A little cynicism about the Susan Boyle phenomenon

23Apr09

First off, I just wanted to mention that I’ll be at Media in Transition 6 this weekend, so if you’re in Cambridge, say hi! I’m a respondant on a panel about using moving images as a rhetorical mode of film & media criticism on Sunday morning – it should be an interesting discussion.

In the past, I’ve noted how talking with the press can be both gratifying and frustrating, as often quotes are decontextualized, cut-off, or otherwise misconstrued. So to give credit where it is due, I want to point to Amy Rosenberg’s piece on the Susan Boyle phenomenon in The Philadelphia Inquirer for capturing our conversation effectively in a compelling article. Let me elaborate beyond the quotes here:

I’ve mostly been mystified by the online spread of Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent, watching dozens of Facebook friends link to the video, celebrate it in their status updates, and join her fan page. I watched the video, and didn’t make it through the whole thing once I got the point (note: I hate Les Miz, so the song does nothing for me). As quoted in the article, I didn’t quite understand why the crowd, judges, and online fans all assumed that Boyle’s appearance would indicate anything about her singing, so the surprise seemed unwarranted.

In fact, anyone who knows BGT or its previous spreading video of Paul Potts should have expected Boyle’s performance. Potts was a similiarly unassuming working-class, middle-aged singer with an impressive voice who wowed the crowd and judges, going on to win the first season of BGT. I remember seeing Potts on YouTube, and being surprised by his performance – less because an unattractive person was singing well, but because his working-class demeanor didn’t fit with his preferred musical genre of opera. Potts established the narrative hook for BGT that distinguished it from the Idol franchise: highlight people based on talent instead of celebrity/stardom potential, and craft feel-good narratives of people who seem truly commonplace with exceptional abilities.

Boyle fits with this narrative too well – so well that the surprise on the judges’ faces seemed disingenous. Certainly Simon Cowell, who is a producer of the show, would know better than to be truly surprised by Boyle fulfilling the perfectly cast role of diamond in the rough. But everyone played their parts: Boyle seeming out-of-place on stage until she started to sing, the crowd voicing skepticism based on her appearance only to immediately transform into a cheering throng upon hearing her voice, and the judges melting their cynicism on demand. It is a perfect example of how reality television can be both unscripted and completely plotted – through casting and genre conventions, the show offers surprise exactly as we might expect it to.

What I don’t understand is why so many people have embraced this as a marker of the triumph of the human spirit. For me, it’s a confirmation of how the media creates untenable beauty norms and ideals – the judges and crowd’s dismissive tone toward Boyle before she sang confirmed the ridiculous assumed linkage between conventional beauty and talent. Their shift in attitude was not Boyle’s triumph, but an indictment of this assumption – which will certainly last no longer than Boyle’s run on the show. Boyle herself is irrelevant to this narrative – it’s not about her talent (which, to be honest, is fine but not truly exceptional) or her story, but rather she is just a vehicle to make us feel good about how open minded we can be about frumpy people.

One last point: BGT is now in a bind. Boyle clearly has to win the competition, or her swelling fanbase will rebel (and the Cowell led record contract will suffer). But after Potts and Boyle, the formula will be laid so bare as to make the presumption of “unscripted” untenable. Obviously the economic gains of Boyle’s success is all that counts in the short-term, but the genre conventions cannot be made so obvious and predictable that the premise of the show suffers in the long-term. At least until next year’s token ugly singer “surprises” everyone yet again.



13 Responses to “A little cynicism about the Susan Boyle phenomenon”

  1. 1 Louis

    Another jealous bitch. Get a life!
    Hopefully, God will never let your dream come true. You Fugly person.

    • 2 Alex Guggenheim

      Said Louis in displaying gracious inner beauty in his disgusting hate-filled rant about someone else’s jealousy.

      Alex

    • 3 hassan

      i have to say this article sucks really. i feel soy for my self because i read it but i wish it was written in a paper i will ter it up and clean my ass with it

  2. Nice post. I was just having a conversation with a friend, this weekend, about the Susan Boyle performance (which I had, at that point, not yet seen). His take on the whole thing was less “triumph of spirit,” more “what judgmental assholes we can all be.” The phenomenon on Britain’s Got Talent that most impressed me was that old clip that circulated of the Punjabi duo; the one guy doing his best Michael Jackson, before his partner comes out (as a janitor) and the routine breaks down into a Bhangra-fied jam. The crowd went ballistic. What was so endearing about that, was the crowd’s surprise, and genuine enthusiasm for a culture that the National Front have tried to excise from Britain for decades. Looks like multiculturalism won.

  3. I agree with you Jason. Of course those shows are planned. I suppose I just didn’t feel like the judges or the crowd’s admiration was genuine. It’s just sad that we feel we need these schsmaltzy (sp?) moments to assauge our guilt over how we judge people on looks. Personally, I just felt offended by her eyebrows. I expected them to crawl off her face at any moment and scare the judges. Please, there are more talented and better looking people out there, who never get a break because they don’t fit into the “perfectly frumpy with a perfectly decent voice” mold. Now, I would applaud anyone who would dare to take a pair of tweezers to those shags above her eyes.

    • 6 hassan

      u r an asshole too . u r sick i mean it. she is god’s creature . and im not going to pay attention what im writing and how i write coz u do not desrve this if u wee live in front of me i will spit on you.period

  4. 7 Erin

    You have to expect a little bit of planning on shows like these. That is where the fan base and the ratings come in. But at the same time, you have to wonder, no matter how it was done, how they found this woman, or any other “diamond in the rough” for that matter American example might be The Band IceBloc). Somewhere, somehow, she was an unlikely talented singer, and the fact that the show jazzed up the story and the acting should do nothing to discredit the fact that she is an amazing singer (whether or not you like Les Miz) and that she DOES inspire many people that might not be as pretty.

