Meet the muses shaping the future of Pinoy Pop

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One newcomer who challenged expectations and gained a foothold on streaming platforms last year is singer-songwriter Jikamarie. Screenshot from JIKAMARIE/YOUTUBE

Combing through the Spotify Philippines charts (date: March 28, 2022), there’s hardly any presence of a Pinay music artist in the top 100, with the exemption of Nica Del Rosario’s “Rosas” and mrld’s “Ligaya.” More than half of Spotify Philippines’ most-streamed tracks in the top 20 alone are dominated by young adult men in music: “sadboi” singer-songwriters who chase vibes and feels for inspiration, a rapper dabbling into trap and minimalist sounds, and an R&B star delivering bops for this year’s Miss Universe Philippines pageant.

While there’s never been a shortage of female pop stars worldwide whose work has proven to be equally impactful and compelling as their counterparts, a significant industry report published in 2020 showed that women are “staggeringly underrepresented” in both the creative and commercial aspects of music-making. The study, which was conducted by Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Spotify, revealed the extent of disparity within the music industry as far as numbers are concerned.

Up to this day, several female songwriters, composers, and producers are written off in the background, and are compensated with measly pay. Some recording artists have admitted to being lured with the promise of stardom in exchange of sexual advances by powerful men in the industry. The vast majority of women in pop music continue to wade through the establishment’s unfair practices, but it’s worth noting that more of them are fighting to take control of their career and find their own voice even at the height of power struggle.

Putting this into local context, more Filipino women in the mainstream music scene are creating trailblazing work in the business, creative, and production side of their own releases. Sarah Geronimo, inarguably the biggest pop star of her generation, served as one of the executive producers for her groundbreaking studio album “Expressions,” which pivoted her sound to a more innovative and riveting place. There are plenty of game-changers putting their own spin on pop music while racking up plays on Top 40 radio and streaming, from Maris Racal to Jess Connelly, and more. And then there’s Nica del Rosario, who is dabbling in both sides of the spectrum.

Del Rosario has maintained her reign on the mainstream music realm for nearly a decade, both as a hit-making composer for A-list stars and an indie singer-songwriter known for her distinctly confessional tone. She is the co-composer of Sarah Geronimo’s “Tala,” a defining moment in Pinoy pop that went viral in 2019. Del Rosario also penned Barbie Almalbis’ “Ambon,” one of the rare gems of the Himig Handog P-pop Love Songs catalog and Yassi Pressman’s electroclash jam “Lala,” which won Best Dance Recording at the 29th Awit Awards. Del Rosario eventually broke out from the sidelines with her solo song “Tahanan.” It peaked at No.1 on Spotify Philippines Viral charts in the first week of November 2020, owing its popularity to the exposure that it received from the “Gaya Sa Pelikula” official soundtrack.

A few writing credits and solo releases later, the FlipMusic artist/composer has proven that she’s here to stay by writing and interpreting a non-traditional campaign single that made headlines during the pre-election period. Five days after it debuted on all digital music platforms, Del Rosario’s “Rosas” climbed to No. 1 on the iTunes Philippines music chart (March 9, 2022), whereas her other campaign-related track, “Kay Leni Tayo” landed at the number two spot. On streaming platforms, the songs breached the one million mark in less than a month of release. Both tracks have become a mainstay on both streaming and digital sales charts for more than a month so far, outpacing her contemporaries who have far more experience in engineering virality.

Unlike other campaign songs that reinforce a narrative of tough-taking vigilantism and defiance, “Rosas” is a song that is guileless in its admission of vulnerability. It’s also the only “political” jingle that redefines our notion of what a “political” jingle should sound like: less novelty and more of a proper pop song that reaches out for genuine connection. It doesn’t even mention Robredo’s name.

“There's a way that Nica writes that's hard to emulate because what she writes about comes from her own lens as far as I can tell,” record label honcho and prolific producer DJ Joey Santos points out. “[It’s] her experience of reality combined with her grasp of Tagalog makes for very compelling songs.”

