The woman in Nadine Lustre’s ‘Wildest Dreams’

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In “Wildest Dreams,” we see Nadine Lustre become a person and force of her own doing. Screencap from CARELESS/YOUTUBE

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s frustrating how the critical canon continues to relegate women in pop music in the margins, and not as prime movers of a significant shift in cultural discussions. The pervasive erasure of women’s narrative in Philippine music history is just plain obvious, as if they can only be considered “great” if mythologized as a muse — passive, divine-like in action and posture, and created by men to fulfill one’s creative desire, or feel validated if endorsed by so-called arbiters of taste whose opinions are shaped by rockist ideals and patriarchal sensibilities.

How often do we hear established critics heap praises on the enduring songwriting legacy of Odette Quesada — the genius behind pop hits that defined the ‘80s? Why are we not talking about the impact of Sampaguita’s Cecile Colayco in pushing the envelope of Manila Sound and disco in the ‘70s? How come that whenever we talk about the great works of Sharon Cuneta, Geneva Cruz, or Regine Velasquez, entertainment and music writers would rather steer the conversation to the men that wrote and produce the material? Why do we obscure the fact that Cynthia Alexander, Barbie Almalbis, and Kitchie Nadal are also equally as important as their male peers every time we gravitate the discussion on the alternative rock boom of the ‘90s and early 2000s?

On rare occasions that a female pop star tries to take control of her own narrative, give way to the woundedness of her soul, and dabble into experiments, the move is often met with a polarizing response. Gatekeepers and music critics don’t take “her” seriously, dismissing the attempt to bust the strongholds as empty grandstanding or lacking in originality. Sad to say, this confirms the systemic and historical prejudice against music made and performed by women across the board: their work is often seen as a performative spectacle or fluff that easily fizzles in the background, devoid of enduring power, and worst, not worthy of canonhood.

Nadine Lustre’s ambitious visual album “Wildest Dreams” truly stands out for allowing a semblance of autonomy and artistic freedom into the framework. This special project marks the first time that the multimedia star assumes captainship by aligning with a collective that best serves her vision, exploring her intimate journey as a major focal point.

Just like countless pop and R&B stars whose quest for self-affirmation lies on finally breaking out of the mold, the former Viva talent’s latest release was unfairly dismissed by some critics as a calculated showcase of vanity and image control. Celebrity lawyer and occasional pop culture writer Ferdinand S. Topacio even called it “all gloss and glam rather than any meaningful mise en scene” and took a swipe at the project’s attempt at profundity. Yes, this was the same Topacio who lambasted Nadine’s decision to terminate her contract with Viva in her bid for independence as a wrong move, legally and professionally, and who admitted to being a former fan of the singer-actress’ acting and music endeavor pre-Careless era. It’s disappointing how he conveniently reduced Lustre’s otherworldly escapism into a work of excess and shallow imagination, and expressed utmost skepticism of Lustre’s authenticity as an artist without examining the craft and motivation behind the material first. His words feel like an outright dismissal motivated by personal bias, rather than a sound critique.

Our notion of what works as pop music has always been defined by tradition and passiveness that it must be weird seeing a woman become a person and force of her own doing, and gather the confidence to break away from what used to be an oppressive environment deterring growth and ambition. Contrary to unreliable readings, Lustre’s "Wildest Dreams" is a statement of creative liberation and empowerment, and it’s also a gamble worth pursuing. It allows Lustre to be a visionary, a curator, a storyteller, and an independent woman all at once, eschewing preconceived archetypes that often hinder female musicians from thriving in a creative space dominated by men.

Framed with a fragmentary, almost haze-like blend of music influences, from contemporary R&B to deep house, from electro-pop to chillout, and infused with the sounds of ethnic percussions and spacey textures, the visual album makes use of expansive sonic elements and riveting grandeur to shape a world that uniquely reflects her depth and character, one whose interesting blend of fabulousness in public and wreckage in private, has the makings of a true icon.

But there’s more to the visual album than heralding a level of sophistication and subdued introspection — qualities that Lustre brings effortlessly into the form. As a fantasmic extravaganza in the same vein as Solange’s "When I Get Home" or Beyonce’s "Lemonade," "Wildest Dreams" doubles as a cinematic experience that finds the singer-actress navigating her path forward in the realm of dreams, hopes, and fears. Thanks to Zoopraxi Studios’ creative director Dominic Bekaert and co-scriptwriter Quintin Cu-Unjieng, the visual narrative plays like a therapeutic retreat into the mind of Lustre’s real-life character, traversing the dark pathways that show her vulnerable state, and introducing us to a sanctuary all her own: fleeting, flawed, evoking the manner in which the cosmos radiate its energy above us.

