Here Lies White Ignorance: The Whitewashed Mythology of Imelda Marcos in the Music of David Byrne's "Here Lies Love"
How can white artists and consumers more critically engage with works of art that represent, profit from, and thereby exploit the historical and generational traumas of people and cultures of color?
David Byrne, the white creator of the concept album and musical in question called Here Lies Love, has likely never stopped to consider such a question before. And neither has the affluent English singer Florence Welch, along with the majority-white roster of vocalists who participated in the recording of the concept album at hand.
On Byrne's website, visitors are greeted with a full-page slideshow that reads, in order, "Here Lies Love is a disco musical that tells the story of Imelda Marcos and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines." "Previous runs were staged at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia, Carnegie Hall, Terminal 5, The Public Theater in NYC and The National Theatre in London." "The first album was recorded with guest vocalists for every song." "Then DB released the HLL Cast Album featuring the cast from the first run at The Public Theater."
Although 11 years have passed since the initial release of Here Lies Love in April of 2010, the concept album still reeks heavily of white ignorance and white privilege. The 22 songs on the first recording of Here Lies Love are centered around the life of Imelda Marcos, who is widely known as a Filipino politician and the widow of the long-deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Throughout the traumatic two-decade Martial Law chapter of Philippine history, in which the Marcoses were at the height of their political power from 1965 to 1986, at least 10 billion dollars were stolen from the Central Bank of the Philippines to fund the Marcoses' criminal and political exploits. These billions of dollars were in turn covertly used to fund and finance the Marcoses' overtly luxurious lifestyle. The Marcoses' stolen wealth has remained firmly intact (and largely unreturned to the Filipino people) since the end of their political regime in 1986.
Moreover, countless human rights abuses and violations were enacted during the Martial Law era to silence mass dissent and keep the Marcos presidency intact. In a Rappler article entitled "Stories of death during the Marcos regime," author Amado L. Picardal shares firsthand accounts of the "arrest, torture, and imprisonment" that he and his family members experienced during the Martial Law era. Unfortunately, these accounts of severe human rights violations are only a small fraction of the overarching number of atrocities that took place during the Martial Law era — none of which were duly acknowledged throughout the entire project of Here Lies Love.
Despite the unfathomable consequences of the historical and generational pain and trauma that are inherently (and undeniably) linked to this specific period of Philippine history, Here Lies Love treats the Martial Law period and the criminal life of Imelda Marcos as if both were playgrounds for musical spectacle, white aesthetics, and white creativity. The following selection of songs from Here Lies Love is sufficient to show that the Filipino people who were brutally oppressed during the Martial Law period were among the last on Byrne's mind while he created this concept album that has unfortunately been streamed by millions of people around the world to date.
Imelda Marcos stands in her home amongst her possesions.Lauren Greenfield
In the album's title track, Florence Welch serves as the narrator of a story that she has surely never experienced in her entire life — growing up poor as a young girl in the Philippines. In "Here Lies Love," Welch sings from Imelda's perspective, "When I was a young girl in Leyte, my dresses were all scraps and hand-me-downs." Aside from the base-level absurdity of listening to a white woman singing from the perspective of a would-be dictator and human rights criminal, it feels painful to listen to the way that Welch (with her English accent) botches the pronunciation of the Philippine province Leyte. The remainder of the song builds upon these small yet overt displays of white ignorance, and further exposes the questionable nature of the fact that Byrne felt it was an appropriate decision to hire a white and affluent vocalist to sing about the psychology of aspiring towards wealth and class privilege — specifically from the perspective of a young Filipino girl.
Throughout the second verse, Byrne attempts to humanize Imelda by presenting her as "a simple country girl" who "had a dream" and lived "a stone's throw from the palace." Bryne's lyrics perpetuate the classist "rags-to-riches" narrative that is often used to justify Imelda's desire to attain wealth, luxury, and political power. He does the same in another song on the album entitled "Every Drop of Rain," in which white women singers Candi Payne and St. Vincent perform a duet about childhood poverty from the perspective of young Imelda and her former caretaker Estrella Cumpas.
