I am a latecomer to the Susan Boyle phenomenon. Perhaps I can be forgiven for this as I am allergic to Simon Cowell: I recall he was once asked if he enjoyed the process of crushing the hopefuls that came his way. While he didn’t explicitly say “yes”, he nodded and smiled in such a way that made my stomach churn. There is a pomposity, a smugness, a noblesse sans oblige about him which suggests he has an endless reservoir of cruelty. If I deign to watch him, I believe I would merely help fatten his bank balance. So I don’t.
However, I also believe in karma. I remain firmly convinced that whatever one puts into the world creates feedback which reflects the input. To put it in computer programming terms: garbage in, garbage out; I thought that Cowell’s eventual comeuppance would be in encountering someone worse than he. I don’t think anyone expected his Waterloo would take the shape of a middle-aged spinster from Scotland.
Much has been written about the contrast between Ms. Boyle’s appearance and her singing abilities. Certainly Cowell didn’t expect her to be so talented: if the You Tube clip is any indication, it took a few moments for him to regain his composure. Afterwards, he stated that he knew that she would be great as soon as she stepped out. I had difficulty preventing myself from shouting something obscene.
The panel’s attitude, as well as that of the audience, was perfectly summarised by one of the judges: she stated, “When you came out, everyone was against you”. It was this quip which really caught my attention: it appears that the last acceptable prejudice left is that which discriminates against the unconventionally beautiful.
Ms. Boyle should take comfort in the fact that she is not alone. For example, journals such as the Daily Mail are constantly analysing the weight gain or loss of celebrities. I remember a particularly unpleasant article in which they referred to Jessica Simpson as being a “bigger star than ever”. The tone of the article is condescending, the writer implies something is wrong with Ms. Simpson. The piece states she was once the doyenne of Hollywood red carpets, and it also engaged in speculation about her love life. We learn nothing about her intellectual, moral or personal qualities from articles of this type: when it comes to describing her kindness, generosity and overall benevolence, there is a noticeable void. Beauty is reduced to mere measurements.
If it were the Daily Mail alone, we could leave it as a symptomatic of the myriad pathologies which drive that publication. However, merely visiting a local newsagent is sufficient to show how widespread the problem is. Look at the long rack of so-called “women’s magazines”: the vast majority talk about beauty tips, cosmetics, diets. The celebrities interviewed are generally on the rise or comeback, in which case their secrets are “revealed”. Alternatively, the celebrities are on the wane or have crashed (Amy Winehouse springs to mind) in which case they provide carrion upon which the vultures of individual vanity can feed. All, however, are focused on “looking good”, outer appearance in this instance becoming a reflection of inner virtue.
There is nothing natural about this; if we believe both Freud and Lacan, we are not born with an inherent knowledge of what we should find desirable. Rather, this is something we learn over time from society’s influences. Looking at the history of art bears out this interpretation: the women painted by Pieter Paul Ruebens in the 17th century would not be confused with the elfin waifs that inhabit our catwalks today.
Again, the judge on Britain’s Got Talent said it best, “When you first came out, everyone was against you”. By the learned, societal standard, Ms. Boyle is not reassuringly conventional in her looks: she did not dye her hair to hide her grey, it does not appear that she has a personal trainer, nor was she dressed to the nines. She is more “everywoman” rather than “superstar”: she is the person we encounter in the supermarket or book store rather than an idol that we assume will emerge from a limousine. Because of our cultural conditioning, the expectation was that her outer visage was a reflection of some sort of inner decrepitude. The audience perhaps also resented her presumption: she had the audacity to “expose” herself to them and the viewing public.
However, everyone changed sides as soon as she sang. Her voice, melodic, powerful and clear, was such a shocking contrast that tears appeared in the eyes of two of the judges, and the audience burst into a standing ovation. She is now an international phenomenon. While Ms. Boyle’s raw talent is no doubt a motivating factor in this response, one wonders what else is behind it.
The negative interpretation is that perhaps she offers an opportunity for the public to expiate its guilt over how it views people who don’t meet the standards it sets for celebrities. She is the exception which supposedly means that the rule no longer applies, rather than the exception that proves the rule. This reduces Ms. Boyle to freak show status, and the audience to that of the gawking spectators who relish the curious juxtaposition of talent and ugliness.
However, this can be also viewed positively: Ms. Boyle’s arrival is a liberation from the straight jacket of our present culture. There can be no doubt that it is stultifying and worse, dull: one of the most depressing features of modern pop music, for example, is its constant churning out of cookie cutter singers. They all dress the same way, sing the same way, are coiffed the same way. Their careers rise and fall with an alarming regularity. Their songs are also very forgettable: it is unlikely that future generations are going to thank us for the works of Westlife, Boyzone or whatever boy band is popular this week. Ms. Boyle is different; she is by all means herself, rather than a manufactured product. She stands out in a field that is otherwise mundane.
Furthermore, perhaps she provides us with a salutary lesson: rather than having to erect monuments made of silicon and plastic, we have a symbol of the beauty that potentially lies in the truth. The early signs that she could provide this moral example are encouraging: she has already indicated that she will not change, in spite of her elevation to celebrity status. If this inspires others to burst forth in sweet song, or put pen to paper to compose flowing prose, or don their dancing shoes to trip the light fantastic regardless of societal constraints, so much the better.