If your Filipino-American family is anything like mine, then there was only one topic of conversation at this year’s hotly anticipated Thanksgiving dinner — the newest Bruno Mars album.
Having been released just a week before the holiday, Bruno Mars’ third full-length album, 24K Magic, was the metaphorical centerpiece of the dinner table. Somehow, everyone — even my technologically-challenged older relatives — had heard the album in its entirety and loved it. It played on shuffle alongside premature Christmas songs throughout the duration of the party, which ended with my entire family gathered around the TV, watching his 60 Minutes feature and recent live performances as if someone from our own family was up there on screen, performing at the Super Bowl alongside Beyoncé or opening up the American Music Awards.
Family members who showed no prior interest in popular music or contemporary American culture were spitting Bruno Mars facts and tidbits like they were common knowledge, while my little cousins recommended their favorite Bruno Mars cover artists on YouTube. One eager aunt suggested that we all go see him in concert together, then laughed at the impossibility of buying a block of 20-odd concert seats for the already nearly sold-out shows in San Jose and Sacramento. Even my friends from high school could not stop talking about 24K Magic, mentioning that they had liked Bruno Mars before, but never liked his music as much as they did right now.
The buzz surrounding the album was infectious. My Twitter feed was full of people quoting lyrics and citing their favorite songs, and my dad had Mars’ AMAs performance on loop in our living room for days. And while the patronage of Filipino artists is extremely common, if not heightened, in the Filipino community (like the time I once saw an older Filipina woman at Walmart buying 25 copies of Journey’s Revelation after Arnel Pineda replaced Steve Perry as the band’s lead singer), I hadn’t seen this kind of collective support for a Filipino icon across all age groups since the height of Manny Pacquiao’s career.
So I thought to myself: Is it possible that Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic is the great equalizer for the generation gaps that often plague Filipino-American families? Why is this bite-sized, funk-filled album bringing Filipino-Americans together like a post-Mass trip to the grocery store?
The most obvious general appeal of 24K Magic is nostalgia. Rolling Stone praised the album for being “a shining moment for Bruno Mars the producer, arranger and nostalgia curator,” while Billboard.com published a track-by-track album listening guide, pairing each song with its supposed past-pop counterpart.
Like most nostalgia, however, the past we harken back to is a vague, fuzzy notion of the unspecific “past,” a mish-mash of time periods that all seem to blend together without pin-pointing a specific moment in time. Nostalgia is a feeling of longing for the past, and 24K Magic does a great job of making us long for “good ol’ days.” But if Filipino-Americans of all ages — from our titas and titos to our kuyas and ates — are nostalgic of the past that 24K Magic reminds them of, then what past are we thinking of?
Mars himself has directly stated that the album was heavily influenced by the ’90s songs he “was singing to get the girls in school, the songs that the girls like, what we were dancing to as children.” These influences, however, run through a much longer timeline, which explains the cross-generational appeal.
There’s the late ’70s vibe of the Commodores in “Straight Up & Down.” The laid-back ’80s Michael Jackson rhythm-heavy beat of “Rock with You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” is all over the verses of “Chunky.” The opening beats of “Finesse” sound like a polished-up version of Boyz II Men’s ’90s hit, “Motown Philly.” And that Boyz II Men influence comes back in Mars’ ballads (“Versace On the Floor” and “Too Good to Say Goodbye”), but this time combined with that quintessential ’80s synthesizer sound and dramatic post-bridge key change that’s found in the ballads of Luther Vandross, Peabo Bryson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and pretty much any karaoke ballad that you would find on your family’s Magic Mic. The album even has elements of nostalgia for the MySpace generation, riding the tailored coattails of Justin Timberlake’s suave post-*NSYNC career, with some 8701-era Usher and pre-Trapped in the Closet R. Kelly coating the whole album like a layer of smooth, silky peanut butter.
For me and a lot of my Filipino-American friends whose parents immigrated from the Philippines, this was music we grew up listening to, introduced to us by different family members at different stages of our lives. My parents were ’80s buffs (and huge fans of the synthesizer), but their older siblings praised Elvis Presley (who Bruno Mars began his career by impersonating.) My older cousins, who are now Mars’ age, love that same ’90s R&B vibe that Mars was chasing on this record, and I hear all of these influences come together with every repeat-listen of 24K Magic. With this album, Mars has curated nostalgic elements that speak both to the general public and to Filipino-Americans, like himself, who grew up seeped in this massive mixtape of cross-generational musical influences.
Now, you may have noticed that none of the artists who I’ve cited as integral influences on the Filipino-American pop cultural experience are not Filipino-American themselves. In fact, Mars is one of the first Filipino-Americans to break into the American mainstream as a solo artist. So why are so many Filipino-Americans exposed and drawn to this American pop and R&B?
What’s popular in America was (usually) popular in the Philippines
America’s greatest export is entertainment, but if you live in America, it’s difficult to grasp the country’s global pop cultural impact. Especially now, with the ease of accessibility and illusion of choice, it’s easy to find new and niche artists that no one else is listening to and claim them before the commericalized underground marks those artists as “indie” or an “up-and-comer.”
In the Philippines, however, there are only two major Filipino television networks: ABS-CBN (aka “Channel 2”) and GMA (aka “Channel 7”). With just two networks controlling what programming reaches Filipino viewers, only the most popular American shows, movies, and music get a break on Filipino television (with few, un-notable exceptions).
