(What should be) The last word on Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle

By now I'm sure all of you who are even remotely interested have seen the video of Susan Boyle "surprising" the judges and the audience of Britain's "reality" television show, Britain's Got Talent.

Boyle is, shall we say, not conventionally attractive, small-town, unemployed and — horrors! — at 47, of an age when our culture expects women to gracefully disappear from view.

Of course, the video has been spreading through the blogosphere and beyond like wildfire, because it turned out that Boyle can, in fact, really sing.

Now, to tell you the truth, I have been pretty good at avoiding "reality" teevee shows; a brief sampling early on convinced me they were exactly what I had expected them to be, freak shows more often than not, and I've never had much interest in such sort of degrading entertainment, thank you very much.

Anyway, the Boyle video was emailed to me, and a couple of you posted about it, and so I too have seen it (and yes, she can sing). I was appalled by the sexist, classist, ageist and — yes — lookist presumptions of both the audience and the judges and, with just everybody else, cheered Boyle's success at turning a theatre full of freak-show gawkers into fans.

But of all the commentary on this phenomenon, ranging from innocent pleasure in an ugly duckling's success to critical analyses of why it was such a "surprise" to so many to find out that an unattractive, middle-aged woman can actually sing well, the Globe and Mail's excellent television critic John Doyle hammered what should be the final nail into the coffin of this particular "reality" television stunt, nailing both why such programs are so popular and why we should be suspicious about the allegedly surprised judges.

The Boyle phenomenon has been a great, heartwarming experience for tens of millions of people. They feel vindicated every time they see the video. They empathize and connect with Boyle; they do a mental tut-tut when the judges roll their eyes and the audience sniggers at the middle-aged, plain woman. They are conning themselves that in the same situation they wouldn't react exactly as the judges and the audience did before Boyle began singing in that stunning voice.

See, the Boyle phenomenon is well and good, but the problem with it is that it reveals our collective hypocrisy about reality TV, beauty and talent.

If American Idol and its many imitations actually featured a lot of people who looked like Boyle, then hardly anybody would watch.

What we want is young, pretty people to gaze at. We think we root for the underdog, but we don't really. We are a superficial, catty and vapid culture. We aren't interested in authenticity. We mainly watch TV shows featuring people we'd like to date, touch and have sex with.

Doyle goes on to say,

The attention given to Boyle is the exception that proves the rule — we are relentlessly superficial. This isn't the fault of television. It's a collective weakness, and we get the popular culture we deserve.

In the Boyle case, though, the true irony is that it's possible we have been expertly manipulated. There is something far too slick and staged about the clip of Boyle on Britain's Got Talent. Simon Cowell is one the great Svengalis of popular music. The idea that Cowell was completely taken aback by Boyle's voice is simply too far-fetched.

Far-fetched indeed. The full article is available here and I heartily commend it to your attention.

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