Brittany Spears – eighty pounds of Haitian-American teenage girl, this time – honks out the final chorus in a nasal Queens accent, looking both bored and self-amused at her boredom, the hallmark meta-boredom of New York teenagers on vacation. When the showgirls escort her from the stage in a flurry of feathers and bedazzled capes, Garth Brooks appears. He’s short, with a Tweedledee (or is it Tweedledum?) waist, but somehow – with the checkered shirt and a four-gallon hat – he seems perfect. The voice isn’t bad either, at least in terms of accurately reproducing the original. Our waitress, an unsmiling Estonian woman with preternatural balance, arrives with our drinks: a Maker’s, for me, Gin and Tonic for Makisig, the lead guitarist, sparkling water for Billy, the keyboardist. Marcello, their drummer, was called to sit in at the last minute with a swing-band on the Lido deck and can’t make the interview. Liu, their bassist, is unaccounted for (rumor has it Liu is quite the Lothario, although – in strict accordance with the crew’s policy – never with guests). The rehearsal for the ‘Legends’ show is taking place in a below-decks lounge, without portholes, so the ship’s motions come with a startling lack of visual context. My stomach keels forward as the amber waterline in my glass tilts dramatically – a neat Spielberg trick. Our waitress, passing us with half a dozen neon martinis, maintains a perfect meniscus on each glass.
Anobium: For the record, you wanted me to make it clear that I’ve changed your names, and that I haven’t specified which ship – or which cruise line – you work for.
Billy: We appreciate that.
Makisig: And thank you for letting me choose such a colorful name.
Billy: It means manly!
Anobium: I’m envious for the chance at reinvention. But, speaking of these conditions, and before we get into things, can I ask, well let me just say it – how are the working conditions?
Billy: Should you feel guilty?
Makisig: Working conditions are shit. To be honest. But – for us – that’s not a function of, what would you say?
Makisig: Of imperialism, or anything like that. I mean, some of the crew have it rough – waiters, engineers, maids – but for a lot of them, it’s better than what they’d have in Lahore, or Fuzhou or someplace. For us, too, it’s rough. A lot of regulations, of course, very corporate. But a lot of work, too. Six days a week. Or seven,
Billy: But that’s music. That’s the biz. If we were in New York? We wouldn’t be getting gigs every night. Not for what we’re paid.
Makisig: Exactly. So, no, you’re not exploiting us. Probably someone, of course.
Billy: You’re American, after all!
Makisig: But we’re cool. If that’s what you mean.
Anobium: Thank you. My white guilt is assuaged, for the duration, at least. So, why don’t you tell me about, this… [gesturing to the baroque theatre, and Garth Brooks, who is bringing down the house with his finale].
Billy: Do you remember Chris Gaines? When Brooks started performing as someone else?
Anobium: Ha. Yes. That was one of my first experiences – without really knowing it – with the post-modern.
Billy: Of course. People took it hard, in the States, didn’t they? Like he had gone schizophrenic?
Makisig: My mother – who was white, and from Iowa – was a big fan. She got my father into country, which we didn’t have much of in Manila. R’n’B, and even disco, but not honky tonk. But he loved it. He liked the ‘story songs’, you know, the narrative element, which you don’t get so much in rock and roll. Rap – later, yes – but my father would have hated that. But, anyway, my mother thought it was very smart, the Gaines thing. Like a comic actor who breaks into drama – right? – because, who wants to do just dick-joke movies forever? But my father was upset. Growing up, rock stars – for him – were fantastical. Like Superman, Buck Rogers, comic book stuff. But, at the same time, real. You couldn’t be a rock star in Manila, but you could – of course you could – in the states. So finding out that it was performance, just a persona. Just acting. It killed it. It wasn’t real. And it wasn’t fantastical.
Billy: So his father really was a good American!
Makisig: A certain kind of American. Rural – is what people say, about Iowa, Kansas. But that’s not right. Des Moines is a city – not a big city, but not farmland. But it’s, how can I say it? Disconnected? From New York? Los Angeles?
Billy: It’s pre-contact America! The ironists haven’t made it pass the Appalachians yet. When they do… [says something in Tagalog, but illustrates putting a finger-gun against his temple]
Anobium: I like that. So, do you find that that – pre-contact America – is your demographic? Or maybe you should say something about what you play and then who you play it for?
Billy: Well it’s one and the same, isn’t it? Our song book is pretty deep, and pretty wide. ABBA, Brooklyn Bridge’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’… all the way to Ziggy Marley.
Anobium: Really? Does anyone—
Billy: No, but we’re ready if they do. We’re really ready for anything. We played Lady Gaga last night. For teenagers. But, I mean, talk about post-modern. We’re really playing Madonna for them. I mean, other people have pointed this out, I’m sure, but when you’ve got the chords and changes right there.
