Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NOTES ON BAKYA

Having just dusted off an old article on movies, critics, and the bakya crowd, I decided to dust off an even older article on the phenomenon known as bakya. This somewhat dated article was obviously inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” as well as Dwight Macdonald’s essays on masscult and midcult.


Notes on Bakya
Being an Apologia of Sorts for Filipino Masscult.

by Jose F. Lacaba
(Philippines Free Press, January 31, 1970)

LET’S BEGIN with a little quiz. Identify the following:

a) “Mardy”
b) Orasyon na naman
c) Nora Cabaltera Villamayor
d) Pilyo, nguni’t clean fun
e) Ricky Na, Tirso Pa

If you don’t even get one answer right, you are, if not a foreigner, either a hopeless bourgeois or an incurable egghead. But if you guess that (a) “Mardy” is an Eddie Peregrina top tune and the title of one of his movies; (b) Orasyon na naman is the standard opening line of Johnny de Leon’s afternoon radio program, Lundagin Mo, Baby; (c) Nora Cabaltera Villamayor is the real name of Nora Aunor; (d) Pilyo, nguni’t clean fun is the slogan of Pogi; Ricky Na, Tirso Pa is the movie that brings together for the first time those real-life first cousins, Ricky Belmonte and Tirso Cruz III, congratulations: you are true connoisseur of bakya.

Bakya, in case you don’t know, literally means the wooden slippers worn in lieu of shoes by the poor in the barrios. The meaning of the word has so expanded that bakya is now also a description of a style and a sensibility--the style of popular culture, the sensibility of what Dwight Macdonald derisively labels “masscult.” Thus, bakya now means anything that is cheap, gauche, naive, provincial, and terribly popular; and in this sense it is used more as an adjective than as a noun.

The term bakya crowd came first. Director Lamberto V. Avellana is said to have coined the phrase in his rage against an audience that failed, or refused, to appreciate his award-winning movies. For a long time after that, bakya crowd was the shibboleth on the lips of every movie director who cranked out low-budget quickies for mass consumption. They were not to blame if their works could not be classified as art, the directors said; their audience was made up of morons indifferent, if not entirely hostile, to “prestige” or “quality” pictures. The bakya crowd became the favorite whipping boy of those critics who, while shying away from Tagalog movies as a rule, never ceased to bewail the absence of Tagalog movies that could compare with wholesome Hollywood hokum like Ten Commandments and Sound of Music.

That the so-called bakya crowd could recognize excellence if it was presented to them on their own terms, in movies without pretensions to “prestige,” became apparent with the popularity of the Joseph Estrada proletarian potboilers. The advent of bomba carried the bakya crowd even farther. The bomba phenomenon may be seen in two ways: as a symptom of decaying morals or, because it implies adult entertainment, as a sign of growing up. The very words are significant; from the bakya, symbol of the backward barrio, to the bomba, symbol of 20th-century power, was a long way to go, and the distance seemed to indicate that the bakya crowd was on the way out.

Then, toward the late ’60s, along came the word bakya, divorced now from “crowd” and no longer limited to movies. Its use probably began on the campus, particularly of exclusive schools, where naturally the inhabitants heaped additional layers of odium and ridicule on the word.

In its present meaning, bakya is whatever isn’t in with the In Crowd, whatever is non-mod or non-hip. Its antithesis is class, also used as an adjective, meaning classy, stylish, elegant, sophisticated, fashionable, expensive. Tagalog movies in general are bakya, and so are the moviehouses that show them; Hollywood movies are usually class, and suburban theaters like Rizal and New Frontier particularly so. Turo-turo restaurants are utterly bakya; the eating places of the big hotels like Hilton or Savoy are the height of class. The poor man’s idea of elegance in dress--something shiny or frilly or riddled with eyelets for a girl, a single-color scheme (otherwise known as ternong-terno kung magdamit: light-brown shirt, dark-brown pants, light-brown socks, dark-brown shoes) for a boy--is derided as bakya; dressing like an Amboy, or American boy, that is, Esquire-mod or plastic-hippie style, is class. The early Elvis hairdo, a high-rise fluff buttressed by pounds of greasy kid stuff, is bakya, and the way Tom Jones sideburns have been expropriated by the politicians they will probably end up being bakya, too; the 50-peso Iper haircut is definitely class. Pleats and cuffs on trousers if seen today are simply unbelievable, but very tight pants and colorful plaids should be bakya by now; what’s class is the bellbottom and the “straight cut.”

