Are you sick of hearing about this record yet? I suspect that you are, but I listen to this record a lot, so it comes up a lot. Also, it’s a really long album, it’s 22 songs and maybe it kind of runs together if you’re not following the storyline, and a lot of the singers sound the same. But let me just say that this is one of the standout songs from Here Lies Love, and the only one that was released as a single. The singer is Santigold. The video is an official one and matches the lyrics of the song, featuring footage of protagonist Imelda Marcos mixing it up with various heads of state. Marcos was a glamorous woman with a taste for princess dresses with huge sleeves; it appears that she was charming, popular and well liked on the political circuit. Unfortunately, her husband was a corrupt tyrant who put his poverty-wracked country under martial law and embezzled state funds to support his family’s love of luxury. David Byrne suggests here that Imelda’s aggressively fashionable image was an attempt to put forward a pretty face so world wouldn’t look down on the Philippines as a backwards third world country.
How did Steve Earle get this honor? On David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, Earle is the only male guest vocalist. I can’t argue with the choice; Earle provides exactly the right shot of smarmy masculinity singing the part of the scheming Ferdinand Marcos. I’m just curious about the connection between the eggheads David Byrne and Norman Cook, and Earle, an old-school country singer from Texas. They don’t seem like they would be orbiting in the same circles, so to speak. Granted, Byrne is famous for having esoteric tastes, and an ear for diverse talents, but I don’t recall him ever trying to collaborate with the kind of songwriters who sing about making moonshine. In fact, Byrne’s been known to take a mocking view of the ‘common man’ aesthetic; he once made an entire movie mocking common people. So yeah, I’m curious as to what he and Steve Earle hang out and talk about.
David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories is an exercise in speculative social anthropology. In it Byrne, the quintessential New York art school egghead, ventures into Texas to goggle dryly at how small town folks be living. Not much happens besides some comical vignettes of what Byrne gleaned about midwestern life from reading its newspapers. Whether you find it amusing or condescending depends on whether or not you’re already inclined to view people in the flyover zone as exotic and undercivilized. Obviously, Byrne is not much of film director, nor much of an actor, but he did provide enough music for the film to fill a Talking Heads album. And if he did one thing right, it was casting the eternally scene stealing but not yet well known John Goodman. In the movie’s only cogent storyline, Goodman is a bachelor looking for love (SPOILER: he finds it) and, predictably, steals the film. His performance of People Like Us is the showstopper, and though it may be intended as a pastiche of good ‘ol boy country pride, it’s still moving.
Are you not all up on the history of the Philippines? Especially what went on there in the 1970’s under the rule of Ferdinand Marcos? Well, you need to get caught up. It would greatly help you understand the context of David Byrne’s Here Lies Love. This song, for instance, is about that time in 1972 when President Marcos placed the country under martial law. It may be news to you, but it lasted more than a decade and Filipinos don’t remember those years too fondly. Of course, these are not things you would expect to hear about on a pop record, and of course, only a crazy David Byrne type could ever cook up such a concept. However, please view it as an opportunity to learn more about a period of 20th century history that goes under-reported in the Western educational curriculum. It is a lesson in the frailty of human nature in the face of the corrupting influence of power, and the road to hell being paved with idealistic intentions. Thanks to David Byrne, Fatboy Slim and Natalie Merchant, you can dance to it.
Never run out of Here Lies Love tracks. That album is an epic, which it had to be to cover the true life adventures of Imelda Marcos. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim trimmed no fat, it seems, in setting that story to music. Rounding up close to two dozen star vocalists for the project was above and beyond. This one stars Sia, who is both oddly ubiquitous and oddly anonymous. As a hired gun songwriter and guest vocalist, she’s had a hand in more blockbusting hit singles than I can count, for such mainstream collaborators as Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, David Guetta, Rihanna and it seems like everybody else who’s been in the Top 40 lately. As an autonomous solo musical entity, she’s acclaimed but decidedly on the weird side, with a penchant for cryptic videos and equally cryptic wigs. In between those polar sides, lies a vocal powerhouse.
Egghead record producer meets nerdy neurotic rock star; surreal adventures through space and time ensue. That’s my pitch for the animated sitcom mockumentary of Brian Eno’s friendship with David Byrne. I imagine a lot of time was spent drinking tea and thrift store shopping. And of course, lest we forget, musical history was made. I have come back again and again to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – both here and IRL – and I think the case has been thoroughly made for its significance as an historical document. Besides elevating electronic music in prestige, making the use of samples a legit creative process and other broad strides forward, what they really did – the thing that makes the album so special – was to find strange beauty in the forgotten and the never-ran. I’m fairly sure that The Moving Star Hall Singers of Sea Island, Georgia were not about to change the world and were remembered by no one but themselves when Eno and Byrne recontextualized them for their own purposes. Call it musical upcycling. It’s the creation of an entirely new reality using found bits and pieces of other narratives, other realities, other moods, other contexts.
The irony is strong on this one. This is about as broadly satirical as David Byrne has ever gone. And he’s really found a wealth of targets to skewer. Obviously, the Miss America pageant, that anachronistic institution still quixotically trying to maintain the illusion that conforming to circa 1950’s gender standards is somehow an empowering choice for young ladies. David Byrne is not fooled. But a mere beauty pageant is too easy to make fun of, so it has to stand as a metaphor for… why, America itself, with all of its contradictory allure. It tempts you with its shiny charms, then leaves you, bewildered, with your pants down. Or something. Byrne, not exactly a spring chicken in 1997, is also, on another level, taking on the confusing and confounding world of dating and relationships. What is up with these modern women who don’t care about their reputations and want to be free? Asks the middle aged man who, to be fair, also found those things confounding in 1977 and still did 2007 and most likely will again 2017. What is up with being human and how does one deal with these ‘feelings’? Asks the confused plastic doll man. Byrne, who long ago voiced the suspicion that he might possibly occupy the shallower end of the autistic spectrum, distills his artistic persona into a single image. Neurotic humanoid. And of course, there’s plenty of fun to be had with the imagery of late 90’s MTV culture. That era has finally grown ripe enough – far enough away, that is – to elicit sighs of nostalgia from people of a certain age. (Mine. My age.) Oh god, remember when poorly applied peroxide bleach jobs where a fashionable hairstyle for men? Remember when supermodels were a real thing? Remember when MTV was still somewhat relevant? Remember that this video is a parody! You’re not supposed to feel nostalgic about all of the shitty things in it; David Byrne was totally making fun of the stupid and trashy alternate reality of the MTV video. He didn’t know he was actually documenting the last gasps of a dying culture. Or maybe he did. But despite his best efforts to be above the arms race of staying au courant, Feelings is still a product of its time. I mean, seriously, a Morcheeba collaboration?! WTF, LMFAO, David Byrne, srly!