Monday, October 26, 2009

ARCHIVE: Thoughts on the Creative Process 5: Why Susan Boyle Makes Us Cry

by Kellia Ramares
[N.B.] Essays 1-4 are available on Machini-mations. 

In case you haven't seen it yet, here's a link to a tape of Susan Boyle's bravura performance in "Britain's Got Talent." I didn't watch it at the first opportunity. Reality shows and talent shows are not my cup of tea. To me, they seem to be yet another fad in the drive to lower costs of TV production. But I kept seeing news items around the Internet about a singer who had wowed the judges and the crowd. When I finally gave in and took a look, she wowed me, too. In fact, I cried and have cried each time since, and I've watched the tape at least a dozen times. What's more, when I read comments about her performance, I saw that I wasn't alone in letting the tears flow. Far from it.

So what is it about Susan Boyle that makes us cry? Some people said it was her remarkable voice, but I don't think that's really it for most of us. Susan Boyle makes us cry because we love the underdog. And this middle-aged, unemployed, homely, stocky, frumpily-dressed, village woman who has never been kissed was the textbook definition of an underdog. By her age alone she would have been disqualified from many of these types of talent shows, which endeavor to find some undiscovered young talent. If the exact same performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables had been rendered by a pretty, stylishly-dressed, 25-year-old who one could picture as really playing the part of Fantine, who sings this song in the play, this would not have been a story that captured the hearts of the world. The young singer would have gotten her three yesses and a good round of applause from the crowd and if the clip got on the Internet at all, it would have garnered some complimentary comments, but not in an amount or degree anywhere near those that the clips of Boyle have accumulated.

Susan chose a song that fit her rich mezzo-soprano voice well and she demonstrated the ability to negotiate the vocal difficulties of the piece, particularly the step-by-step climb up a fifth than occurs midway through the song. (She aced it). But Susan's appeal doesn't lie solely in the fact that she has a lovely voice. We have all heard technically wonderful singers who nonetheless have left us cold. Susan Boyle is not one of those.

You could easily see how well she connected with the music even if you are unfamiliar with the play. In Les Miserables, Fantine is a single mother who loses her job and is forced to become a prostitute to pay for her daughter's care. The song contains the lyrics "I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I'm living." While Susan Boyle's life is thankfully nowhere near as wretched as Fantine's, after one has heard Susan's story, that of an "old maid" who cared for her ill parents and now lives alone with her cat, it is easy to think that in some ways at least, she's lived a life "of quiet desperation." And most of us know that one.

But what makes Susan Boyle so special is her certainty in the face of other people's doubts. In the long version of the performance that I've been watching, you see her backstage. At first, she admits to the stagehands that she's nervous; that is to be expected from anyone in that situation. But later you see her say, "I'm going to make that audience rock." You can see her determination in the way she strode onto the stage with confidence. The famously intimidating Simon Cowell asked her name and where she was from and she answered in a clear and straightforward tone of voice, only spacing out on the word "village" when she was asked more about her hometown. No matter. She knew going in that she had something special and was going to deliver despite anyone's doubts.

And doubts people had because of our tendency to judge a book by its cover. Susan Boyle is like a great novel wrapped in brown paper like a porn magazine. She upset all expectations in a huge way, showing the world a side of herself that transcends the mundane. And that's what brings the tears. This is a world that is not really looking for talent to develop it to its fullest, but looking for talent to wear it out or to throw it away. This is a world that operates on the basis of process of elimination, not process of inclusion. It is a world full of all forms of discrimination: age, race, gender, looks, etc. and if you haven't come up against one of these forms of discrimination yourself, you certainly know someone who has. You know how talent does not matter if "the powers that be" do not want you for whatever reason. For one night at least, Susan Boyle put all of that to shame. After the performance, judge Amanda Holden said, "I'm thrilled because I know that everyone was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical and I think that's the biggest wake up call ever." That the judges and the audience responded so positively after basically writing her off before she opened her mouth was a moving example of justice.

Susan Boyle seized the day, making most out of her opportunity. Some people don't even get that chance. And she brings tears to our eyes because we all dream of rising to the occasion but how many of us actually do it? Susan still has several rounds to go in the contest, and I don't know how she'll fare if they make her sing genres of music that may not suit her voice. But I don't think she has to worry about looking for a job anymore. She has appeared on several major TV talk shows and Simon is reportedly looking for a record deal for her. But, no matter how far she actually goes with a career, for one night at least, she grabbed the brass ring big-time.

It's not just that Britain's Got Talent or America's Got Talent or that "talent" means only that you are musical, or can draw pretty pictures or write poetry. Talent is in every field of human endeavor, in every country, in every ethnicity, race, and gender, and can emerge at any age. "The powers that be" who seek to find and train emerging talents are often hung up on age, wanting only the young. That makes about as much sense as saying flowers should only bloom in spring. For the late summers, autumns and winters among us, Susan Boyle is a revelation.

Among the comments I have read, one stands out, "God's timing is always perfect." At a time in the world when so many people are being thrown away, especially in Susan's age group, along she comes to say "Not so fast. You don't think I can do it, but I'll show you a thing or two." She makes us believe that there is hope and room for all of us. And that made me cry.

I just feel sorry for whomever had to follow her in the contest!