Weighing in on SB19’s “WHAT?”

Screenshot from the official music video

And so as not to confuse their patriotism, the cry of “PILIPINAS” is heard loud and clear. The last line reads “di na magpapaawat, iwawagayway na ang watawat,” and the song finally rests on a relic of the Murillo-Velarde map that is a testament to the country’s ownership of the West Philippine Sea.


Talk about the song “What?” and the next thing that comes to mind is “makabayan, ‘dre”.

Barely two months after the release of their song “What?”, SB19 was nominated in Billboard’s Top Social Artist award (BBMA) along with K-pop sensations BTS, BlackPink, Seventeen and US pop star Ariana Grande. A historic first for a Filipino and Southeast Asian artist, SB19’s nomination was a result of their fans’ (called A’tin) passion and dedication to increase SB19’s social metrics in all online platforms, from streaming to fan interactions.

And to think that SB19 has the smallest fanbase (roughly 350 thousand) compared to its competitors’ mega-giant ones. How A’tin carried SB19 to international spotlight is another story that has earned them the name “monster keyboard warriors”in this pop-crazed world.

Back to “What?”. The song has become SB19’s signature statement to come out of the K-pop image and carve their own identity as a Pinoy boyband. It brings out a new, fresh, and unique sound that has even raised the bar higher for Pinoy pop.

Meshed in various genres quite untried in the music industry, it incorporates different styles, changes in tempos, and levels of meaning wrapped in metaphors and imagery that could initially confuse a listener but all working beautifully in the end. This coupled with intense singing and dancing, and a music video that is over-the-top.

What is popularly acknowledged is that the song talks about self-love and empowerment based on the members’ life experiences as they struggled and sacrificed for years before they got to where they are now. It was a painful journey for the group.

In different circumstances, the members have known poverty, family separations and expectations, failing health, domestic abuse, self-doubts and depression even as they juggle work and studies during their rigorous training. (They were trained in the Philippines by a South Korean agency.)

And when finally introduced to the public, the bashers were merciless. They were hit hard for their looks (“ampapangit”) and for being “k-popish” which was said to be their doom.

But the boys persevered, and finally got their big break about a year after their debut single. There were songs before “What?” that drove fans to their side, not only because of sheer talent, but because they, too, were relatable. Then came “What?” which turned out to be an iconic song of self-love and love of country. No mistaking their being Pinoy.

The song title What? is a word play for Watawat. Raise your flag is a recurrent theme throughout the song, ripe not just with personal but patriotic symbolisms. So much is going on, as reactors would say, but no one can argue that the song is mind-blowing.

On a personal note, it speaks of raising one’s self confidence (“alam ko naman na di ako’ng pinaka ano magaling”), of pride for one’s beginnings (“lahat ng aking basura, pupulutin laging dala”), of remaining humble (“kahit saan pa ko mapunta, lapat sa lupa aking mga paa”), of never losing hope (“nakasarang bintana… ngayo’y nagbubukas”), of perseverance during tragedies (“daming sakuna… di ko ininda”), of rewards and grace (“darating din ang biyaya, marami pa sa lahat-lahat ng nawala”). And while the chorus talks of peace and religious faith, it also declares bravery and toughness in struggle (“bawat banat, iwagayway mo ang watawat”).

But, wittingly or unwittingly, it is “What’s?” social critique and patriotic stance that is more hitting and commanding serious thought.

Ferociously, it assails a privileged class, though claiming to be educated, that only sees reality with a broken lens (“bente-bente [20-20], paulit-ulit, intelihente, subalit, ngunit, basag ang lente, pinunit-punit”). On the other side, those devoid of power or less privileged could suffer dire consequences (“hinubog ng Dalagang Bakal sirit”). The latter is a reference to the Iron Maiden which was a torture chamber during the Middle Ages.
Becoming even bolder, perhaps coincidentally during this season of red-tagging, is the waving of a red flag, around which the members danced forcefully. No one is stopping SB19 for using red as a symbol of valor. And in the second half of the song this valor is turned into defense of the nation.

The allusion to Katipunan is subtle but powerful. As the song repeats its stirring chorus, SB19 delivers sharp and snappy moves as soldiers garbed in Heneral Luna outfits. They draw clenched fists before red and black flags waving proudly in the air. Their voices and that of the people who appeared as support dancers later become one, singing and dancing together, as if rejoicing in their unity and struggle.

And so as not to confuse their patriotism, the cry of “PILIPINAS” is heard loud and clear. The last line reads “di na magpapaawat, iwawagayway na ang watawat,” and the song finally rests on a relic of the Murillo-Velarde map that is a testament to the country’s ownership of the West Philippine Sea.

What? spells courage and defiance, and a call not just to fight for one’s own personal battles but more so for the country’s sovereignty. It is so uplifting at a time when the Filipinos’ fight for national territory is being treated by the leader of this country as no more than a “trash of paper”. The significance is not lost to their fans and to people who are listening to their music. SB19’s music and artistry evoke Pinoy pride, and for that this P-pop group deserves to go up. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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  1. This is a very intelligently written article.

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