Director Dominic Bekaert with Nadine Lustre on the set of "Wildest Dreams." Photo by CLEMENTINE COMOY

“Since these are music videos about dreams, we thought the best way to tell the story would be through symbolism so we could touch the audience's subconscious like dreams do and not interfere with the music we were promoting,” Bekaert explains the inspiration behind the project. “The album itself was built like a journey so we jumped from there. The main theme of the album is self-empowerment and we wanted that to become the backbone of the visual album's story, and share it with others through mantras. Nadine told us about her fascination [with] the lotus and we made it our central symbol: growing with her from seed to flower through the story.”

Despite the challenges of filming during the pandemic, Bekaert freely interprets Lustre’s ambient fantasia and lush, escapist imagery with a narrative that’s grounded in reality. The storyline feels home away from home — improvised to an extent and masterfully executed for a strangely comforting effect. “We wanted each video to have its own universe and theme, but connect together through an overall storyline that brings Nadine from a dark place to a sort of enlightenment,” says the filmmaker. “‘Dance With Danger’ is about the disconnect and fears we felt during lockdown and how we need to transform them into creativity. ‘White Rabbit’ is about the star system and how one can become a prisoner of one's image. ‘Glow’ is about finding your inner light and not letting anyone stop you by their harsh criticism.”

Lustre’s visual journey, anchored on the strength of autobiographical references and mythological symbols, is just as political as it is personal. Cinematic in scope, it dares to tackle darker, more controversial themes that most artists her caliber and age are reluctant to talk about, and personal ones that tend to get silenced in normal everyday conversations.

In what could be her best song in the 12-track album, “Glow”, Lustre chronicles how the entertainment establishment has exerted control over celebrities in a way that can be invasive and damaging to their individuality. The video offers an incisive commentary on the commodification of feminine grace, the insistence of the powers-that-be to box celebrities as mannequins or like Botticelli's “The Birth of Venus,” a seductive muse glorified for its divine beauty but repeatedly used for business gains. Lustre thinks it’s never too late to change the course of the game; she burns flags and emerges as a warrior princess and a phoenix whose legacy is no longer chained to someone’s reign. Lustre takes matters into her own hands and sings, “Gimme that / Gimme that chance to glow,” in front of media spectators and flashing camera lights. It’s a sign that she’s no longer indebted to the system that almost destroyed her. As a free-spirited entity, she exudes confidence that we haven’t seen in such a long time, an energy that gravitates toward the renewal of mind and spirit.

Aside from her interesting take on fame, self-preservation, and women empowerment, she also showed moments of emotional frailty on “Wildest Dreams.” From having a hard time dealing with the loss of her brother in “Save A Place” to revealing her bouts with mental health in “Dance With Danger,” it’s the first time that we see her embrace brokenness right in front of the public.

But this is not to say that “Wildest Dreams” runs without its fair share of missed opportunities. Taken as an entire whole, musically speaking, the transition from one track to another is so seamless that it parades too much clinical cleansing on the outside, almost reaching to a point of antiseptic-level monotony in successive listens. Some of the songs also vibe similarly in pace and tone, as if it’s cut in the same fabric. And there’s not much variety in terms of production details despite its attempt to present Lustre as a presence that could easily adapt to various genres presented in the album. It’s a minor lapse that doesn’t really affect the overall appeal of “Wildest Dreams,” as its understated and simmering characteristics, as well as carefully curated messaging, matter more than a few nitpicks.

Behind the scenes of the "Glow" music video. Photo by CLEMENTINE COMOY

“Wildest Dreams” is Lustre’s most intimate work, and her most compelling artistic statement since her award-winning performance in the 2018 film “Never Not Love You.” It’s still a long fight from here on out, but as a woman who continues to challenge the pop landscape, Lustre is triumphant in giving us a mainstream-leaning visual album that dares to celebrate individuality and creativity with star-wattage promise. The woman in “Wildest Dreams” is no longer a product of the imagination; she’s Nadine Lustre — fierce, provocative and daring, a woman who absolutely knows her worth.