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Angelica Hale is standing on the stage of America’s Got Talent.
“I’m nine years old,” she says. “I wanna be the next Whitney Houston. I want to be a superstar.”
Moments later, she opens with the lyrics to Andra Day’s “Rise Up”: “You’re broken down and tired …” she sings, and her pulsing vibrato carries the verse. On the pre-chorus, Angelica’s powerful chest voice transforms into a delicate head voice. The crowd rises and cheers. When she ends the song with a crisp falsetto, the judges — Howie, Mel B, Heidi, and Simon — give a standing ovation.
Angelica’s audition for America’s Got Talent is one of many show-stopping, viral performances by Filipino singers on reality talent shows. On YouTube, there’s no shortage of videos like these. One performance I’ve found myself rewatching includes Ivy Grace Paredes’ cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” on X Factor UK, which receives a standing ovation from not just the crowd or the judges, but from her fellow contestants too. In another viral performance, the TNT Boys sing Beyonce’s “Listen” for The World’s Best. And RuPaul, a judge for the competition, says to them, “Shantay, you stay.” Video compilations like “20 Filipino Auditions That STUNNED The World…” are plentiful online. And a quick Google search will find Filipinos excelling in international talent competitions from America to England, Australia to Ireland, Canada to Germany.
Watch enough of these and you’ll realize that in reality talent competitions, the Filipino singer has somewhat become a genre trope. More often than not, she is female, young, and has dreams of making it abroad where the music market is larger and more profitable than back home. She has the range of a soprano (even in cases when the Filipino singer is, instead, male) and draws artistic inspiration from the soulful, powerhouse female vocalists of the 2000s or 2010s. Her audition song is a record that culminates in a powerful belt, a whistle note, or a smooth vocal run, by the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera. If she performs a more contemporary song? Chances are it features Demi Lovato, Jessie J, Ariana Grande (see: 4th Impact’s viral X-Factor audition to “Bang Bang”), or one of the many emerging practitioners of vocal gymnastics. When the Filipino singer does deliver — and she always does — the audience is shocked, the judges cheer, and everyone gives a standing ovation.
The trope has since become so frequent that Simon Cowell once said to a Filipina contestant, “I always think that a lot of people from where you’re from are amazing singers.” Nowadays, abroad and online, I can’t seem to escape the fact that Filipino identity and good singing have become one and the same. In a recent viral Instagram reel, a Filipino man belts Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” with perfect pitch. “Karaoke is the Philippines’ national sport,” reads the caption.
On my own karaoke nights, when I muster just enough vocal prowess to sing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the original key and transform from tenor to alto, my non-Filipino friends are thoroughly unimpressed: “Of course you can sing. You’re Filipino.”
When I was 10 years old, I remember watching Filipina contestant Jessica Sanchez’s sing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” on American Idol’s 11th season. My parents and I gleamed in classic “Pinoy pride” when Randy Jackson described her as “one of the best talents” in America. Then and there, the success of Filipino singers on reality talent shows became a source of national pride. I remember YouTube reposts of her performance being exchanged over text between titas and lolas, and then-president Noynoy Aquino rallying behind her, making sure to pay Sanchez a visit while in the United States. Even after her time in American Idol, Sanchez retained her status as a national icon, singing “Lupang Hinirang” before the boxing matches of Manny Pacquiao.
But if our singers on reality shows are tied so deeply to our global identity and national pride, why do we never win? Angelica Hale, even after receiving the coveted Golden Buzzer twice on America’s Got Talent, was only the runner-up. So too was Jessica Sanchez, who, despite having Filipino fans illegally voting for her using Skype and VPNs, failed to snag first place. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, a surplus of Filipino acts on reality singing have advanced far in their respective shows, only to be consistently eliminated before the finale — 4th Impact, Alisha Bonabra, Maria Laroco, Jej Vinson, Katriz Trinidad, Mary Ann Van Der Horst, Sephy Francisco, Neneth Lyons, and many others unnamed.
The Filipino singer nails her high-notes. She tucks and tumbles and turns in a beautiful array of vocal gymnastics. But when she does, is she offering anything new to the music world? When she sings Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” or “I Will Always Love You” on the stages of X Factor or American Idol (I’ve watched at least three different Filipino contestants sing each song) is there anything novel about her performance?
It is impossible to keep impressing the same audience with the same tricks week after week. Vocal gymnastics and high-notes can only get you so far. And in reality, there is nothing fresh or original about the ability to replicate the talents of Whitney Houston or other powerhouse female vocalists, as impressive as it may be. The Filipino singer has become predictable; a one-trick pony. She is a tired, overused genre trope. And she was doomed to fail from the start.
Kababayan, it’s time to stop singing Whitney Houston — or Mariah or Beyonce or Jessie J, for that matter. Our tendency for imitation, as opposed to creating our own style, has confined Filipino talent internationally and online, preventing us from offering something truly Filipino to the global music industry.
At home, the music scene is diverse and heterogeneous. A quick shuffle play of emerging OPM will reveal the various musical styles Filipinos are experimenting with. The discographies of artists like Sara Geronimo, Yeng Constantino, and Moira dela Torre are only proof that the Filipino singer need not box herself in as a vocal gymnast or high-note hitter to achieve mainstream success. We have more to offer the world than a Whitney Houston cover, and it’s about time we share that. – Rappler.com
Patrick Kho is a Filipino media and culture critic for the New York City-based publication, Byline.