In a 2010 interview with TIME magazine, Byrne states that he created Here Lies Love because "he'd like listeners to "reluctantly empathize" with his version of Imelda." Byrne claims, "Audiences already have a certain amount of knowledge — it might be just the shoes and the money in the Swiss bank accounts. So I have to let people know what drove her to this, and to see if they can see things from her point of view. Which is not to excuse her, but there are human drives and passions that are played out on a national scale sometimes."
Here, Byrne reductively suggests that a torturous regime marred by death and corruption, specifically at the expense of poor and working-class Filipinos, was simply a result of "human drives and passions played out on a national scale." Only wealthy white artists like Byrne would feel entitled to create such art that attempts to humanize and empathize with historically oppressive figures such as the Marcoses. Not once throughout the entire project of Here Lies Love did Byrne bother to uplift the voices of the Filipino people whose families were killed, or perhaps to center the stories of the Filipino activists who survived the brutal torture methods that were inflicted on those who were openly critical of the regime.
Byrne's decision to approach the history of Martial Law from a detached and whitewashed perspective is nothing short of typical privileged white man behavior. Additionally, one might ask — what might have motivated a white singer like Welch to participate in this project about a corrupt and elite politician like Imelda, perhaps without any concrete awareness of the trauma and history that the Marcoses represent?
In the chorus, Welch repeatedly sings the phrase "Here lies love… here lies love… here lies love." Byrne states that he chose these words for the album title because Imelda "is quoted as wanting [them] inscribed on her grave." The title alone is an apt display of Byrne's conscious decision to focus on the project of mythologizing Imelda as a fraught woman who desired "love" and "beauty" all her life, rather than choosing to present her as the corrupt human rights criminal she is. In the words of writer Luis Francia, "Someone who genuinely loves her country, as Imelda keeps declaring, would never have acted the way she did and does. What I suspect Imelda truly adores, beyond her grandiose sense of self, is the notion of love. Real people, unfortunately, get in the way…"
Imelda Marcos wears a terno in Paris.Agence France-Presse
In the lyrics of "Pretty Face," Byrne continues to paint a deceptively innocent picture of Imelda's facade as a hospitable and charitable First Lady whose primary motivation as a politician was to promote beauty, philanthropy, and the arts. The danger of such an undertaking is that listeners who are largely uninformed about the harsh reality of the Martial Law era — specifically in terms of the extreme trauma that it inflicted (and continues to inflict) upon the Filipino collective consciousness — may very well be misled by Byrne's lyrics into believing that Ferdinand and Imelda were indeed progressive, charitable, and well-intentioned leaders throughout their two-decade regime.
At the beginning of the first verse, the French vocalist Camille sings, "Will you reach into your pockets? / And show us that you care / For the orphans and the farmers / Everyone give their share." These opening lines allude to what journalist Raissa Robles describes as the "supposed charitable foundations [that the Marcoses created] in Liechtenstein and elsewhere, which they then used to open secret bank accounts in Switzerland." In an article entitled "Imelda Marcos verdict shows scheme to earn $200M from Swiss foundations," journalist Lian Buan quotes Associate Justice Maryann Corpus-Mañalac, who stated that "The purpose of setting up these entities [was] definitely not charitable, educational, religious or otherwise in service of public interests." Buan writes that these pseudo-foundations were instead wholly directed towards "the private benefit of the Marcoses and their beneficiaries."
The lyrics of "Pretty Face" contain zero mention of the fact that although the Marcoses have been long confirmed to have amassed billions of stolen wealth from these nonexistent foundations, even decades before the release of the aforementioned verdicts in 2018, they remain largely unscathed and free of the consequences of their crimes to this day. In a TIME magazine interview, Byrne claims that he "researched the Marcos era for a year" before he started writing and composing these songs. Whether or not Byrne's lyrics are meant to be satirical, his lyrics perpetuate the revisionist view of Imelda as a passive First Lady who had absolutely nothing to do with the corruption and human rights violations that were enacted throughout her husband's presidency.
Byrne's undertaking is particularly dangerous for the album's majority-white consumers, who are more than likely to be unaware of who Imelda is, aside from her one-dimensional and caricatural persona as "a charitable First Lady obsessed with beauty, fashion, luxury, and the arts." By choosing to portray Imelda through a revisionist and whitewashed lens, Byrne effectively silences the truth that Imelda was directly responsible for the extreme corruption and human rights violations that ensued throughout her husband's two-decade rule.
