I’ve been researching stories that help demonstrate how the Internet has helped people make connections across cultural boundaries… and the ways in which it’s fallen short of its potential to do so. One of the stories that’s fascinated me is the story of how Filipino singer Arnel Pineda became the new lead singer of US rock band, Journey. For those who missed my post earlier this year, or the interview with Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday morning, the story goes like this:
In 2007, Arnel Pineda was singing with his band, The Zoo, in the Hard Rock Café in Makati, one of the cities that make up Manilla. The Zoo played long sets of soft rock ballads, the sorts of songs that topped the charts in the US in the 1970s and 80s. Zoo fan Noel Gomez recorded videos of their performances and posted them to YouTube, where they generated long comment threads from Filipino admirers, amazed by Pineda’s ability to unerringly reproduce the vocal stylings of legendary American balladeers.
While Pineda was already well known in Asia from his performances in Hong Kong and singing contests in the Philippines, You Tube displayed his gifts to a much wider audience. Specifically, he caught the attention of Neil Schoen, the founding guitarist of Journey, one of the bands The Zoo regularly covered.
Journey reached the peak of its popularity in the early 1980s, with a succession of chart-topping hits sung by Steve Perry, whose high, clear tenor gave the band it’s signature sound. Perry left the band for a solo career in 1986, returned for a reunion in 1996 and left the band for good 2007.
Finding a new frontman has been difficult – the songs Perry is remembered for are technically challenging and stretch the vocal range of many talented singers. And Journey’s fans, like those of many classic rock bands, are looking for performances that honor the original recordings, not a novel interpretation of the classics.
So Schoen was two days into a restless perusal of YouTube, watching videos of Journey cover bands, when he discovered Pineda’s uncanny vocal talents. Schoen emailed Gomez, who’d posted the video, and their email exchange – which Pineda initially dismissed as a prank – turned into an invitation to audition for the band. Pineda is now the frontman of Journey on a concert tour through the US, a tour that’s been warmly received by fans, who compare Pineda’s vocals and energy favorably to Perry’s.
I’m interested in the story because it seems like a realization of the highest aspirations some of us had for the internet when it entered the public consciousness in 1994. Here was a space that promised a common ground, a level playing field for people around the world to share their ideas and talents. (Needless to say, it’s never been truly level, as barriers of language, education and access make it likely that many geniuses living in rural Africa will go undiscovered.) The internet hints at a truly globalized world, one where the best person for the job has a chance at it, no matter what her accident of birth; a world where the best idea, invention or performance might win out despite the origins of its author.
I’ve been thinking about using Pineda’s story as a contrast to other, less hopeful videos that show how difficult it is to understand the needs, motivations and worldview of the person on the other side of the screen. For me, the paradigmatic video about disconnection in a connected age is the “Nigerian Dead Parrot Sketch”. In the video, a pair of young Nigerian men perform Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch. They’re performing because they believe they’re auditioning for a drama scholarship – instead they’re performing for the pleasure of Mike Berry, a “scambaiter” who spends his free time responding to 419 scammers, encouraging them to humiliate themselves and posting documentation on his website, 419eater.com. Some consider scambaiting an effective and amusing way to combat internet abuse and attempted fraud. Others wonder whether “some of the more derogatory baits say something about our darker selves, laying bare the divide between white and black, rich and poor, First World and Third?”
In thinking about how to frame a constrast between the videos, the Dead Parrot one struck me as more troublesome. It’s clear that email scams are pervasive and damaging, not just to the people cheated by them but to the economies of African nations, who now have difficulties persuading overseas business partners to enter into legitimate partnerships. While the jocular abuse on sites like 419eater is disturbing, so is the gangsta stance associated with celebrations of 419 in Nigerian culture in songs like “419 State of Mind“. The more I look at the phenomenon of scambaiting, the harder time I have feeling comfortable with the motives of anyone involved with the encounter.
The more I read about Pineda’s story, the more I realize that this story is complicated as well. One aspect I’d never bother to consider was the challenges Pineda might have had in getting a visa to audition in the US. There’s an intriguing forwarded email, posted on Filipino-community blogs like Flipland, evidently authored by a US embassy staffer at the visa section in Manila. The anonymous author tells the story of hearing The Zoo in a Manila club and being amazed by Pineda’s abilities. A week later, the author found himself sitting next to an immigration officer, who turned to him bemusedly, midway through interviewing a “nutjob” who wants to go to America so he can audition for Journey. The author offered to take the case, with some skepticism: “Given the malarkey you get at a Manila NIV window, this story only got points for being original. He produced some flimsy emails and letters, etc.” So he asked Pineda to prove his bonafides by belting out “Wheel in the Sky”. The author closes his story:
I said, “Look sir, there isn’t a person in this Embassy who would believe that story– going to try out for Journey!– not a soul would believe that. Except for me. I saw you sing last Friday and I couldn’t shut up about how your vocals were perfect Steve Perry.