Top tunes are particularly susceptible to the charge of being bakya. In fact, the word is most often used in this context: “Bakyang-bakya naman yang kinakanta mo.” What’s bakya is usually the new syrupy ballad which sounds as if it had been written for Neil Sedaka or Joni James: “I Only Live To Love You,” “One Day Soon,” “It Hurts To Say Goodbye,” all Eddie Peregrina hits. There are some songs, however, that start out as the exclusive property of the In Crowd but become bakya by getting to be too popular; e.g., the Beatles’ “Obladi-Oblada” and Sinatra’s “My Way.” (The great performers are like Shakespeare; their appeal extends from the eggheads to the groundlings.) American folk songs, Bob Dylan, the Doors, by having a limited appeal, are indubitably class.

Bakya, then, suggests the class distinctions in Philippine society, and class here is used in its ordinary English sense. It’s usually what the urban and rural poor enjoy, embrace, support, and idolize which falls under the category of bakya. It is usually the upper classes who employ the epithet with a sneer, with condescension, with a tremendous feeling of superiority. The class distinctions are suggested in the joke: “Class nga, low class naman.”

This feeling of superiority manifests itself in the many jokes about a bakya idol, Ricky Belmonte. Practically all these Ricky Belmonte jokes--called belmontisms in certain quarters--involve malapropism or Filipino English; and probably 99 per cent of them are apocryphal, made up by the kind of people who use Tagalog only with the maids. Since many belmontisms have seen print without a word of protest from Belmonte, a few samples here would do no harm.

The supposed Ricky Belmonte on seeing the chandeliers at the Cultural Center: “Wow , what beautiful chamberlains!” To a fan: “Would you like my mimeograph?” To a waiter in a crowded, smoke-filled restaurant: “Please open the door. I’m getting sophisticated.” On being offered a glass of wine, after a companion has replied, I’m afraid not: “Me, I’m not afraid.” At the dinner table: “Please pass the salt. My hands cannot arrive.” On seeing a black cat pass by: “That’s a bad ointment.” After singing a song that has met with appreciative applause: “Thanks for the clap.”

Remember the joke about Ramon Magsaysay? Told that high prices were due to the law of supply and demand, he is supposed to have ordered: “Repeal that law!” And there is the story about Joseph Estrada when, as mayor of San Juan, he raided a monte joint. In warning the operators of the joint, he is said to have solemnly declared, meaning to say he meant business, “I mean monkey business.” Belmonte should find consolation in the thought that he is not the only bakya idol whose knowledge of English has been mocked. Indeed, his brand of English, which local linguists will recognize as a species of Filipino English, may be one reason his bakya fans take to him. They speak the same language; they understand him; they identify with him; they can see themselves in him. They are not bothered by belmontisms, just as they couldn’t care less if Eddie Peregrina commits tautology when he sings, in “Mardy”: “Though I can’t but I have to forget you.” Of course, they are also willing to accept a perfumed accent and reasonably correct grammar: Helen Gamboa and Jeanne Young are stars. The noteworthy thing here is that the bakya does not put such a high premium on perfect English--there are things that are important beyond all that fiddle.

This brings up another quality of bakya: the preference for things native. The imported is never bakya (though perhaps Italian westerns and Chinese swordsman epics are perilously close to it); the local often is. Colonial mentality is not necessarily involved here, since many items in the bakya canon are slavish imitations of foreign fads and heroes. There is no way of telling which is more colonially minded, the audience of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the audience of Omar Cassidy and the Sandalyas Kid; the bakya crowd is more likely to go for Chiquito in Che-Charon than for Omar Sharif in Che, but that does not make the bakya crowd more nationalistic. Still, the fact is that the sensibility here called bakya tends to favor something which is one’s own, though it be ersatz, and to reject something entirely alien, though it be the original. Kapitan Kidlat may be just a little brown Captain Marvel and Darna nothing more than a xerox copy of Wonder Woman, but at least they speak a native tongue, they fly over nipa huts and bamboo groves. In this sense, it is not wrong to say that, however fantastic they may be, however remote from reality, Kapitan Kidlat, Darna, and other such bakya figures are closer to the Philippine experience than anything directly obtained from abroad. The image of the Filipino can still be, somehow, discerned in the distortions of our local cowboys, samurais, and secret agents.