Marielle Lucenio: "An activist holds a poster urging the public not to forget the atrocities of martial law during a protest rally in Quezon City on September 21, 2020."Jire Carreon
Why do white artists feel so entitled to present themselves as experts and authoritative voices on the violent and traumatic histories of cultures and communities of color? Moreover, why do they feel creatively called to make a spectacle out of the violence that has historically been inflicted upon marginalized bodies?
On his official Twitter page, Byrne tweeted, "'Order 1081' is the declaration of martial law signed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 — essentially the end of democracy in the Philippines until the Pope came to visit in 1981." He then links a "full music video" to the song in which Natalie Merchant serves as lead vocalist.
While Merchant sings the lyrics "A bomb went off this morning — raining bodies on TV," viewers are presented with a short video clip containing archival footage of Marcos speaking on national television and a wounded Filipino woman seeking medical help on the street. Merchant continues to sing eerily simplistic and journalistic lines such as "They are blaming the insurgents, they are blocking off the streets" alongside more archival footage of Filipinos protesting on the street. The entire music video reads like a detached and whitewashed documentary in which Filipino people and Filipino history are treated as objects of fascination for a largely white audience.
Hearing Merchant sing the words "Now the sunsets are incredible across Manila Bay / You can hear the bombers landing at the U.S. Air Force Base" is enough to make anyone's blood curl — more specifically, anyone with any degree of awareness surrounding the generational trauma that both U.S. imperialism and the Martial Law era have inflicted onto the Philippines, in addition to the never-ending trauma induced by 500 years of Spanish colonial rule. Towards the middle of the song, Merchant even continues to sing lines that perpetuate a white tourist's colonial and stereotypical view of the Philippines, such as "Now we live down by the water in a shack that's made of wood" and "Got to clear away these shanties and these ugly nipa huts."
There doesn't seem to be a solid reason for the existence of this song, other than that white artists are fascinated by any form of history and spectacle that involves the large-scale suffering and trauma of marginalized people. As Luis Francia writes in his article about Here Lies Love entitled "When Disco Was the Soundtrack to Martial Law," "Beyond superficial nods to political events such as the declaration of martial law ("Order 1081") and the imprisonment of Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino ("Seven Years") — the Marcoses' most celebrated political opponent, whose assassination in 1983 eventually led to the demise of the regime — there is no sense of the public and political context that shaped Imelda, a grievous omission that undercuts Here Lies Love's attempt to investigate what as well as who made Imelda what she is."
Thumbnail for a video entitled "David Byrne Discos w/ Imelda Marcos in HERE LIES LOVE."YouTube
Mirroring the same set of questions that Byrne asks of himself as he navigates his primary motivations for creating Here Lies Love, what is the driving force behind white artists who shamelessly use the traumatic history of marginalized people as fodder for their creative work? How might these white artists' creative efforts serve as an attempt to, in Byrne's own words, "make and then remake" the history of people and cultures of color from an oppressive and predominantly whitewashed gaze?
Through an unfortunate array of danceable melodies and clubby disco beats, Byrne reduces into spectacle a deeply traumatic history that has unarguably caused irreversible damage towards the lives and psyches of generations of Filipino people. In Here Lies Love, Byrne unapologetically centers his voice as a privileged white man, along with the voices of the majority-white vocalists whom he inappropriately hired to tell the story of one of the most violent periods of Philippine history. Moreover, by using his far-reaching platform to center the interiority and narratives of Imelda and her co-conspirators, Byrne silences the voices and stories of the poor and working-class Filipino families and student activists whose loved ones were brutally harmed and killed, and who themselves lived to survive the Marcoses' greedy and bloodthirsty regime.
As an affluent and well-known musician who most likely earned thousands (if not millions) of dollars from the public consumption of this project alone, Byrne is simply another addition to the exhausting canon of white artists who have chosen to utilize the trauma and suffering of marginalized people as mere subject matter for their shockingly mediocre and carelessly over-funded creative work.