The Susan Boyle Phenomenon

If you surf the net enough to find yourself on this blog, then you’re no doubt one of the sixty million people who have viewed Susan Boyle on youtube, singing for Britain’s Got Talent. Even Simon Cowell looked a bit weepy once she showed off her chops.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being mean for what follows, let me state clearly at the outset that the woman can sing. Not just sing, but sayng. Like, call the contractor for a new roof, because she just blew the old one off. But….

A lot of people are great singers. Even a voice from the heavens doesn’t explain why people watch Boyle’s performance over and over again, crying every single time. Some have invoked her age, finding a fairytale quality in the idea of a “nearly 48” year old becoming an overnight celebrity.

But the last time I checked, nearly 48 wasn’t so old. Ask Meg Ryan, Heather Locklear, Demi Moore, Sheryl Crow, Simon’s buddy Paula Abdul, and Ann Coulter. They’re all roughly the same age as Susan Boyle, and I don’t think we’d be shocked if one of them sang like an angel (okay, maybe Ann Coulter, but that’s another story…). So why precisely did one of the judges announce, “Without a doubt that was the biggest surprise I’ve had in three years of this show”?

Because Susan Boyle isn’t just any late-fortyish woman with a beautiful voice. As the same judge noted, she was a woman whose very presence on the audition stage had “everyone against” her and “laughing at” her. Was that because she described herself as “currently employed but still looking”? As living alone “with a cat called Pebbles”? As “never been kissed”? Or was it because, with those caterpillar eyebrows, porcupine hair, triple chins, and a tree trunk body, she doesn’t look the way we expect even a late-fortyish woman with talent to look? Did the audience that laughed at her even need to hear about her reclusive home life, or did it really take just one glance?

After initially sharing in the viral verklemptage, I now find myself with mixed feelings about our joint response to the talented Susan Boyle. When the judges declare that she’s “mind blowing” and the “most extraordinary shock we’ve ever had,” they can’t really be talking only about her voice. And when we watch that youtube moment over and over again, are we celebrating her talent, or are we simply applauding ourselves for seeing past a frumpy veneer that, without the voice, is apparently laughable?