In Defense Of Susan Boyle, Or At Least The Susan Boyle Phenomenon
The obvious and inevitable Susan Boyle backlash has begun. Duh. Last Thursday, Michael Musto at the Village Voice wrote in protest of the heavy theatricality of the supposedly inspiring moment:
First off, Boyle–if that’s even really her name–was obviously drabbed down for effect, so you’d think she was some crazy woman off the street. The dialogue before her song came off completely calculated too, with her even stumbling for a second to cement the idea that she’s a bit daft and totally amateur. And the judges all assumed this “Give me a break” stance–with seemingly rehearsed audience reaction shots thrown in–all to stack the deck against saucy Susan.
And then she sang her Les Miz dirge and the judges, every bit as rehearsed as before, lit up with predictable shock and glee, as I started to suspect this woman is a pro with a lot of theater credentials, probably sent down by Central Casting.
Sure. I mean, I don’t know about the “pro” stuff. It doesn’t seem hard to believe that someone with a theater-grade voice has been undiscovered by the world. There’s a pretty big stack of cat ladies you have to dig through to get to the opera needle (if only there were a reality show about coming up with perfect metaphors!) But I will totally accept the obviousness of television’s manipulation of the viewing experience to elicit a specific emotional reaction, and those manipulations being clearly and heavily in play here.
The same day as the Musto piece, Kyle Buchanan over at Movieline wrote a similarly a-ha post in which he criticized the moment’s disingenuousness, claimed to be at his “breaking point” with the whole thing, and even criticized Boyle’s perceived humility:
I’m over it, d00dz. I am an asshole, but I’m over it. Actually, you know what I’m most over? This weird prizing of humility in people aspiring to be huge music stars. The same thing goes for American Idol, where contestants like Melinda Doolittle and Taylor Hicks are rewarded for their seeming lack of narcissism, while message boards churn with antipathy toward aspirants who are perceived as “too arrogant.” Yes, because that’s what we hate in music: arrogance. We certainly would not like to reward that boundless self-confidence in people like Kanye West, Madonna, Mick Jagger, every rapper everywhere, and Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist from The Hives (I’m just sneaking that one in because I love him). Oh wait, we do, because we actually want our rock stars to be full of themselves. That’s what makes them fun and larger than life and able to command a stadium full of people.
Again, I get it. Buchanan’s complaint is one that could easily be leveled against American Idol, and the entire industry of supposedly meritocratic reality TV in which your ability to work well with others and win over audiences with your down-to-Earthness is incorrectly valued as heavily as your actual ability to perform.
But here is the thing: what is everyone even talking about?
The Susan Boyle thing is definitely popular because the editing staff at Britain’s Got Talent did a really great job of making it seem like she was a crazy, dowdy loser who was secretly a talent goldmine (i.e. living the dream), but that narrative is all over the place. Not just in reality TV, either. If you get rid of the 47-year-old Scottish virgin, Susan Boyle is basically Spider-Man. Moreover, I don’t think the Susan Boyle phenomenon has anything to do with surprise that someone who seems frumpy or unattractive (because let us be honest, she is very frumpy, and very unattractive) could be good at singing (or anything else for that matter). I think it has to do with reversing expectations, and we all need to have our expectations reversed once in awhile. The expectation here, again, is not that you need to be beautiful to sound beautiful, or some nonsense, but that a TV show that is designed to use human beings as so much soul-crushing ego-destroying schadenfreude fodder could actually produce the opposite effect. That is the reversal here.
And you know what else? She’s not taking time away from the classic model of TV as dehumanizing mockery! We still have plenty of room to insult and pity and deride the rest of the people we watch every night. Did you hear about Luann DeLesseps getting divorced? LOL, right? Fuck her pain. She’s an asshole! See what I mean? MULTI-TASKING.
As far as being frustrated that people are “falling for” this, that’s a completely separate issue. Here at Videogum, we still get emails on a regular basis from people trying to get on the shows we write about. Because they still don’t understand the difference between a (somewhat) humorous pop culture blog and an actual television production company. There’s lots of people out there who don’t “get it.” Take it up with your local school board. And the media going crazy over something insignificant is just what the media does. Would you ask the sun to stop blowing things out of proportion? Would you ask the rain to stop losing perspective on what’s important? So for now, let’s just enjoy that there’s someone in the world who’s “happy” and “achieving their dreams.” Even if it’s fake! Lord knows, some kind of depressing Heidi Montag driven publicity steamroller of despair will pave over our collective enthusiasm soon enough.