I’m referring to the tube-viral performance of Susan Boyle this week on Britain’s Got Talent.
You can see it here on Chickadee’s diary: http://agonist.org/chickadee/20090415/introducing_susan_boyle#new
As that tape began, I wondered why Simon Cowell and the other judges were rolling their eyes and giving each other questioning looks before Susan Boyle even began singing. They don’t do impolite smirking with other contestants, even the fat, homely ones. Yes, indeed, Susan Boyle was older, frumpy, ungainly – a typical British housewife from a Monty Python set, even if she made it clear she was a spinster (and a virgin at that, which was such an odd thing to admit on national television that I began to wonder if she wasn’t deliberately presenting this image of innocence and purity).
Besides, you don’t just show up off the street to appear on a prominent national broadcast without someone involved with the program hearing you sing, if only on a demo tape or CD. The judges could have easily looked at the tape, or at least been given the word from the producers: “Here’s a potential Paul Potts. Play up your doubts at the start, and then once you hear her show your amazement and delight.”
The judges volunteer to be the mean, condescending bad guys against Everywoman who has a previously unknown, wonderful talent. It’s an age old story line that goes back at least to Hans Christian Andersen and his ugly duckling. It’s the type of story most people respond to instinctively, and it works especially well in this case because we have all been trained to hate Simon Cowell for his acerbic and usually gratuitous insults. He probably doesn’t mind being saddled with this public persona, because he has become quite wealthy as producer of these talent contests.
Susan Boyle has already been on ABC News and is appearing soon on Larry King Live. I am nearly certain that she is not entirely as naive as the show’s publicist makes her appear (each contestant is assigned a publicist, by the way). There is definitely something feisty about her – she came on the stage promising to knock people’s socks off and show those judges a thing or two – so she has no problem playing along with the ugly duckling story line.
Besides, she does have a lovely voice, a bit too much vibrato for my liking, but she is 47 or 48, depending on who is doing the talking. It wouldn’t take too much coaching to get her ready for her debut in a West End musical. She is already likely to be offered a recording contract whether she wins the contest or not (Simon says he’s not ready to vote for her as the winner because there are other surprising contestants yet to appear – but as producer what else would he say; he wants us to keep watching).
For her recent television appearances following her sensational rise to global stardom, she has begun to pluck her eyebrows, so the ugly duckling is beginning to prepare for her transformation to a swan. I really hope she makes it big whether it’s as a duckling or a swan, because there seems to be a shortage of good West End/Broadway musical stars. I could just do without the whole pretense that the judges didn’t see this one coming.
I have to remind myself that this is business, after all. I once watched Indonesian Idol while on a trip to Asia, and then on the next stop in Kuala Lumpur came across Malaysian Idol. This global Idol franchise isn’t just business – it’s very big business. It thrives on story lines and fairy tales come true, and it has no compunction creating a fairy tale if it brings in the ratings.
That’s why I suspect we’re all unwitting but eagerly complicit participants in the Susan Boyle fairy tale. The Larry King’s and Jay Leno’s of the television world will be anxious to snap up interviews with such a clear ratings booster. Susan Boyle, in the meantime, will work with the best professional make-up and design artists to change her appearance – to use make-up, facial treatments, and hair styling to achieve the optimal look of a beautiful but slightly frumpy matron.
I will give Simon Cowell this much – in the end, he says, it’s all about the singing. I’ll be happy to put on her inevitable CD, close my eyes to all the fantasy that has swirled about her, and listen to an expressive and pleasing voice. She’ll be in my collection right next to Paul Potts and the debut album of Jennifer Hudson. I can be cynical about being sold an ugly duckling story, but like everybody else, I can’t resist the occasional graceful swan that happens to float on to the public scene.