Our Seabiscuit

Susan Boyle. Oh, Susan BOYLE. By now the whole world has seen her oft-twittered, ravenously circulated rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. If not, well, Google it.

Susan Boyle is the biggest viral success story since Facebook’s “25 Random Things.” She’s certainly the biggest viral success story ever to come out of Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland.

Oh, Susan Boyle. Why are we going absolutely crazy for you? Why did you make Simon Cowell look more smitten than Ryan Seacrest introducing Adam Lambert? Why is Ashton Kutcher posting amorous tweets about you? Why does Oprah want you to come on her show? Why am I writing a blog post about you?

Here are a few guesses:

  • We love something that breaks through our cynicism and truly surprises us. Susan “I live alone with my cat Pebbles” Boyle got on that stage, looking remarkably like Brenda “bird lady vagrant from Home Alone 2” Fricker, and sang her heart out. And she sang well.
  • Susan Boyle is the Seabiscuit of our time. Like that horse in the Tobey Maguire movie who was some sort of metaphorical glimmer of hope in a depressed economy, Susan Boyle is a 47-year-old bastion of light that we can all (via our laptop water coolers) rally around.
  • The song. Don’t underestimate song choice, as Simon would say. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables is the perfect song for this woman. She’s never been kissed, for goodness sake! Of course we are going to be moved when she sings, “And still I dream he’ll come to me / And we will live our lives together / But there are dreams that cannot be / And there are storms / We cannot weather…” It is ironic, though, that such a sad song could become such an iconic, joyful anthem in this context.
  • The Britishness. Maybe it was just me, but the whole thing evoked that thoroughly hard-nosed English spirit—that wonderfully stiff-upper lip, “Victory at all costs,” WWII-era, Churchill-esque affable determination. I mean, here’s a woman who epitomizes the cat lady. She should be at home, sad, resigned to a life of soap operas and knitting wool blankets. But instead she bravely ventured out and launched herself into the pantheon of worldwide Internet celebrity. And she didn’t sacrifice any of her scruples in the process.
  • It’s why we love reality TV. Susan Boyle is one of us. She’s our first grade teacher. She’s the organist at church (in fact, she does volunteer at her Scottish church). She was plucked from obscurity and is now thrilling audiences the world over. It’s a rags to riches fairy tale.
  • Susan Boyle represents a triumph of talent over looks. The judges’ and audience members’ judgmental faces before she started singing are symptomatic of our tendency to over-value appearance, even in a talent competition. But once she started singing, it was a slap in the face reminder that, oh yeah, there can be legitimate beauty and artistry without physical attractiveness.
  • Susan Boyle appears to be totally sincere, unpretentious, and joyful. Her countenance—even while singing a very sad song—was constantly ebullient. She was also modest. Most contestants on these shows have a skewed sense of self-importance. Susan Boyle had the opposite—humility where she deserved pride. And it’s reassuring to know that people like that still exist.

25 responses to “Our Seabiscuit

  1. Wow. Did you seriously just compare an woman who looks like a “bird lady vagrant” to a horse? :lol:

  2. I think you pretty much nailed it with your list of reasons.
    We gleaned a lot of good lessons and reminders from her performance on the show! So good and indicative of something bigger than it appears that it gives me goosebumps.

  3. Also, the video of her performance is a good story – whole and complete. It’s not just her, it’s the story of her.

  4. Brett I totally agree!! When I saw her sing I was moved to tears. It’s amazing the reaction that beauty evokes, especially when it takes us by surprise. I just hope she’s equipped to handle all the stress that comes with this kind of worldwide attention.

  5. America has their Seabiscuit, and Britain now has their Teabiscuit.

  6. Here’s why I think we love Susan Boyle.


  7. I gotta say, the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon only makes me more cynical, not less. If she were good looking, no one would be passing this clip around and saying, ‘She sounds so good, it’s amazing.’ We’re pretty much a culture of shallow bigots.

  8. Tim, you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. We ARE Susan Boyle. We are average and maybe not all that great looking, and probably don’t ‘belong’ on television with the dined and wined celebrities, so when we see one of our own on stage we are reasonably skeptical (as we would be of ourselves in that situation) and when she triumphs… we triumph… and there is hope. Not bigotry. Not cynicism.