My parents met when they were dancers on a GMA variety show called Vilma!, starring Vilma Santos, who is considered one of the country’s most prominent performers and currently sits on the Philippine House of Representatives. As dancers, their main job was to promote new music that came from overseas by doing a corresponding dance that would basically brand the song into popular imagination, like the Macarena in the ’90s or “Juju on the Beat” two weeks ago. This was one of the main ways that Filipinos were exposed to music — everyone from Prince and Michael Jackson to Madonna and Lionel Richie had elaborate production numbers dedicated to their soon-to-be hits.
Putting the “me” in media
The television is the centerpiece of the Filipino household. It is on all hours of the day, providing mundane background chatter in the early afternoon and beckoning its children home like primetime lighthouse.
In the Philippines, the television is often the most expensive item in the house. It is as necessary to the household environment as a window that circulates fresh air into a cramped, overpacked living room; it is a window into national news and international trends, inviting in new ideas and uncharted experiences. To many Filipinos, media is more than a form of escapism; it is a vehicle for familiarity that grounds you in the world around you, helping you better make sense of where you are and who you are.
Familiarity and nostalgia are essential elements of Filipino media. The best example? The noontime show.
Philippine noontime shows are the perennial staple of Filipino television. They are on six days a week for nearly two-and-a-half hours like clockwork, with a nearly unmoving cast of hosts, games, and segments that become as essential to one’s daily life as lunch itself. Imagine Saturday Night Live at its peak, then do that six days a week for almost forty years. That is how important the noontime show is to Filipino television, and its impact is gargantuan, partially because there’s nothing else to watch.
The longest running noontime show is GMA’s Eat Bulaga!, with 37 years under it’s belt. The cast of a dozen or so cohosts changes every few years, but the main three hosts — Tito Sotto, Vic Sotto, and Joey de Leon — have remained the tent posts of Eat Bulaga! since it’s inception. By this point, generations of Filipinos all over the world are familiar with Tito, Vic, and Joey, and tune in daily even though the same thing happens once the clock strikes noon. It’s the same jokes, the same games, and the same performances (just with different songs, depending on the decade), and it’s so familiar that if the formula changed, it would be difficult to find welcome something new or innovative.
So we become attached. The media we are most familiar with becomes a part of us, and becomes difficult to part with when we leave home — or in the case of many Filipino immigrants, their home country. They come to America and cling to the media that was most familiar to them, and pass that visceral connection to television, music, media, and performance onto their children.
My house was always filled with music, both new and old. Every ’80s song triggers my parents’ memories of stories from their first years of dancing and dating. My mom remembers the first time she heard Madonna on the radio, and my dad knows the name of every ’80s hair band. My family mostly watches Netflix and YouTube, but we can’t cancel our cable subscription because we would have no way to watch football and Filipino television.
I was born and raised in America, but inherited the Filipino sensibility of attachment to the media — not in the dystopian Black Mirror way, but in the excessively sentimental way. Certain sounds trigger specific memories, and those memories influence the art I create and consume. I can only imagine that while recording 24K Magic, Bruno Mars must have felt the same way.
I once saw Bruno Mars going down an escalator during a family vacation in Las Vegas. I saw him pass by and calmly mentioned it to my family, who was walking in the opposite direction. But unlike myself, who had shrugged it off as a cool celebrity spotting, my entire family stopped in their tracks, eyes widened in complete shock.
My dad — who has had multiple knee surgeries due to arthritis — ran at full speed towards the escalator, pushing my little brother down the steps with him in the process. According to my dad, Bruno had stopped on the casino floor to chat with two gorgeous girls, so he pushed my brother towards Bruno until the small child caught his attention. He shook my brother’s hand and made polite celebrity small-talk while the two girls stood idly by. When my dad asked for a photo, his bodyguards denied the request and pushed Bruno along towards the exit. Then my dad shouted, “Filipino!” And Bruno replied, “Yeah, brother!” with his fist raised in the air.
Filipinos love Filipinos
The fundamental reason Filipino-Americans love Bruno Mars is simple: he is half-Filipino, and Filipinos love Filipinos. We love to see each other succeed — especially in the American mainstream — and will agonizingly support any Filipino or Filipino-American personality in any and all of their endeavors.
Pacquiao fights are elaborate, extended family dinner parties. The video of Lea Salonga’s first audition for Miss Saigon is required watching for any young Filipina who has shown even the slightest interest in singing. Filipino families that would never listen to hip-hop music have exactly two Black Eyed Peas records — Elephunk and Monkey Business — on heavy rotation just to hear Apl.de.Ap rap in “Where is the Love?” and “Bebot.” Titas flocked to Glee when Charice was a guest star, then stayed when they realized that Darren Criss, a series regular, was half-Filipino. Anytime there was a Filipino contestant on American Idol, we used our precious shared family-plan mobile minutes to call in as many times as possible, even if their performance wasn’t great that week. Vanessa Hudgens is half, Hailee Steinfeld is a quarter, and I know this because Filipinos go out looking for famous Filipinos and make sure that we not only support them, but put them on a pedestal so high that my cousin’s cousin’s extended family across the country could see them.
Bruno Mars always had the Filipino fanbase to boost him, but 24K Magic sounds more like it was made for us than any of his previous work. Perhaps he didn’t intend to create a distinctly Filipino-American sound on this album, with “nostalgia” as a catch-all of any and all influences that remind us of the past. But those influences are a bit more obvious to those of us who grew up — maybe unknowingly — entrenched in that Filipino-American sound, and is worth far more than anything 24 karats of magic could buy.