So I tell you what. I’m giving you that visa. You’re going to try out. And you’re going to make it….”
For me, the story is a reminder of how fragile a success like Pineda’s actually is. It isn’t enough to be able to emulate Steve Perry and capture the attention of an eighties guitar god – you’ve also got to survive an encounter with (understandably) skeptical and suspicious US government bureaucrat. Pineda’s good fortune raises the spectre of a Srinivasa Ramanujan never able to leave his clerk’s job the Madras Port Trust office to join G.H. Hardy at Cambridge, helping push the boundaries of number theory.
(Not that Ramanujan’s story is an uncomplicated one, either. His intuitive working methods caused clashes with some of his British colleagues, and the difficulty of maintaining a Hindu vegetarian diet during WWI Britain might have contributed to his early death from hepatic amoebiasis. )
Filipino blogger and journalist Benito “Sunny” Vergara has a provocative and thoughtful set of columns in AsianWeek on Pineda’s improbable story. (Please see “Tongues like Parrots“, “The Man Can Sing Anything”, and “It’s Steve and It’s Not Steve“.) One column focuses on the idea of “plakado”, which Vergara defines as “a compliment given to bands that can unerringly reproduce what is heard on the plaka, or vinyl record.” (In an earlier post, he refers to a longer phrase – “plakadong-plakado”.) This highly accurate mimicry may be related to the popularity of karaoke machines that score performances based on their technical accuracy, their similarity to the recorded version. (If you’ve played “Rock Band”, this experience will be familiar to you.) With truly plakado singers, it’s as if you can close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the original performer. Vergara observes:
This act of closing one’s eyes is important. It signals a kind of erasure of cultural difference: that these Filipino musicians are, in a sense, aurally alienated from the products of their musical labor, so that they act as substitutes or copies of “the real thing.” And part of the pleasure in consumption of this technical mastery is that the audience would open its eyes, as it were, and discover, to its surprise, its music uncannily reproduced by the Third World.
In a later piece, Vergara wonders whether Pineda has to erase his cultural difference (not to mention a difference in age and in experience) to experience his new life:
Do the guys hang out with him after work? What do they talk about — are they all friendly, or are the conversations sometimes awkward? Does he tell them stories about how he was a big Journey fan back in the day? Do the other band members reminisce about Steve, then remember he’s not there anymore?…
Does he feel lonely? Does he get homesick? Does he think about his former bandmates, his family, his people, his homeland, thousands of miles away? Does he get to sneak out, away from the tour bus, and find the nearest Filipino restaurant? Does he get tired of the American food on tour, and long for tapsilog in the mornings?
In other words, is it possible to become “the ultimate Overseas Filipino Worker” without becoming a little – or a lot – less Filipino? A version of the question applies to everyone who’s ever lived and worked within another culture – how does the experience of encountering another culture, living in another world, change you? Are you the same person after the experience? Is the reward – fiscal or otherwise – worth the price?
Commenters on Vergara’s post point out that it’s Pineda’s presence on stage – bold, striding, playful – that is impressing the fans as much as his vocal qualities. They’re not closing their eyes and imagining Steve Perry – they’re reveling in the dislocation of hearing a band sound just like they did 25 years earlier, despite faces full of wrinkles and an energetic Filipino frontman. But I think Vergara’s right to be worried – watching the interview on CBS, Pineda looks nervous… not necessarily unhappy, but clearly still adjusting to the profoundly weird developments in his life.
The internet – more than the telegraph, telephone, radio or television – has the potential to bring the rest of the world closer to us, to help us cross cultural boundaries quickly, casually, accidently. But the human work of bridging cultural distance hasn’t gotten any easier, and it’s still a challenge to understand the world we encounter. We’ve got a long way to go before the internet helps a British scambaiter empathize with a Nigerian spammer, or a Nigerian scam artist with an American victim. Maybe a Filipino balladeer is just the man to lead us as in bridging this disconnect.