Makisig: But she’s honest about it! Or he is, if the rumors are true. ‘Poker Face’ is a good example.
Billy: You’re horrifying him. Makisig thinks a lot of American pop stars are actually men. Twenty-first century drag queens.
Anobium: Your guess is as good as mine. But tell me more about what you guys play. What’s a typical night like?
Billy: Dramamine. Makisig here, the colonialist, would have made a good Brit. He thinks a Gin and Tonic fixes everything.
Makisig: Malaria, scurvy, enervation, boredom…
Billy: Here’s a regular night. We’ve got an hour or so block that we do, rooting around in the collective memory of America. Liu calls it, what does he call it? Cover songs? Like the real cover songs. When white artists would play black compositions? Gotta love the 1950s.
Makisig: It’s not that being Filipino, or Asian, really ‘covers it’. It’s more that, well, these songs are all from dish-soap commercials and movies.
Billy: Commercials and movies about white people. The one with Kevin Kline. Liu calls it his ‘favorite Kevin Costner movie’, because Costner plays a corpse in a split-second of a scene.
Anobium: The Big Chill? Great soundtrack.
Anobium: Ouch. But yes. So, you play the Big Chill soundtrack?
Billy: More or less. But, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a critique. People got eased into liking these songs, they had to, because of how – I wanted to say ‘fucked up’…
Anobium: Sounds about right.
Billy: Okay! Because of how fucked up the country – the States – was, and still is. But, they’re great songs. I mean, like we said, we play it all. The Motown stuff is hard, rhythmic subtleties that – when you don’t nail them – oh, it sounds so bad. Marcello – he plays it all, even the hard stuff, Slayer, Anthrax, those bands – but he has to concentrate for ‘Bernadette’. Just for the hi-hat and snare. No joke.
Makisig: Or it does sound like a cover band. And people can tell! But, I guess that’s the point. I mean, musically, we see things in the long-view, and from the outside. The cover-band stuff, the Lady Gaga stuff, the—
Billy: Short cultural attention span.
Makisig: Yes. But when we get a good crowd – I guess I do mean Midwestern, southerners, suburbanites – and they’re loosened up, a couple drinks or so, and we’re doing our job right, then you see real joy. Dancing, especially the slow dances.
Billy: We see a lot of couples on board, older couples, with kids, and – you know, everybody knows – all the romance and, all that physical stuff, from when they were teenagers or whatever, that’s all gone. They’re fat, they’re old, their kids are screaming for toys and ice-cream and all that. That part of their lives, it’s over.
Makisig: But we see it come back, for a couple of songs, the slow dance numbers. It’s easy to be harsh on these people, like Billy says. Liu is ruthless. Talks about the herds, sows and heifers, little piglets at the ice-cream bar. But, give them a chance, play them a decent song, and they’re capable of love. Of joy. It’s hard to mock that.
Billy: Not impossible.
Anobium: What about a bad crowd?
Billy: New Yorkers. No offense. Too self-aware, too needy for experience. [Makisig just nods] It’s really hard to get them to loosen up. More than that, it’s hard to get them to stop thinking about what they’re doing in terms of what they’re doing. Like, ‘here I am on a cruise ship, listening to Motown, what to make of it?’
Anobium: I’m going to have to ask you to get out of my head.
Makisig: We see it, filming themselves, and – lately – the social media stuff. Which we have to do, too, for the business aspect of it. But we’re working.
Billy: Yeah. That’s just it. Social media is a tool – a corporate tool. It’s a way to sell things, to cast an exaggerated shadow, lets a mom-and-pop business – or a little band – have a global presence. But, I mean, on vacation? Now that all the boats have Wi-Fi, we see kids narrating their entire experience. Not when they get home, with a photo album, but – live! Here’s me drinking a drink! Here’s me dancing in the lounge! It’s hard to see much joy there.
Anobium: The joy’s in proving to your friends what a good time you’re having.
Makisig: Ha! We do that. That’s part of our thing. We smile, and laugh, and get into the medleys. But Billy’s about to throw up, and I’ve got this thing with my rotator cuff, and Liu’s got tinnitus. Marcello’s a mess.
Billy: A bunch of old men! But we look happy! But projecting joy doesn’t leave a lot of time for actual joy. Or, hell, maybe it does. Maybe the kids can enjoy themselves and broadcast it at the same time. You grow up in the post-modern, maybe you can deal with it, you don’t know any better, you can be happy. The parents can’t. It makes them miserable, you can see it.
Anobium: Well, maybe I should close with this, then: what can you do for people who can’t get into the moment?
Makisig: Gin and tonic. Cures everything.
Billy: Even the post-modern.
Makisig: The post-modern blues, right. And Gin and tonics, all around. And good music.
Billy: Good music. Play good music. And have a good dance partner.