Art and Entertainment

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Susan Boyle

Making Sense of the Powerful Reaction to Susan Boyle

April 15, 2009 07:40 PM
by Mark E. Moran
The 47-year-old woman from Scotland has become a global Internet sensation due to her performance on “Britain's Got Talent,” leaving the rest of us to make sense of the overwhelming reaction.

Susan Boyle, the Humble Global Internet Sensation

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On the Saturday, April 11 episode of “Britain's Got Talent,” 47-year-old Susan Boyle stunned the judges and audience. Walking timidly on stage in a neutral colored dress and little makeup, Boyle, who says she's never been kissed, was the antithesis of the young, often glossily made-over contestants that usually win such shows.

A video of Boyle's performance has generated more than nine million views on YouTube. And five days after the performance, links to the clip are still ubiquitous on national news shows, Twitter streams, blog stories, and every other form of media. Viewers report obessively watching replays, and crying every time. What can we make of the overwhelming reaction to the newest Internet sensation?
The rarely complimentary Simon Cowell called the performance “extraordinary” and fellow judge Piers Morgan said it was “without a doubt the biggest surprise I have had in three years of this show.”

Even Cameron MacIntosh, producer of Les Miserables, pronounced himself  “gob-smacked” by the performance, calling it “one of the best versions of the song I've ever heard. Touching, thrilling and uplifting. I do hope she gets to sing it for the Queen.” The winner of Britain's Got Talent wins $150,000 and the chance to appear before the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Performance.

Boyle, one of nine children from a devout Scottish Catholic family, won fans over with her humility and self-deprecating humor as much as her unexpected talent. In her profile on the show’s official Website, she is quoted as saying “I sing everywhere I can, to anybody who will really listen. They would be better off with a budgie though, do you not think?” 

And Boyle humbly looks forward to the possibility of one day singing for the Queen: “Whatever comes my way, I am ready. It would be lovely to sing for the Queen. There would be less of the carry on from me, and more of the singing.  She is a very regal lady, very nice, so I would be nice too, and just get up there and give it a bit of wellie.”

Opinion: Understanding the reaction, and lessons to be drawn

While most Internet coverage says little more than “the woman who shut up Simon Cowell,” some writers are drawing lessons from the stunning performance and powerful reaction to it.

Colette Douglas Home of Britain’s The Herald, in a piece titled “The Beauty that Matters is Always on the Inside,” called Boyle’s story “a parable of our age. ... Her story is the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen: the woman plucked from obscurity, the buried talent uncovered, the transformation waiting to be wrought.” 

On lessons to be drawn, Douglas Home noted that Boyle has spent much of her adult life caring for her widowed mother. It wrote, “She has lived an obscure but important life. ... It's people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. They make this country civilised and they deserve acknowledgement and respect. Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character.”

The episode is reminiscent of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” in which a handsome prince is turned into a hideous beast for treating poorly a fairy who had feigned an old and haggard appearance. The three judges, 3,000 audience members, and millions of Internet users who initially snickered at Boyle suffered no such cruel fate. Our only punishment is that, as Jennifer Simmons of Examiner.com writes, “we all were served our egoes flatly in our laps.”

But the continuing, overwhelming reaction to Boyle’s surprising performance go beyond bruised egos. Blogger Dr. Robert Canfield, professor of Anthropology at Washington University, references yearnings and anxieties that humans bury deep within themselves, until “something outside ourselves ... touches us, somehow, where we feel most deeply. At such moments we remember that we are humans—not mere living creatures, but human beings, profoundly and deeply shaped by a moral sensibility so powerful that it breaks through our inhibitions.”

Dr. Canfield also quoted Lisa Schwarzbaum, writer of the Popwatch column on the Entertainment Weekly Website. Pondering why she cries as she replays the audition over and over again, Schwarzbaum concludes, “In our pop-minded culture so slavishly obsessed with packaging—the right face, the right clothes, the right attitudes, the right Facebook posts—the unpackaged artistic power of the unstyled, un-hip, un-kissed Ms. Boyle let me feel, for the duration of one blazing show stopping ballad, the meaning of human grace. She pierced my defenses. She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective.”

Simmons sees Boyle’s triumph as the continuation of a trend. She writes “something new has begun taking place.  Something remniscient of my high school duality of heartfelt girl next door with a chosen hardcore, or even sometimes apathetic, exterior, yet still managing to carry the ‘whatever happens, happens’ attitude. You see, with the incredible gift of the Internet, the little man is gaining level ground.” 

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Reference: “Les Miserables” and “I Dreamed A Dream”

The emotional reaction to Boyle's performance is no doubt due in part to the power of the story of "Les Miserables."  Written by Victor Hugo in 1862, the tale of redemption and love become the basis for a record-setting, award-winning musical that has been performed in dozens of countries since its debut at the Barbican Theatre in London in 1985.

Appropriately, "I Dreamed A Dream," sung by the character Fantine, a poor, suffering mother and major character in the novel, hints at the possibility of a better life. The song has been sung by numerous actresses in the role of Fantine over the years, and covered by scores of notable recording artists.  The performance by the original Fantine, Patti LuPone is one of the standouts.
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