Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Susan Boyle phenomenon

A month ago who knew who Susan Boyle was? Now you'd think anyone with a radio, a television, an internet connection will have heard her amazing voice*, and probably also seen just why her singing ability was a shock to so many.

Dennis Palumbo at The Huffington Post considers what might have happened had the book matched the expectations so many formed on viewing the cover:
The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?

Personally, I'm gratified that her voice inspires so many, and reminds us of our tendency to judge and criticize based on shallow externals of beauty. What I mean is, I'm glad for her.

But I have no doubt that, had she performed poorly, Simon Cowell would be rolling his eyes still. And the audience would have hooted and booed with the relish of Roman spectators at the Colosseum. And that Susan Boyle's appearance on the show would still be on YouTube, but as an object of derision and ridicule.

So let's not be too quick to congratulate ourselves for taking her so fully to our hearts. We should've done that anyway, as we should all those we encounter who fall outside the standards of youth and beauty as promulgated by fashion magazines, gossip sites, and hit TV shows.

We should've done that anyway, before Susan Boyle sang a single note.

Susan Boyle's voice is fantastic, and her song choice brilliant. The Cinderella aspect of her story has undoubted widespread appeal; and that's exactly what gets me posting. What will Susan Boyle look like by the final of Britain's Got Talent? Will she still be unemployed? Will she still have never been kissed?

There seems to have been a presumption that she was unhappy as she was, and that her singing voice will rescue her from all that. Maybe she was, maybe she will look back in five years and be infinitely pleased by how her life has changed. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that someone can't possibly be satisfied with the life she was living already.

And I can't help thinking that if we weren't so judgemental about appearances, if we didn't assume that beautiful voices only emanate from bodies that conform**, then Susan Boyle would probably have already made a career from her voice many years ago.

* If not, you could try here.
** Or rather seem to conform.


Anna said...

A writer at the Guardian wrote a superb opinion piece on this, describing the absolutely rancid behaviour that the audience of the show subject Boyle to. (She compared it to the performance of Paul Potts, who was also initially ridiculed by the judges, but who didn't get the mocking wolf-whistling or remarks.)

The piece concluded by saying that viewers are now feeling smug and self-congratulatory for giving one 'ugly' person a go - like some sort of shitty affirmative action scheme.


Anonymous said...

Agree that it is sad that people are obsessed with looks. Take k.d. lang and her amazing versions of Hallelujah and Helpless at the 2005 Juno Awards, she sings like an angel (both video clips are on YouTube: and ). I question how anyone can listen to Hallelujah without a shiver going down their spine, yet about a third of the comments are questions about whether she is male or female, and various other derogatory remarks.

homepaddock said...

I agree - and posted on this yesterday.

Normally TV goes to the opposite extreme with makeup which turns people into plastic parodies so Susan and the audience were set up.

Had she not sung so well the sneers and sniggers we saw at the start would have turned to boos. That's the sad reality of reality television where appearance - especially for women - is almost everything.

Julie said...

Sorry Ele, I hadn't seen your post when I wrote mine, here's a link to it.

Random lurker said...

When I saw that youtube vid, I was genuinely confused. The judges' reaction in particular was confusing. I thought perhaps it had something to do with her accent or style of speech. It didn't occur to me till some further reading that it was because of her appearance.

It's quite common I would've thought for non-pop musicians and singers to not be magazine models. Many are obese for instance. Some like pianist Keith Jarrett seem spastic.

It is genuinely surprising to me that so many people, especially those judges, assume a link between attractiveness and musical talent. I almost wonder if the judges' initial reaction was acting for the sake of reality TV ratings.

homepaddock said...

No need to apologise, Julie - if we read every other blog before posting we'd never do anything else.

I followed your link to The Huffington Post and found several other thoughtful posts on the issue, including:

Mary-Lou said...

Ahhh I think you'll find that with this show that there is a smorgasboard of people just like Susan who are utterly terrible.

Try sitting through these auditions for days on end and you'll understand fully the responses from the judges. Simon especially has also to deal with the X Factor and American Idol auditions... and most of them are painful to watch.

There isn't any underlying "shes ugly so she can't sing" nonsense at all by the judges - as shown she she started singing - but I say again if you sit through these auditions you expect EVERYBODY to suck.