    You look at events like the Olympics with the little Chinese girls- same thing…. why not let the girl with the voice be known?

  5. 8 Chris Becker

    I guess I’m one of the everybodys who fell for it because I was moved when I watched it. For me it wasn’t so much because of her looks (though I don’t deny that that’s involved here, and in the patronizing way you describe) but because she came across as so charmingly goofy in the set-up bits. So then when she started singing and was clearly fueled by the reaction, I found it really endearing (so I guess for me, it was as much about her response as everyone else’s). As you note, it was a packaged mix of reality and artificiality, and that’s in fact what I love about a lot of reality tv (The Hills for instance), so for me it totally worked. Recognizing the artificiality didn’t prevent me from being moved. And just as you indicate that much of the “oh, the ugly girl has talent!” reaction is super-patronizing, I also find the backlash against it, saying that those of us who were moved by it were either duped or self-serving, to be patronizing too.

  6. 9 Brian Faucette

    While I am equally skeptical of reality talent formatted programs in the United States, I think it is important to remember that in Britain there are laws and standards of practice that make it extremely difficult for these types of programs to be rigged, because of their reliance on the support of the government through the BBC. As always i am wary of Simon Cowell and his motives but as he is a extremely savvy business man I am sure that he realizes the fall out that would occur should it be revealed that he, his producers, and others involved in the production were rigging the outcome of the show. In fact, this practice has already been located in several British quiz shows and those individuals are facing serious prosecution.
    I think we, in the states, are overly cynical because we understand television here as an advertisers/corporate capital model but this is simply not the case in Britain where the BBC functions as regulator, producer, and supporter of British television, regardless of ratings.

  7. Thanks all for the comments (except Louis, of course!). I’d also point to Nic Sammond’s post on the topic and Tim Burke’s post partly replying to mine.

    To clarify, I’m not suggesting that the show was “rigged” per se, but rather that the surprise was less than authentic. While I’m sure the British system might prohibit manipulation explicitly, they cannot prevent Cowell pretending to be surprised – it is an entertainment show, after all!

    @Chris – I didn’t mean to be patronizing to fans, but more just confused. The goofy facet makes sense, and I guess my own reaction was more distracted by the bizarre editing and audience grumbling to notice much about Boyle herself before she started to sing. While I wouldn’t suggest people are being duped overall, it did seem in my informal ethnography (i.e. Facebook friend feed), that the more typical reaction was “wow, this is simply inspiring & beautiful” rather than “isn’t this interesting and complicated”.

    @Erin – good point about potential inspiration for less-than-attractive singers. But I fear that such possibilities could easily be commodified into the next version of The Swan! I guess I’m stuck in a cynical groove on this…

  8. 11 LTorchin

    I think cynicism is healthy. While it is worth parsing the ‘phenomenon’ given the transnational and transmedia nature of it, there are elements that ask for some criticism. When I say that, I don’t mean criticism of Boyle, who will face plenty as the phenomenon persists, nor of those who found the narrative and song uplifting, but of the underlying processes and messages that have fuelled the entire thing.

    Apparently, Boyle was on the first episode of Britain’s Got Talent, so one can imagine that the timetabling of her performance was possibly calculated to give a push to the programme. Look at what you’ll see this in this series of BGT, the moment tells the British public: undiscovered talent and villains like Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan being made to look like the twats they are!

    Funnily enough, though, it was the American response via YouTube that brought this all to my attention, and I’m still trying to figure out if Boyle’s GMTV appearances came before or after the American excitement. (In fact, the Inquirer piece bothered me because it suggested that British Cinema is all about the myth of working class transcendance a la Billy Elliot and Full Monty. That’s not true. The British Cinema that succeeds in the US succeeds because either it provides the expectations of what is British (costume dramas or maybe some kitchen sink realism) or it dovetails with American myths of working class triumph. (Bear in mind that the men from Full Monety have a good time, but change nothing of their situation.) I won’t go into the British Cinema that isn’t recognised by American publics as this is neither the time nor the place, nor is this my area of expertise.

    But really, what brought me here was my own cynicism: Boyle is a perfectly fine woman, but I am truly troubled by a narrative that expects us all to be blown away that a person of less standard looks is actually capable of something, and suited to our appreciation. Look at her! Who would expect anything? Yes, she showed ‘us’, but the narrative/set up stands as something ugly that needs to be taken down, not propped up. I’m not sure that this story is taking down this pernicious lookist attitude.

  9. Well, I was discussing this on another forum and a poster pointed out that, due to the sheer number of auditions, most of which are pre-screened by assistants and interns, Piers, Amanda and Simon are seeing what is really the creme of the crop….many of whom are brought on because a) they have talent or b) because they are so entertainingly bad, ie the terrible drag artist….so, it’s pretty fair to think that the judges had at least a heads-up on Boyle.

    And what’s a bit disappointing about all this is that, due to the viral nature of youtube and insta-fame, there’s little need to root for her, as no matter what happens, she’s already ‘won’ her fame and will be courted by any number of record producers.
    The actual BGT contest is a bit of a formality, innit? except for the really cool bit about getting to sing for the Queen…


  1. 1 Tama Leaver dot Net » Annotated Digital Culture Links: April 24th 2009

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