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Susan Boyle

I was happy the first 500 or so times I saw people writing about Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent, but subsequently I've felt kind of annoyed about it.

First off, a disclaimer: If Susan Boyle's performance moved you and you wrote about it, I am not talking about your particular comments, I'm not judging your reaction or your choice to write about it, and I'm not saying you are doing any of the things I talk about here. In fact I don't know if anyone is doing the things I talk about here. It's just where my head goes with this.

The aggregate of the reaction to SB, both people who wrote about her and the people in the audience on the YouTube video, makes me feel like the notion of a not-conventionally-attractive, working-class, middle-aged woman singing well is similar to Samuel Johnson's reaction to women preaching. (He said: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.")

The fact that a not-conventionally attractive, working-class, middle-aged woman can sing really well should not be the size of big deal it is becoming.

There are lots of ways to see ordinary people singing well: go to a karaoke club. Find your local music school, find out when vocal recitals are held, and go to them. Go to a Sweet Adelines concert. Check out Sacred Harp/shapenote singing. (If you have other ideas, post them in the comments.)

The one-pointed focus on Susan Boyle (fanclubs on FB, 5+million views on YouTube) turns her into a token. And when something or someone becomes a token, I feel like the underlying message is "This is really unusual and rare. And we can applaud it [or decry it, if it's something bad] and feel good about ourselves, and then forget about it and get back to the status quo" (which might be "our usual state of believing only young, conventionally attractive people can be worthy performers" or something else).

In general, even though I do it too sometimes, I really don't like the human urge to take one example of something common and overfocus on it. I know it makes people feel connected to each other. And maybe it makes some people feel like their dreams can come true. ("If people can get excited about this, then people could also get excited about what I do.") But I feel like it also ends up making all the other examples of whatever-it-is even less visible.

Other examples of overfocus that I don't like:
  • When there is an animal rescue on the news, a huge number of people usually decide they have to adopt that animal. Never mind that there are other animals in need of adoption.
  • When there is a disaster somewhere, people flock to give aid to folks suffering from that disaster. Never mind that there are other situations where people need help.
  • And the usual complaint about how, whenever there is an Olympics, the US news media focuses primarily on how the US athletes are doing. And usually one or two athletes end up being the stars.
I suppose that in a world where there's way too much information that any of us can take in, this sort of thing is inevitable.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 16th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
See also:
For an example of the previous "shockingly good" "ordinary" person on Britain's Got Talent: Paul Pott. (That was 2007's version of Sarah.)


Apr. 16th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
This is largely why the rampant popularity of this clip has been bugging me, too. I mean, the tone isn't, "Oh my God, this woman can sing!" or, "Oh my God, she's the best singer I've ever heard!", but more like, "Oh my God, someone who looks like THAT can make a beautiful sound!", which I find to be as much an insult as a compliment.
Apr. 16th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
This. Also, the closest the judges came to admitting they and the audience were a bunch of bigots was when the woman said "I think we were being a bit cynical". No, you were being bigots. The woman can sing, but she's not the best singer I've ever seen. However, it never would have occured to me to think that somehow the arrangement of her physical features would make it somehow implausible that she would be a good singer. WTF is with *that*?
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 17th, 2009 08:57 am (UTC)
But she has the instrument, and she has expression. For someone with absolutely no formal training at all, I'd say she was extraordinary.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 17th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
In my experience, male metal and punk musicians can look however they look, but there's still a lot of judgement about how the female musicians look.
Apr. 17th, 2009 01:14 am (UTC)
My reaction was more like, "You GO! Show those smug bastards what for!"
Apr. 16th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
Ok, I used that clip in my feminist theory class this morning because we had a little time after student presentations and one of the students had a computer and I had a projector. My point wasn't "oh this woman can sing." It was "watch the judges faces: they've dismissed her based on her looks and just watch what happens when she opens her mouth." And that's what I love about that clip. I love watching Piers and Simon make total fools of themselves because they should have known better.

But yes, the hyperfocus thing drives me nuts. Moreso when it's an animal that everyone has to have - there are plenty to go around people - but in general, yes. I am looking forward to her next performance, though.

Edited at 2009-04-16 10:32 pm (UTC)
Apr. 16th, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
I love watching Piers and Simon make total fools of themselves because they should have known better.

