minister and a Special Envoy.  In the latter capacity she visited China, the Soviet Union, Cuba and a number of states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  She later justified the exorbitant costs she racked up during this period – in which she was said to indulge in five million dollar shopping trips to New York and Rome, among other larger than life extravagances – by pointing to diplomatic successes.  For instance she was involved in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement – brokered by then Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi – which lay the groundwork for (as yet still elusive) peace in the country’s Islamic south.  

In February 1986 Ferdinand faced increasing pressure and called a snap election.  The election was contested by Corazon Aquino, widow of  Benigno Aquino, Marcos’ main political rival until he was assassinated in 1983 (and Mother of current President Bengino Aquino III).  The election’s aftermath was messy.  Marcos refused to accept Aquino’s victory.  An attempted military coup failed.  Then on February 24 a number of Manila police and air force members defected.  Ronald Reagan withdrew US support.  Ferdinand and Imelda fled to Hawaii and Aquino was sworn in as President of a provisional government.

Ferdinand died in exile in 1989.  Imelda was acquitted of racketeering and fraud charges in the US in 1990.  She still faces charges in the Philippines and the source of the Marcos’ vast wealth remains under investigation.  Imelda has been engaged in Filipino politics since 1992 when she finished fifth in the Presidential race.  She was elected to Congress in 1995, serving until her term expired in 1998.  In 2010 she was again elected to the Filipino House of Representatives (in a seat previously held by her son Ferdinand Jr) vowing to clear her late husband’s name.


Peter Garrett: Best of Both Worlds?

Note: there is probably nothing new in this post for Australian readers.

In my last post I hailed M.I.A. for the relative subtlety of her political message which was embedded in, but did not overpower, its medium.  Not all overtly political music is necessarily cringe-worthy though.  Case in point: the grand-daddies of hyper-political music in Australia, Midnight Oil.

Formed in Sydney in 1976, Midnight Oil hit the big time with their 1983 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.  At least three of the songs from that album alone are etched on the Australian psyche: the anti-war anthem ‘Short Memory’, the subversive challenge to the bipartisan pillar of Australian foreign policy that was  ‘US Forces’ (the album was also the band’s first American release) and the pièce de résistance: ‘Power and the Passion’.

Despite the strength of their messages, the music is rarely drowned out.  Neither is it hand-clappy protest music.  It is harsh, direct and engaging.  The music moreover more than matches the content for radicalism.  ‘Power and the Passion’ is a perfect example.  How many other top ten hits contain both a drum solo and a brass outro?

The band’s other great album Diesel and Dust (1987) followed a six-week tour of remote Australia.  The album went platinum in the United States and seven-times platinum in Australia.  It contains the now iconic ‘Beds Are Burning’.  You don’t need me to offer an interpretation.

But Midnight Oil are not only interesting for this blog because their music was political.  Lead singer Peter Garrett is (at least from an Australian perspective) the musician politician.  He joined the left-er of Australia’s two major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 2004, two years after Midnight Oil disbanded.  He was elected to the lower house that year and has been an MP ever since.

Garrett has always been a larger than life character, all limbs, bald head and that unique and much-ridiculed dance style.  In 1984 Garrett ran for the Senate as the lead on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket.  He polled respectably but failed to gain a seat because the ALP directed its preferences elsewhere.

Labor won government in 2007 and Garrett was rewarded with a Ministry and his dream portfolios of the environment and arts.  In early 2010 he was made the fall-guy (probably unfairly) for a failed home insulation subsidy scheme and stripped of parts of the environment portfolio.  Following the most recent election he was moved to the education portfolio and made a member of the Cabinet.

Garrett has been pretty upfront about the fact that he has had to moderate his views to be a viable member of the ALP.  He has been mocked by the other side of politics, parodied in the media and disowned by many fans.  You only have to look at the comments on some of these YouTube clips to see the deep dismay of many at what is perceived as one of the most dramatic instances of ‘selling out’ ever.  With the recent successes of the Green Party at the federal level – they are a junior partner in the current ruling coalition and hold the balance of power in the upper house – I wonder if he regrets the scale of his compromise back in 2004.  On current polls Labor will be dumped at the next federal election to be held some time before the end of 2013.

