Sunday, April 19, 2009

Voices and Faces

After all the world-wide interest in Susan Boyle, there are still some things about the phenomenon which are rather puzzling to me. On seeing the Youtube video for the first time, I was struck by how exaggerated the judges' and audience's eye-rolling and snickering seemed to be,. Why should they react thus at the sight of Susan Boyle, who looked like a perfectly ordinary lady you might run into on the street, quite literally, if you were paying more attention to your cellphone than who was in front of you. Her speaking voice and dialect were a little hard to follow, but once she started to sing, barely two lines into the song, the amazing roar of approval, clapping, widened eyes and judge reactions seemed a tad bit too pat. Cue the artifice, the unseen signs prompting the audience to 'Stand up and clap'.
Her voice is amazing and true, and like other feel-good stories, says to the average underdog "Yes, we over the world with the secret talents we unleash upon it." It's the stuff of childhood dreams, when soot-covered Cinderella is removed from her ash-filled corner, ensconced in a beautiful gown, parading in triumph in her glittering carriage. Only, in this case, the focus is on the fact that even a pretty dress and getup will not change the fact that Susan Boyle's face was pegged as ordinary, even ugly, by today's societal (or media-driven?) standards of 'beauty'.
From the Wikipedia link:

Tanya Gold wrote in The Guardian that the difference between Boyle's hostile reception and the more neutral response to Paul Potts in his first audition reflected society's expectation that women be both good-looking and talented, with no such expectation existing for men. In a similar vein, a columnist on wrote that Boyle's performance reminded people that "not all fortysomething women are sleek, Botoxed beauties", going on to say that Boyle's sudden fame came from her ability to remind her audience that, like them, she is a normal, flawed and vulnerable person, familiar with disappointment and mockery, but who nevertheless has the determination to fight for her dream.

Several media sources have commented that Boyle's success seemed to have particular resonance in the United States. Writing in The Scottsman Craig Brown quoted a U.S. entertainment correspondent who compared Boyle's story to the American Dream, in that it represented talent overcoming adversity and poverty. The Associated Press described this as Boyle's "hardscrabble story", dwelling on her modest lifestyle and what they saw as urban deprivation in her home town., The Independent New York correspondent David Usborne wrote that America is a country that will always respond to "the fairy tale where the apparently unprepossessing suddenly becomes pretty, from Shrek to My Fair Lady". Piers Morgan, one of the show's judges, also commented on the unusual power this story seemed to have in the U.S., stating that "Americans can be very moved by this sort of thing." He likened Boyle's rise to fame from poverty and obscurity to that of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, who was the subject of a series of Hollywood films.


A meteoric rise to fame, fuelled by the technology of Youtube/Facebook/Twitter, as well as major exploding coverage on the network and cable channels. It's hard to believe that this was a reflection of something that happened in January 2009, followed by months of careful editing and virality being unleashed around April 11, 2009.

Talent notwithstanding, the media is unleashing reams of commentary along the lines of "Looks aren't everything, talent is." and "Isn't it amazing how wonderful her voice is, despite her looks and those terrible beetling eyebrows?", "Will she or won't she have a makeover?"

I will confess that I'm amazed by all this silly pontification (Kindly ignore the fact that I'm indulging in it here, as well). Doesn't day-to-day life teach all these millions of people that talent can be wrapped in unlikely packages? Don't they know of mailcarriers or janitors or unprepossessing matrons who share their secret talents with the small circle of friends, untrammeled by the spotlight and glare of airbrushed magazine covers and HDTV?

I seriously doubt it. This is just a temporary phenomenon, even with the huge numbers involved. Tomorrow everyone will be chasing after the next viral thing to hit the internet. But for now, Susan Boyle has achieved her dream, and given fuel to a few million other dreams as well.

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