  9. redison,

    Except that the entire situation is manufactured. The creators of the show on which she appeared carefully chose which clips of her to edit together before showing her performance to lower our expectations. As Tanya Gold says, Susan will probably win Britain’s Got Talent. She will be the little munter that could sing, served up for the British public every Saturday night. Look! It’s “ugly”! It sings! And I know that we think that this will make us better people. But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poisoned redemption.

  10. Tim, no one is saying the Susan Boyle thing isn’t manufactured. It’s beside the point whether or not it was totally edited to tug on our heartstrings or not. Since when does the manufacturing of something diminish it’s visceral power or cultural import? Here are other things that were “manufactured” to make us feel a certain way: Picasso’s “Guernica,” Beethoven’s 5th, the Notre Dame cathedral, Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” the St. Louis Arch, etc. Are we misguided twits to dare to resonate with the emotions or feelings in these works? Does the fact that they are all to some degree fashioned in an inorganic manner mean that they are any less capable of communicating truth and embodying familiar existential tropes to which we naturally resonate whenever confronted with them? I don’t care how constructed or not constructed the Susan Boyle story is. The fact is: something about it resonates deeply.

  11. Perhaps I am expressing myself poorly. But have you read the links that I posted? My complaint is not that the situation is controlled, it’s that the situation is controlled to make the audience feel like they are better people because of the emotional reaction they have– it’s manipulative rather than expressive. I don’t mean this about Susan Boyle herself: I’m talking about Susan Boyle the cultural phenomenon, which I was under the impression is what we were discussing.

  12. I did read the links. But I’m not so sure we can say things like “the situation is controlled to make the audience feel like they are better people because of the emotional reaction they have– it’s manipulative rather than expressive.”
    First of all, I don’t think we can assume that the majority of people are indeed reacting in this way–“feeling better b/c of the emotional reaction they have.” There are likely many other feelings, interpretations, and reactions out there. You are not giving consumers a lot of agency here Tim. Don’t you think meaning-making is a two way street? Or is it always a determined, fixed, top-down thing? (in this case “let’s make everyone feel better about themselves!”)? Do you really have such a low view of audiences–that we are merely automatons who fall into the precise Pavolvian patterns that the big bad entertainment industry gurus set out for us? Have you ever read Henry Jenkins? I recommend his books about reception theory.
    Secondly, I’m not sure what you mean when you say “manipulative rather than expressive.” Can something not be both? Hitchcock was ridiculously manipulative but I daresay he was mighty expressive as well.
    Finally: Yes, we are talking about the cultural phenomenon/artifact “Susan Boyle” as opposed to Susan Boyle the real physical person, who we don’t have direct access to. But I think Baudrillard is probably with me when I say: is there ultimately any difference between the two?

  13. First of all, I don’t think we can assume that the majority of people are indeed reacting in this way–”feeling better b/c of the emotional reaction they have.” There are likely many other feelings, interpretations, and reactions out there. You are not giving consumers a lot of agency here Tim.

    I am simply responding to the majority of reactions I have seen: People patting themselves on the back for their recognition of the fact that ‘true beauty is within,’ ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ etc.

  14. Two things.

    (1) Are you seriously comparing *Guernica* to *Britain’s Got Talent*?! There’s a difference between how complex works of art manufacture emotion and how, say, Agitprop manufactures emotion. It seems clear to me that this thread of *Britain’s Got Talent* works on our emotions too simply – and to humiliating effect.

    (2) I watched a clip of the first Boyle performance after reading your post. The spectator eye-rolls before she sings and the starry-eyed awe after she starts to sing are both humiliating. The back-stage accusatory finger-wag (“you didn’t think it’d be that good, did you?”) is also humiliating. All of these things humiliate Boyle and other women who don’t match up to blond commentator’s beauty (I don’t know her name; I don’t watch the show).

  15. More thoughts.

    The end of the story does nothing to mitigate the humiliation. Tim is exactly right that this exception – and particularly how the makers of the show framed this exception – reinforces, rather than troubles, the rule.

    There’s something quite sick about this whole thing. The shock on the commentators faces after Boyle starts singing makes me think of the logic behind misogyny or racism (when these things were more out in the open in wealthy circles): “One is surprised to see a woman write copy. It’s rather like seeing a dog play a piano.” It shouldn’t be surprising that a fat unkempt woman can sing beautifully, but everyone’s face registered surprise.