While streaming isn’t necessarily the sole barometer of a song’s performance or popularity within a specific timeline or era, it has completely changed the consumption habits of the general public for the last ten years, particularly Gen Zs and millennials — two key markets that take the reins in shaping pop music consciousness. Seeing how Filipinas are clearly underrepresented at a time of unrelenting conversations about visibility and gender equality means that more work needs to be done to address issues of inclusivity.

Sony Music Entertainment’s Vice President for Artist Relations and Business Development Roslyn Reyes Pineda emphasized the importance of visibility and representation of women in music as the world fights for gender equity and against gender violence.

“There is a lot of ingrained misogyny out there in both men and women, so it’s crucial that younger generations are raised in environments where there is no stigma against being female,” Pineda says. “With young people being the most passionate consumers of music and pop culture, it’s more important than ever for them to see women at the forefront of these areas. It needs to be normalized that women are capable of leading and excelling.”

For their part, Sony Music Philippines recently launched the #BabaeAko campaign for International Women’s Month as an initiative to celebrate women creators and work towards increasing awareness of their music and contribution to pop culture, and society in general.

Outside of the prevailing trends that imply or give an impression of success, a new wave of Filipino women in pop music continues to open up new possibilities in diversifying content.

With P-Pop acts ascending to the zenith of stardom and breaking international chart records once held by artists like BTS, various management companies in the Philippines have launched a women-led counterpart with the aim of replicating the commercial success of these groups. Brimming with magnetic confidence, Filipino girl groups like MNL48, BINI, R Rules, and KAIA have captured the maximalist bombast of their influences, while presenting a wholesome personality that appeals to both the local and global audience. Performing in synchronized perfection, these artists gravitate towards bright and youthful visuals that effortlessly command attention rather than shock value.

On the opposite end, hyper-pop acts like Ena Mori and Pikoy aren’t exactly concerned with pandering to the industry’s commercial demands. Striking a balance between catchy hooks and off-kilter experiments, these new breed of talents are expanding the borders of pop with noise of ringing intensity and eclectic soundscapes. They dress, live, and act like a true pop star in every sense of the word, but they’re also fascinated with the idea of subverting it with amusicality and dissonance, not afraid to disrupt mainstream values and conformity. Ena Mori for one, has built a small but growing cult following here and abroad, and was recently included as one of NME100’s Essential Emerging Artists For 2022, along with South Korea’s BIBI and Singapore’s Cayenne.

“He’s Into Her” actress and teen icon Belle Mariano made headway with the release of her debut single “Sigurado” last year. The charming, stripped down ballad seems appropriate for her brand and age, but what made it more endearing is Mariano’s remarkable restraint, which adds character to the material. The song instantly skyrocketed to the top of several music charts in the Philippines and logged impressive numbers on both Spotify and YouTube, establishing Mariano as a multimedia sensation capable of delivering a blockbuster movie, a hit digital series, and a record-breaking single.

Maymay Entrata, another fellow Kapamilya singer-actress, has also joined Mariano in commanding a domineering presence in the pop stan universe usually reserved for their male counterparts and peers in the industry. After quite a few misses, Entrata finally inspired adamant adoration in “Amakabogera,” a dance-pop anthem that doubles as a rallying cry for women, queer, and gender-nonconforming folks to embrace their power and individuality amidst the challenges of patriarchal bias.

READ: Maymay and StarPop’s Rox Santos talk about producing “Mpowered”

The 24-year-old pop star uses campy language often attributed to contemporary gayspeak, while delivering a message of self-love over a sassy, colorful production. “Amakabogera” went the same trajectory as Sarah Geronimo’s “Tala,” albeit in a less impactful direction. To date, the infectious pop jam has racked up more than 30 million combined views on YouTube alone, and earned its dance craze status after setting TikTok ablaze in the latter part of 2021.

