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April 20, 2009

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).

Susan BoyleLike 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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:08 AM | | Comments (4)


This is 2009 for crying out loud, can you not appreciate how damaging it is to the operatic cause to sneer things like, "strange how potent cheap music can be"? Les Miserables is superb, and if you can't appreciate it, you have a problem, though it may be nothing worse than fear of other opera snobs. I'm a regular at Covent Garden, and you embarrass me, but I know that half the people in the house are as bad as you. No wonder opera is in crisis.

Oliver Chettle

Thanks for the passionate perspective. Whatever the year, whatever the century, there will always be debates on artistic quality, which is how it should be. I'd offer my views on Andrew Lloyd Webber's stuff, but I'd hate to get you even angrier. Cheers. TS

I wonder what's wrong with me, but I just don't think she's all that great. I mean, she's fine and all, but maybe all that Les Miserables stuff just sounds lame no matter who sings it.

There's nothing wrong with you. I'd say what's wrong is the media frenzy that has obscured the reality of the singing to focus on the feel-good, surprise angle of the story. It will be interesting to see how all of this unfolds over the long haul, assuming there is another act.TIM

This is the first crtitique I've read that attempts an even-handed and fair-minded assessment of Boyle's performance and talents.

As a non-musician, I liked her understated approach to "Cry Me a River". Although, at times, it does come across as Karaoke singing -- albeit of a very high quality. One hopes that coaching with not too heavy a hand will bring out the shine in this diamond in the rough without ruining her spontaneaty. Also, it would be interesting to hear how she sounds with live musicians, in which the conductor molds the accompaniment to her performance rather than the other way round.

YouTube has performances of the Les Miserables piece by many of the greats, including LuPone -- all having superb, beautifully trained voices. In comparison, the strength of the Boyle performance is its emotional transparency and effortless power. All the others seemed stagey and forced.

Many thanks for your incisive comments.TIM

Susan Boyle has a lovely voice, and I was very moved by her performance, but her weaknesses are obvious: she's an amateur who simply hasn't had enough training and experience to strengthen and mature her voice. I hope she goes on to a great career, but that will depend on her commitment to improving her voice.

I'll second that. Thanks for commenting.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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