Where have all the (Pinoy) boy bands gone?
This September, ABS-CBN will be premiering the reality competition show Pinoy Boy Band Superstar. The show is a franchise of Simon Cowell’s La Banda, hosted by Ricky Martin on Univision. Following the format of reality star-making shows, host Billy Crawford (himself a former singing and dancing boy phenom) and judges Vice Ganda, Aga Mulach, and Sandara Park will manufacture a Filipino boy band.
Pinoy Boy Band Superstar hopes to transform a group of undiscovered talents into a Filipino One Direction. It comes hot at the heels of GMA 7’s On the Top, a 2015 reality show that manufactured the boy band Top One Project (T.O.P.). Like On the Top, Pinoy Boy Band Superstar responds to the absence of a popular boy band in the Filipino music industry. Why are there are no dominant boy bands in a nation with a surplus of singers and dancers?
There is a large appetite for boy bands in the Philippines, a country that boasts of a large population of under-25s. In 2015, One Direction added a second date to the Manila leg of their tour. Shortly after, South Korean boy bands Big Bang and Exo held three major concerts in Manila. But the Philippines has always been receptive to boy bands—hostilities between the Beatles (not-really-a-boy-band) and Imelda Marcos notwithstanding. The Jackson 5, Menudo, The New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Hanson, the Jonas Brothers, 5 Seconds of Summer (Australia), and One OK Rock (Japan) have held multiple successful concerts in the capital’s largest venues. Even boy bands no longer at the peak of their international popularity find warm welcomes in Manila. R&B group Boyz II Men made an appearance at the Smart Araneta Coliseum in 2014, long past their 1990s American peak.
It’s surprising that a nation that makes viral sensations of security guards performing karaoke hasn’t produced a popular boy band (a group of singers who sing and dance to choreography on stage) for so long. The Filipino boy bands listed on Wikipedia include Hagibis (formed in 1979, one member deceased), the Apo Hiking Society (formed in the 1960s, disbanded), Neocolours (a bar band), the Gwapings (a group of 90s actors that recorded no songs), and novelty acts such as children’s groups. The list includes some boy bands too, such as 2015’s reality show winners On the Top Project. The majority of the groups that are recognizably boy bands (Harana, Gimme5, 3Logy) were formed by ABS-CBN’s Star Music and GMA-7 in 2015, almost as if the leading entertainment agencies decided to get into the boy band game belatedly. None of these new boy bands have become household names. They are overshadowed by similarly new acts such as Darren Espanto (runner-up to 2015’s edition of The Voice: Kids).
Where have all the (Pinoy) boy bands gone? Why don’t they constitute a larger presence in a music industry with a hungry young audience? Simon Cowell’s television shows and the entirety of South Korea’s influential pop music industry demonstrate that successful pop groups can be manufactured across cultures (best luck to Pinoy Boyband Superstar). But Filipino musical groups possess their own strange histories and sensibilities that are not immediately recognizable as a variation of the boy band template. If Filipino boy bands are slightly different, what are they like?
A Boy Band for Grown Men: The Hagibis
In 2015, the same year that One Direction (oldest member, Louis Payne, then 24) and Big Bang (oldest member T.O.P, then 26) performed in Manila, the Filipino band Hagibis held a series of reunion concerts. The Hagibis of 2015 were composed of original member Sonny Parsons (57) and new (also less young) recruits Carlos Nablula, Pete Gatela, and Joel Ortega. The disparity between Parsons’ age and more common boy band member ages testifies to Hagibis’ surprising resilience. One Direction may be on extended hiatus, but Hagibis survives even if diminished (original member Bernie Fineza died in 2015).
Hagibis’ longevity surprises because the group began as a parody of the already campy Village People. Formed in 1979, the Hagibis were part of a late 1970s and early 1980s musical movement known as the Manila Sound. Manila Sound resembled disco in style, but was linguistically inventive. Manila Sound songs often employed Taglish, and incorporated street language. Hagibis’ songs continue to be part of collective Filipino consciousness. Their songs remain staples of holiday and birthday party performances in Filipino communities, in the same way that the Village People’s “YMCA” remains a global wedding party tradition.
Like the Village People, Sonny Parsons and the other members of the Hagibis performed a campy hypermasculinity. Although they didn’t costume themselves as Native Americans or construction workers, the five original Hagibis borrowed the Village People’s aesthetic. The Hagibis wore moustaches, military-style headgear, and an inordinate amount of leather. On the cover of their album HumaHagibis (1980), the singers stand in line, legs in wide-stance, with their hairy chests and non-six pack abs exposed through their half-shirts or unbuttoned jackets. Their posturing in their dances—which consisted of saluting, pointing, clapping, muscle poses, and marching–was a caricature of macho.
Hagibis borrowed from the Village People, but their lyrics were aggressively heterosexual as if to disown the link between their style and gay subcultures. The Village People’s “Macho Man” (1978) is a disco celebration of masculine fitness and almost frank same-sex desire. “Katawan” [“Body”], the Hagibis’ version of “Macho Man,” is a Manila Sound celebration of masculine enjoyment of feminine bodies. The song justifies the habit of staring at women (“lingon agad ‘pag may babaeng dumaan”). Since the Hagibis are single (“wala kaming mga asawa’t nobya”), they hurt no one by looking. As men, they naturally gravitate towards pretty women (“mahilig kami sa magaganda”) who have nice figures (“katawan ang aming nakikita”). They repeat the same sentiment in “Legs,” although they specify their love of legs.
Other songs are declarations of masculine identity. In “Lalake” [“Man”], the Hagibis say that the same fingers that allow them to make protective fists (“mga daliri ng aming kamao”) can be transformed into loving fingers. Their chests and shoulders soften when confronted with feminine tears. As dutiful “lalake,” they will make sure that women (“babae, kayo’y babae”) will never be oppressed again (“di na kayo maapi”). Their songs were heteronormative and profoundly sexist. In the song “Bintana” [“Window”], the Hagibis literally catalogue different kinds of “chicks” and end with a punchline telling men to “sprint” from women in love.
The first recognizable Filipino boy band did not borrow from the playbooks of the precursors of international boy bands such as the early Beatles, the Monkees, or even the the Jackson 5. Rather than embodying pubescent earnest lovers, they posed as aggressive adult sexual predators. Some of the elements of their performances conform to the template of the boy band as we now know it. Unlike contemporaries Hot Dog and Cinderella, Hagibis sang and danced to choreography without playing instruments on stage. But instead of crooning alternating solos with a harmony in the chorus, the Hagibis sang together (no harmonies) more like a cadre of soldiers in training. They didn’t try to present different personas since they shared an identical macho style.
Hagibis’ appealed to a radically different audience from most boy bands. They did not provoke young female funs into screaming. They sang disco songs that have evolved into comic novelty drinking anthems, most often sung by men in each other’s company. (Most dance performances of “Katawan” on Youtube feature groups of guys whose guy friends hoot and holler to egg them on in the background.) Hagibis’ best song “Ilagay Mo, Kid” [“Put it there, Kid”] is an ode to masculine friendship. The Hagibis may have tried efface the relationship between their musical inspirations and what was then an underground gay subculture. Inadvertently, they still managed to make music by men for men.
Although the music of the Hagibis verges on offensive, it was also deliberately fun and funny party music. The band’s boys-will-be-boys attitude advocated for a sexual liberation of a kind, but was otherwise deliberately apolitical and licentious. Like contemporary Manila Sound band VST and Co (“Awitin Mo, Isasayaw Ko,” “Rock, Baby, Rock”), the Hagibis performed fun pop music. The Manila Sound groups distinguished themselves from the often moralizing folk-rock of Marcos Martial Law era. The Manila Sound movement brought fun and linguistic inventiveness to an emergent music industry that seemed hell-bent on producing only important (and self-important) music.
In 1980, when “Katawan” was released, one of the best-regarded and internationally-acclaimed Filipino musicians was Freddie Aguilar. Aguilar’s “Anak” (1978) admonishes a son who had taken to following his “layaw” [desire, will] poorly despite his parents’ care and wisdom. In 1977, Mike Hanopol of the Juan de la Cruz Band released a popular rock track “Laki sa Layaw” (roughly translated as “Spoiled Child”). The song describes the fate of people who were raised without hardship and permitted to follow their own will or “layaw.” In these Filipino musical retellings of the story of the prodigal son, the singers assumed the personas of disappointed father-figures. Very differently, the Hagibis unapologetically celebrated the absence of control. Mike Hanopol, writer and composer of “Laki sa Layaw,” surprisingly also wrote the Hagibis’ “Katawan.” To borrow from Freud, the Hagibis were allowed played id to Hanopol’s superego.