In 2009 the Oils reformed to play a concert to raise money for victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires.  Before that televised stadium gig they played two warm up shows in Canberra.  I caught the second.  Apart from the novelty of seeing a Minister dancing maniacally, they were really, really good.  Garrett was clearly enjoying himself (see below clip) and commented on how much better it was than his day job.  The crowd was ecstatic (although crowds are always good in Canberra – we’re just so grateful when someone includes us!)  Thankfully they did not self-censor: ‘US Forces’ was a particular highlight.

Bangin on the Dashboard in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the news this week after an official stated the country would not provide support to female nationals hoping to compete in the impending London Olympic Games. The statement came just weeks after a Saudi prince claimed women could represent the country at the Games.

These controversies are the latest in what has become a series of mixed messages on issues to do with women emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last 12 or so months.  Last September the country’s King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud announced that women would not only be able to vote, but also that they could run, in municipal elections.  He also announced that they would no longer be excluded from appointment to the country’s unicameral consultative council, the Majlis Ash-Shura (the King appoints the Shura’s 150 members).

In the same month, King Abdullah overturned a sentence of ten lashes given to a woman found guilty of driving.  Although quashing the sentence sent one message, the fact that there was a sentence in the first place was in itself a conflicting message: far from a routine occurrence, it was in fact the first time such a penalty had been given.  Officially, there is no law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia.  Driving without a locally issued license is however illegal and such licenses are not issued to women.  As a result female drivers are routinely arrested (though not previously given court-ordered reprimands).

The Women to Drive movement was born in 1990 when dozens of women drove through the Saudi capital Riyadh to protest the ban.  The women were imprisoned for a day, some had their passports confiscated and some lost their jobs.

In 2011 the campaign was revived on Facebook.  The Facebook campaign called for women to begin driving on 17 June.  A number of women commenced driving before that date and at least three were consequently detained for short periods.  On 17 June somewhere between 30 and 50 women took to their steering wheels.  It is believed police were instructed against arresting women drivers that day.  There were however a number of arrests in the following weeks.

Described as a statement of solidarity with Women to Drive, M.I.A.’s song and video for ‘Bad Girls’ was released in January this year (a shortened version of the song had appeared previously on Vicki Leekx, a 2010 online mixtape).


The song and video are together an apt anthem for the movement, and they have certainly gained it more exposure.  Musically, Arabic motifs are prominent.  The lyrics are full of bravado, fatalism and car references.  M.I.A.’s vocal delivery is typically deadpan and threatening.

Filmed in Morocco, the video fetishises cars and puts women centre stage in the normally male domain of drag racing.  This is all set against a classically Arabian backdrop of desert and keffiyeh (Arabic male headdress).  The video appropriates referents of male power – cars, guns, aggressive sexuality – for women.  The video’s women are confident, but this is not the hyper-sexualised female confidence seen in so many other (particularly hip-hop) videos.

While the men are watching the women perform, their gaze is spectatorial rather than objectifying or controlling.  The men perform occasionally too – both as backup dancers and horsemen.  Although widely applauded for this empowerment via appropriation, M.I.A. has also been criticised for cultural appropriation and for falling into Arab stereotypes.

I love this song (and video) because 1) it is quality stuff, 2) it is really, really cool and 3) it is socially/politically powerful without banging anyone over the head or resorting preaching.  That a song (or anything else) can be culturally exciting (aka cool), enjoyable and have political/moral force is easy to forget.  All too often politically engaged artists sacrifice the quality of their medium when they want to convey a serious message.  Not only is that a shame on a creative level, but it is also ineffective from a political standpoint – people are rarely receptive to shrill sermonising.  M.I.A. reminds us how it’s done.

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