“In the case of Maymay Entrata and Belle Mariano, it’s very important to find them songs that perfectly match their overall image and personality,” Jonathan Manalo, Creative Director of ABS-CBN Music says. “Their breakthrough hits ‘Amakabogera’ and ‘Sigurado’ respectively are both fitting musical representations of their authentic personalities. These kinds of artists who are seen without having any pretensions, effortlessly connect with their respective audience.”

As one of the main figures behind the most enduring hits of our time, Manalo is responsible for helping a bunch of female artists under ABS-CBN Music to find the right message and stories that would resonate to the sensibilities of their target audience. He says, “The process is painful yet cathartic, but the best songs and body of work come from probing deep into the feelings, the emotions, fears and vulnerabilities of the artist. It’s very important for the producer and the artist to have deep emotional connections and mutual trust for them to be able to effectively work together.”

Another newcomer who challenged expectations and gained a foothold on streaming platforms last year is singer-songwriter Jikamarie. She scored a smash with “Lutang,” a genre-defiant ditty that appealed across multiple formats. The slow-building, laid-back track has amassed more than 15 million streams on Spotify in less than a year and has propelled Jikamarie to the forefront of pop’s most exciting new acts.

While generating a hit song posed a challenge for a lot of Filipina artists in any genre during the pandemic, the rising alt-pop artist instantly found her audience on TikTok before getting signed to a major record label. Jikamarie Jikamarie was very straightforward about the struggles that she’s facing as a recording neophyte in an industry that has a nagging tendency to dismiss her sense of authorship.

“Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a difference in leverage for a male artist and a female artist,” she says. “Up to this day, people tell me that when they listen to my songs, they ‘thought it was a guy singing,’ as if admitting that it changes things for them. I also continuously receive comments about how my songs ‘lacked a male voice.’ I shrug it off because I know that if my supporters are still listening to me at the end of the day, that's all I need to be satisfied.”

Jikamarie has always been heavily involved in the production and creative aspects of her music. Aside from writing and co-producing her own material, she’s also very hands-on in conceptualizing her own brand. “For every song, I carefully think out the message, concept, the plot for the music video, cover art, promotional photos, design, and other pre-production duties,” she says. “Concept-making is one of the things that I’m always excited about working on.”

While some artists are having a difficult time replicating the success of their debut or leaving a lasting imprint with their album cycles, there are familiar names in the local music scene that took risk in exploring opportunities outside their home country. Filipina-Australian singer and former PBB Housemate Ylona Garcia bagged a record deal with 88Rising, an international music platform and management company that counts Joji, Rich Brian and Niki among its roster of hip-hop and R&B acts. On her latest single “Entertain Me,” Garcia was granted the freedom to write her own song and take command of her creative pursuits with the guidance of her new label. Thanks to 88Rising’s global reach and partnership with Riot Games' FPS video game “Valorant,” “Entertain Me” has reached the top 50 of the Contemporary Hit Radio chart in the US and gained more than 13 million streams on Spotify alone.

Folk-pop singer-songwriter Clara Benin is also making waves in the global music market after being signed under OFFMUTE, a Southeast Asian record label that provides artists “a voice, an audience, and an opportunity for cross collaboration within the region.” On top of headlining Spotify’s Equal campaign with a giant digital billboard at Times Square in New York City, Benin achieved newfound prominence in Asia with the release of “Suara Hati,” an original track re-recorded in Bahasa Indonesia, and “A Day At A Time,” a soulful pop collaboration with Gentle Bones, one of the most-streamed solo artists in Singapore.

When asked about her advice to struggling female artists out there who are close to giving up on their dreams, Benin urged her fellow artists to stay motivated in celebrating the little advancements being made in terms of achieving goals. “Everyone is on a different journey, so don’t compare yourself to others. Just focus on your music and stay true to yourself.”

Music trends come and go, but one thing is certain: women in pop music have always been at the vanguard of cultural relevance, finding ways to create “talkable” moments or spark an entire movement. We need songs that speak directly about women’s experience, and the universal appeal that comes with it. Generation-defining anthems like “Amakabogera” and “Rosas” point towards the current state of affairs from a distinctly women-centered perspective, refusing to succumb to any form of revisionism and pressure.