Did that really happen or was it staged? I don't trust these "reality shows." But either way it's a good teaching tool.
Apr. 16th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)
Totally agreed. This kind of crap drives me nuts. It is also something I've encountered as a fat dancer. Overpraise because I, and others like me, are actually managing to dance at all which many assume is an impossibility due to our size. I often find it hard to take any praise of my dancing seriously because I fear so much of it is fueled by tokenism and the novelty factor. ::sigh:: I really see that going on with this woman and her singing. It is really all about her looks in the sense of, OMG, how can a woman who looks like that sing so well??!!! Yeah, whatever. Looks have nothing to do with it, though they do typically mandate whether or not one will make it on a TV show.
Apr. 17th, 2009 12:05 am (UTC)
Reminds me of an incident last week in which someone wanted to take a photo from my flickr stream and add it to her group called something like "phenomenal women". The pic is of one of the participants in my Tokyo trip going up an escalator in her manual wheelchair, and smiling broadly (which is why the pic is great, in my opinion -- really great smile). Anyway, the person said something like "So brave!" and I'm like, "Um, brave? She's going up an escalator, not fighting lions."
Apr. 16th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, I haven't actually *seen* the clip. I heard it, from across the room, not really paying attention to the commentary, and her delivery had me in tears. I still don't know what she actually looks like.

I'll freely admit to not being a particularly well-informed music consumer.
Apr. 16th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen one single post or article or anything that read to me like "The fact that a not-conventionally attractive, working-class, middle-aged woman can sing really well" is a big deal. Everything I have seen has been along the lines of "people--especially not-conventionally attractive, working-class, middle-aged women--seldom get the chance to have their dreams come true, and she did." She said that her dream was to sing before a large audience, and she got to do it, and she said before her performance that she was going to rock them, and she did.
Apr. 17th, 2009 02:52 am (UTC)
Yes, I really liked this about it: no matter how much farther she goes or doesn't go, she'll have had that moment.
Apr. 17th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC)
When I first saw the video of Susan Boyle singing, my first thought was "Wow! Another Kate Smith!" She really does sing as well Kate Smith. Susan Boyle has a voice with perfect pitch, the lung power to sing for large crowds, and the ability to articulate each note correctly. All just like Kate Smith. Kate Smith had such a perfect pitch, you could ask her to sing the first E# below middle C and she would hit that note exactly on key.


p.s. - In her own day, and in her own way, Kate Smith opened doors for women of size.
Apr. 17th, 2009 05:49 am (UTC)
Myuh huh.

There is a bit, too, about it being nice to see her being happy and cheeky, but the reaction shots were so blatantly manipulative that it lost a lot of oomph.
Apr. 17th, 2009 05:54 am (UTC)
What surprised me the most about her singing was the contrast -- not the contrast with her looks, but the contrast with her speaking voice! Hearing her talking before the performance, I think I was expecting her to sing like my mother. My mother could carry a tune, but her voice was not pleasant to listen to. But when Susan Boyle started singing, it was the aural equivalent of the Ugly Duckling turning into a swan.

While I agree with everything you say here, I don't think this aspect of her performance should be discounted.
Apr. 17th, 2009 08:55 am (UTC)
I liked a number of things about the clip. One was the comeuppance of the judges having their prejudices exploded. One was the simple beauty of the voice and delivery. But also, I loved that she was a quiet, unassuming person from a tiny Scottish village who never came near the limelight before, never had the opportunities, the training, the handling, and yet she possessed this amazing voice and presence when singing and will win a recording contract and achieve her dream because of that. There is something in me that wants to believe in a meritocracy, where it's not just all about who you know and how you're packaged. It's what the programme purports to be all about and so rarely actually is.
Apr. 17th, 2009 12:25 pm (UTC)
The overdone reactions, etc. aside, one of the second reactions I had was a feeling that she'd be made over if she would ever become a performer. And that depressed me.
Apr. 19th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
I have a friend who directs a choral group. He said that fewer people can sing these days -- if you go visit old people, they can sing, but fewer and fewer young ones can.

He believes this is because of a decline in church attendance, and church is where people learned to sing. (I was wondering what that meant for Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians, but didn't ask him.)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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