Curiously enough, recognition abroad can change the status of bakya. The Reycard Duet was the quintessence of bakya when it was still appearing at the Clover, but after Rey and Carding returned from Las Vegas, complete with endorsements from Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr., they became good enough for the Hilton, though they had not changed one bit in style or repertoire. On things local, the taste of the In Crowd lags behind that of the bakya crowd, which is quick to recognize and support native talent. The bakya crowd, however, might in the end not enjoy the fruits of what it has nourished. When the rich take up the heroes of the poor, they become too expensive for the poor to appreciate.

The class distinctions exposed by the word bakya point to another truth, and it’s this: bakya is a social condition--the condition of the majority of Filipinos. To be poor is to be bakya; what sociologists call cultural deprivation brings about the bad taste of masscult. It is the children of the proletariat and the peasantry who buy the postcard-size photographs of Vilma Santos and Edgar Mortiz from the improvised stands on the sidewalks of Quiapo; the children of the privileged, in the exercise of “good taste,” get their giant posters of David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave from bookshops or fancy boutiques where Charlie Brown T-shirts are also sold. And the difference between these two species of picture collectors is simply money, its abundance and its absence. To make fun of the devotees of bakya is therefore to make fun of poverty--the poverty that deprives a person of the financial and educational resources needed to free himself from the bondage of bad taste.

It may be argued that many who have acquired the necessary money--the noveau riche, the parvenu--do not cease to be purveyors of bad taste, remain bakya at heart. True enough. But even if at heart they are really bakya, in appearance they are not. A Mustang and a Pierre Cardin shirt and a speech-clinic accent have magical properties: they confer an aura of class and remove the stigma of bakya, and unless their possessors spout belmontisms like “No more rice, thank you--I’m fed up,” they can easily join the In Crowd in the society page-columns. Then they can afford to be snobbish and supercilious; they too can sneer with impunity at the culture of the bakya.

This alone should put us on our guard. For clearly it is not the true artists and intellectuals who mock bakya culture; they usually have great tolerance (and sometimes even genuine affection) for it. But the mockers are themselves strangers to true culture, and if they despise Ricky Na, Tirso Pa, it is not because they prefer movies by Godard; if they turn their backs on Tagalog komiks, it is not because they would rather read Finnegans Wake. As a matter of fact, they are hostile to true art as they are to bakya.

Leslie Fiedler, in a disquisition on comic books, makes a point that applies to our subject:

“The problem posed by popular culture is finally, then, a problem of class distinction in a democratic society. What is at stake is the refusal of cultural equality by a large part of the population. It is misleading to think of popular culture as the product of a conspiracy of profiteers against the rest of us. This venerable notion of an eternally oppressed and deprived but innocent people is precisely what the rise of mass culture challenges. Much of what upper-class egalitarians dreamed for him, the ordinary man does not want--especially literacy…

“The middlebrow reacts with equal fury to an art that baffles his understanding and to one which refuses to aspire to his level. The first reminds him that he has not yet, after all, arrived (and indeed, may never make it); the second suggests to him a condition to which he might easily relapse, one perhaps that might have made him happier with less effort (and here exacerbated puritanism is joined to baffled egalitarianism)--even suggests what his state may appear like to those a notch above. Since he cannot on his own terms explain to himself why anyone should choose any level but the highest (that is, his own), the failure of the vulgar seems to him the product of mere ignorance and laziness--a crime! And the rejection by the advanced artist of his canons strikes him as a finicking excess, a pointless and unforgivable snobbism. Both, that is, suggest the intolerable notion of a hierarchy of values, the possibility of cultural classes in a democratic state; and before this, puzzled and enraged, he can only call a cop. The fear of the vulgar is the obverse of the fear of excellence, and both are aspects of the fear of difference: symptoms of a drive for conformity on the level of the timid, sentimental, and mindless-bodiless genteel.”

The connoisseurs of bakya, if they are at all aware of their bakya-ness, need not be ashamed of their affections. One thing they can do if they would proclaim their difference, if they would take pride in being outsiders to the exclusivist culture of the In Crowd, is to use a term of reproach, bakya, as a badge of honor--the way their forebears used the word Indio.


Postscript, 2008: The Ricky Belmonte jokes of the late 1960s would later resurface as Alma Moreno jokes, Melanie Marquez jokes, and Erap jokes. Erap would use those jokes to his own advantage, even publishing an entire collection of them during his campaign for the presidency. I have no doubt at all that those jokes helped him become President Joseph Estrada.

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