Women and the Hagibis
In 2016, the Hagibis appeared as guest judges on the show We Love OPM: The Celebrity Sing-Offs. The show, like the X-Factor, features celebrity musicians who train and back teams, although there is a focus on OPM or Original Pilipino Music. In the episode dedicated to the music of the Hagibis, “Katawan” was sung by O Diva. The women of O Diva reinterpreted “Katawan” as a diatribe against boys-being-boys behavior. They open with new lines:
“Kaming mga babae ay sawang-sawa na! Sawang sawa na sa mga lalake!” [“We women are so so fed-up! So fed-up with men!].
One team member raps/yells:
“Kaming mga babae ay sawang-sawa na sa mga lalakeng hindi ma-kontento! At mga pa-asa! Ayaw na namin!” [“we women are so tired of men who are never content! And who feed us false hope! We don’t want it anymore!”].
The singers described wanting to transform the song into a call for men to be more faithful (“Mga lalake! Maging tapat, maging totoo.” [“Hey men! Be more faithful, be true.”]).
Sonny Parsons, more famous now for his advocacy of vigilantism, was bemused. He praised the “girls” for their singing and promised them high scores. But, he also blamed them (and all womanhood) for masculine unfaithfulness. He said:
“ang babae ang imagen ng isang diyosa sa kaisipan at katauhan ng isang lalaki” (“men think of women as goddesses”).
To clarify, he then added that women were to blame for men’s unfaithfulness:
“ang gagandi ninyo, ang se-sexi ninyo, tapos pagbibintangan nyo ang lalaki nambababae” (“you are so pretty, and so sexy, then you blame men for chasing skirt”).
Even when confronted with women who transform his song into a girl-power anthem, the last Hagibis stays on message–even 57 year-old boys just gotta be boys.
In the early ‘00s, song-and-dance pop acts re-emerged on variety shows such as Eat Bulaga (1979-present) and ASAP (1995 to present). In the Filipino television landscape, these variety shows are institutions that have launched the careers of many actors, singers, and comics. Although dancers are usually only part of the backdrop of games and song performances, the early ‘00s saw the emergence of a fad for resident song-and-dance groups on variety shows. The Hagibis’ successors were to be found on variety shows much more often than in recording studios. Because the Hagibis had evolved into a novelty act, the Hagibis’ recognizable successors were primarily short-lived variety show novelty acts.
The most successful of the variety groups was Eat Bulaga’s SexBomb Dancers. Despite their suggestive name and scant clothing, they were almost wholesome in their affect. Film and television director Maryo J. Delos Reyes tried to play the role of Lou Pearlman when he developed the boy band Masculados in 2002 to cash in on the trend. Delos Reyes auditioned young men from all over the country for skills like singing, dancing, acting charming, and sculpted abs. Like the Sexbomb Dancers and the Hagibis, the members of the Masculados displayed their physiques (here is a video of the Sexbomb Dancers and the Masculados performing together). If the 70s Hagibis were frank about masculine sexual desire (i.e., they like pretty girls and legs), the Masculados were sexually explicit to the point of comedy. “Jumbo Hot Dog” (2014) challenged listeners to fellate the singers’ “jumbo hot dogs.”
The Masculados have left a very small mark on the entertainment industry. Their more successful competition emerged on the same platform as the SexBomb Girls, the variety show. Filipino entertainers move across platforms easily. Actors appear on television and film. Singers act, and actors sing.. All entertainers are expected to be professionally funny, charming, and engaging on variety shows. In order to win fans, actors and singers become regulars on these shows and many become part of temporary performance groups. On ASAP, for example, actors Piolo Pascual, Jericho Rosales, Carlo Agassi, Bernard Palanca, and Diether Ocampo briefly became “The Hunks.” A few of the “hunks” sing—Pascual has recorded solo albums of ballads and Agassi has released three rap records. But as a group, The Hunks (unlike the Hagibis and, later, the Masculados) did not record music. Instead, they performed covers live on the ASAP stage (here is footage of The Hunks performing the Hagibis’ Katawan on ASAP). For The Hunks, however, the unison performance of pop songs that declare a love of women or a macho identity is necessarily tongue-in-cheek.