The Susan Boyle phenomenon continues to fascinate. I think there are some clear reasons why.
1. The way most Americans first encountered her was by viewing a YouTube segment from Britain’s Got Talent. In one of those fine accidents of pop culture, this proved to be a perfect, three-act drama in a mere seven-plus minutes. Act. I: The hero is at first reviled (Boyle was met with eye-rolling from the judges and guffaws from the audience). Act II: The hero reaches within herself and displays great strength, bravery, and talent. Act III: The villains are humbled; the hero is triumphant (those twitty Brit judges fall all over themselves to apologize for their cynicism and doubt).
2. To look at the comments on both my first post on Boyle, and Lisa Schwarzbaum’s, and Adam Markovitz’s, many people find in Boyle not mere talent but an inspirational quality. In post after post, you find phrases such as “I only wish I could have have an ounce of her confidence!” Times are tough; people are looking for examples of fortitude, perseverance, and reward for a job well done. Boyle is a shining example of this to many. The danger of this, as my colleague Mark Harris has pointed out in a column many of you liked a lot, is that someone like Boyle should not be forced by her new popularity into being seen as a role model, or some sort of ideal person. We don’t know her, the same way we don’t really “know” Bono or Tom Hanks or pick-your-favorite-star.
3. Boyle is perceived above all else to be “authentic.” This is crucial for many music fans. (I don’t actually buy this argument — i.e., that Bruce Springsteen is inherently better than, say, the Pet Shop Boys because he writes out of a tradition of realism while they glory in artifice — but it matters to a lot of people.)
4. The whole her-voice-isn’t-that-great argument is meaningless when it comes to pop music. Bob Dylan and Little Richard and Willie Nelson and Kurt Cobain and Taylor Swift have voices that are technically, note-by-note, “worse” than, say, Luciano Pavarotti’s, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely good singers by every measure of popular music: they communicate emotions and ideas superlatively. Judging solely from the single performance we have of Boyle’s, she fits the bill as a first-rate singer.
5. Never underestimate the age factor. Yes, we live in a time when the youth audience commands box office profits and drives TV programming via advertisers who want “young eyeballs” to watch shows. But there’s a huge segment of the population that feels cut out, annoyed, and even angry about this situation. Lots of middle-aged people are fed up with being dismissed as “gray-hairs” and out-of-it; the success of Boyle is one small but potent example that you’re not ready for the trash — or as Boyle would probably say, the dustbin — at age 30.
What do you think?