Reflecting on the Susan Boyle phenomenon
As only the 13,885,634th person to click on the Susan Boyle video on YouTube, I can't say I was way ahead of this gigantic story, a story that even made it into the Round Table discussion portion of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday (George Will, needless to say, seemed to be the only one unaffected).
Like so many others, I've been quite taken with this international Susan-anom. Ultimately, I think it's safe to say that what captured the world's attention was not just her earnest singing, but the fact that everyone in the Britain's Got Talent audience seemed to be so sure, just from taking one look at this delightfully non-glam middle-aged woman from a Scottish village, that she would bomb terribly. The don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover lesson is one we all need to be retaught from time to time, and Susan Boyle sure delivered it with a flourish. The coolest thing about the video of her big moment is the combination of an honest performance and the sight of a whole bunch of startled skeptics getting their comeuppance.
I can't help but wonder, though, if the reaction would have been anywhere near as ecstatic had that voice ...
come out of a predictably pretty young thing. My guess is that the so-called judges on the show (who died and named them arbiters of anything?) would have decided that the performance wasn't as big a deal. And some folks wouldn't have hesitated to point out the tightening on top notes and weakly supported low ones.
But this was not an ordinary audition by an ordinary, faceless contestant. This wasn't about discovering the voice of the century. What Susan Boyle has is, in some ways, more important. It's the ability to make people hear with fresh ears, see with fresh eyes. She successfully challenged every stupid misconception we carry around with us in an era that so desperately prizes youth and impossible, often manufactured beauty. (It reminds me of how wrong-headed the still-strong prejudice is against overweight opera singers.)
I only wish this wonderfully down-to-earth woman had not chosen to focus her vocalism on the dreadful song, "I Dreamed a Dream," from that musically vapid, grossly overrated Les Miserables. (I never thought I'd agree with the infernally condescending Peggy Noonan on anything, but she was right on target when, referring to that Les Mis number on This Week, she quoted the great Noel Coward line: "Strange how potent cheap music can be.")
For all the morning pseudo-news shows in the States last week, Susan Boyle gamely sang part of "I Dreamed a Dream" a cappella and, without all the screaming of the TV audience that accompanied her audition performance, it was possible to focus more on her voice and verify that she does, indeed, have a clear, pleasant timbre and a sincere, effectively direct manner of phrasing. This is a woman who obviously loves to sing.
I just hope she'll have some new material ready for her next round on the talent show. Perhaps she'll reprise "Cry Me a River," which she sang on a 1999 recording that resurfaced late last week. That solidly-sung performance is quite laid-back in style, suggesting how Jane Olivor -- remember Jane Olivor? -- might have phrased it. (Give me Streisand's wonderfully wrought version of that song any day, but I can certainly appreciate the subtler approach.) If you haven't already checked it out, an audio clip of this decade-old Susan Boyle performance is below.
Anyway, this whole wild ride for a previously unknown Scottish villager has been a great diversion in these uneasy, recessionary times. In a way, it doesn't matter how Susan Boyle fares in the next round of the TV show. She proved not only that Britain's got talent, but that people everywhere, of every age and background, have talents, too, just waiting to be tapped.
Susan Boyle is living the lines of the venerable spiritual: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna make it shine." By any standard, by any ranking, her shining light has already won her the gold.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO