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Taken by surprise

Susan Boyle's 'genuine' performance moved millions to tears

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Hardly a day seems to have gone by in the last two weeks, without some new story -- or the recapitulation of an old one -- about Susan Boyle. She, for those not following such things, is the 47-year-old Scottish woman who soared over the first hurdle in an initial round of the TV show Britain's Got Talent. The show is a UK variant of American Idol, with the British TV personality Simon Cowell as producer and chief inquisitor in both cases.

Though there are, apparently, several variations of these shows now being aired, they share a substantially common format in which virtually unknown performers -- singers, musicians, dancers and others -- have opportunities to strut their stuff by competing before live, prime-time audiences in search of a rags-to-riches break-through into the world of big-time entertainment.

Even occasional observation of these shows suggests that the contestants, overwhelmingly, have some combination of youthfulness, good looks and worldliness. These characteristics are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee success: the "contest," after all, is notionally about talent and typically there can be but one winner.

Susan Boyle presented herself as someone lacking the necessary and normal characteristics. There she was: middle-aged, plain-looking (with eyebrows, one commentator suggested, like Leonid Brezhnev), plain-spoken, unsophisticated, unworldly (never married, never been kissed), unemployed, politely deferential, a touch awkward and very brave.

She aspired to a professional career as a singer and, when asked, aimed for the top, identifying Elaine Paige, the queen of British musical theatre, as the person whose success she hoped to emulate. Watching their facial expressions, gestures, and body language, it was clear that the judges and the studio audience thought Boyle's ambitions bizarre, laughable and presumptuous.

Yet, when she was barely three or four bars into her felicitously chosen song (I Have a Dream from Les Miserables) condescension gave way to incredulity and then to wild approval. The audience, once on its feet, largely stayed there, and at times their applause came close to drowning out the singer. The faces of all three judges manifested varying degrees of astonishment and all said "yes" to advancing Boyle to the next round. With or without that round, Boyle is now virtually guaranteed a shot at launching a professional career in popular music.

The mini-drama in which she is now central has assumed symbolic -- if not mythic -- status, and prompts several observations.

First, her "triumph," whatever else it signifies, occurred in the face of Western societies' love affair with the superficial -- fashion, physical beauty, style and youth -- in short, some of the most vacuous aspects of popular culture. In that, it speaks to some of the same issues that have informed debate over CBC radio programming over the last two years. One of Boyle's judges, Amanda Holden, observed that, until Boyle started to sing, the audience was "against" her for entirely superficial reasons and that Boyle's performance was in the nature of a wake-up call.

Secondly, and somewhat paradoxically, it suggests a parallel yearning for the simplicity, integrity, and courage associated, rather romantically no doubt, with earlier and simpler times. Watching the online replays of the show (which I did repeatedly and with teary eyes) one could not escape the sense that it was the unexpected and palpable authenticity of this "ordinary" woman -- with an extraordinary voice -- that stirred people deeply.

A very similar impulse so animated some of Frank Capra's memorable films that he came to be known as a maker of feel-good movies. And, like Capra's movies, the Boyle video has enormous drawing power: when I first watched it, the video had perhaps 50,000 hits; today, as I write this, the number approaches 39.2 million. My informal poll of people who've watched it suggests that a high proportion watched it through tears.

Thirdly, there may be a worm in the apple. American Idol and its look-alikes, whatever they may do to identify and promote new talent, are in the business of entertainment. This means, of course, they are also in the business of business. Their understanding of the public's love of Cinderella or The Ugly Duckling or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which virtue and the genuine triumph over the wicked and the superficial, inevitably raises questions as to whether the genuine really is genuine or whether those who believe it, have themselves simply been manipulated.

The sophisticated view then, is that in an era of glitz and artifice, when the unsophisticated achieve the unexpected, it is quite possible and maybe even probable that things are not what they seem. To be sure, the Boyle video contains things which could fuel such doubt. But such reasoning gets us into a kind of logical box. Because the superficial seems so much the norm, and because we are everywhere predisposed to see it, our ability to recognize the genuine, even when we stumble upon it, may now be seriously and permanently impaired.

William Neville is a Winnipeg writer.

wnwfp@mts.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2009 A14

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