David Byrne mythifies Marcos in ‘Here Lies Love’

The ambivalence provoked by women who wield power is reflected in the current photo-manipulation meme “Texts From Hillary,” in which a half-scowling secretary of state, peering dismissively down at her BlackBerry through sunglasses, fires scathing bits of digital wit at supplicants including Joe Biden, Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama himself. The catchiness of the meme is largely due to the fun of imagining Madame Secretary as an amalgam of bitch, badass and Internet joker; Hillary Clinton becomes the Nerf cudgel we use to vent our frustration at the ridiculousness of celebrity culture.

Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s 2010 concept album/pop musical about Imelda Marcos, the infamous former first lady of the Philippines, could have been titled “Texts From Imelda.” The music evokes the ’70s disco Marcos is said to have loved, while the lyrics were largely drawn from and inspired by statements she made in interviews. In high postmodern style, avant-pop superstar Byrne uses these elements as texts in an attempt to explicate the Marcos myth.

To interpret the texts, co-producers Byrne and Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook) call upon more than 20 vocalists, all but two of whom are women, to perform story-songs recounting Marcos’ struggles, from childhood through her exile from the Philippines after a popular uprising.

Byrne’s stated goal was to blur the line between dance music and show tunes, a savvy and compassionate strategy given the subject matter. “Don’t You Agree?” (sung by Roisin Murphy), for example, reveals Marcos’ character like a Broadway diva’s aria but employs down-to-earth lounge-disco funkiness to nudge us a step or two down a slippery slope: “Sometimes you need a strong man/With things out of control/Don’t you agree?”

Here Lies Love’s pomo play with disco may seem mighty abstract to some, especially considering the grave crimes Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were accused of, but it’s actually the source of much of the work’s substance and contemporary relevance. Byrne aligns Marcos’ fate with that of disco, the most maligned of pop music genres, cautioning us against stingy-hearted, racist reactions that have impeded understanding of both in recent history. Here Lies Love audaciously attempts to prompt an empathetic reinvestigation of history, as in the song “Why Don’t You Love Me?”: “Just look at Nixon/They tore him apart/How could you be so hard?”

The Here Lies Love album was released in April 2010, almost at the precise moment when the pop charts began to be dominated by female artists performing club-ready dance music. You could view this record as Byrne and Cook’s ready-made answer to the Lady Gaga problem. Here Lies Love’s only major flaw is the lack of at least one genuine pop star among its phalanx of respectable alterna-divas. Without a tinge of the good kind of vulgarity, a cerebral claustrophobia tends to creep into Byrne’s experiments.

This error could be rectified with creative casting when Here Lies Love is performed as a musical at The Public Theater next year. It promises to be a pop event like none other since 1981, when The Public put up Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, Kid Creole’s musical adaptation of The Odyssey. Byrne’s approach may be ’80s-derived, but the Here Lies Love album proves his spirit and instincts are contemporary and necessary.