    To kind of test your reading of the show, Brett, what if we replace Boyle with a black woman or a lesbian and have the eye-rolls and post-singing smiles and awe and finger-wagging. Awful, right? Shockingly racist and homophobic, right?
    If the woman is fat and ugly, why does it suddenly become a narrative about the triumph of the human spirit?

  16. Olivia: to your first two points:
    1) it’s an extreme comparison, yes. My point is that everything is to some degree manufactured and–whether complex or simplistic–works to evoke an intended reaction.
    2) Yes, I agree that all that is humiliating. But I’m not sure how that undermines the authenticity of our visceral emotional reaction to the “event” as presented in its highly constructed arc. I’m not making a moral value judgment on the rightness or wrongness of any of this. Just trying to explore the various reasons why it is such a big deal.
    As to the misogyny, racism, lesbian comment: I think it’s true that the whole arc would definitely have played out differently. Of course. Perhaps it is problematic that we feel okay cheering wildly that “fat and ugly can sing!” when we probably would not feel comfortable cheering, “Lesbian can sing!” or “Black woman can sing!” But that is most likely because there’s nothing about “black” or “lesbian” that would make us anticipate a lacking of talent. It’s apples and oranges in this case, because in the singing world it’s much much more about “beauty” than it is about identity politics (tho it is still about this, don’t get me wrong). Susan Boyle is too ugly to “make it” in conventional avenues of superstardom. Established fact. Sad. We can’t change the unfortunate (but understandable, no?) fact that the masses of consumers prefer beautiful people in their entertainment. Should we fault consumers for preferring to spend their money watching beautiful people? The history of entertainment has always been about attractive, beautiful people (granted the standards of beauty change a lot throughout time and culture). Every now and then someone who doesn’t match the cultural mark of beauty can make it–but they have to be extra talented. Props to them. We cheer for them. We appreciate them. They broke through the system. They are the Tilda Swintons of the world. So we should feel guilty for this? Why can’t we be happy for the Susan Boyles of the world who manage to bewitch us in spite of physical attractiveness?

  17. I work in marketing and advertising, and we marketers are often guilty of perpetuating the fallacy that beauty equals goodness. The fallacy is profitable and is the path of least resistance for results.

    I believe that this video clip of Susan Boyle is helpful for opening the eyes of the masses to their prejudices. The video clip offers a stimulus and then provides the opposite response – which results in a sensational and viral video clip.

    It’s a stretch to find this video clip offensive when it accomplishes so much good. Maybe we should be directing our disgust at all the attractive screen actors that are pictured on the right column of Brett’s blog. They’re perpetuating the fallacy that beauty equals superior acting.

  18. I agree with Tim that the audience is being led down a sensational and manufactured path to feel better about themselves.

    But it’s not a pat on the back as much as a boost of confidence. The audience is more likely to be less self-conscious when they view this clip. They feel more equipped to face a shallow and materialistic public. Therefore, it IS the triumph of the human spirit that Brett so eloquently described.

  19. I guess my complaint comes down to this: Growth comes from challenge. Intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth all come from challenges to one’s perceptions of the status quo. The arrogant finger-wagging cheap moralizing of this ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ clip does not actually challenge its audience– it allows them to feel as though they’ve already transcended their own prejudices. It’s sort of the reality show version of Crash in this way. It gives us pat answers for questions we should be asking about ourselves and allows us to feel cheap joy instead of introspection. It is, if I may go so far, morals porn.

  20. “But that is most likely because there’s nothing about “black” or “lesbian” that would make us anticipate a lacking of talent. It’s apples and oranges in this case, because in the singing world it’s much much more about “beauty” than it is about identity politics (tho it is still about this, don’t get me wrong).”

    My point is that “wow, fat and ugly can sing?” is exactly equivalent to “wow, a woman can write ad copy?” The framing of Boyle’s story is morally and artistically obtuse. And it highlights western fat-phobia. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would equate vocal talent with outward appearance, particularly if he were a connoisseur of genres of music that actually require skill (jazz, opera).

    Also, not to quibble, but Tilda Swinton is beautiful. On the outside.

  21. I think he’s talking about Tilda Swinton the actress. The hideous one.

  22. It’s funny how we turn attractiveness into an absolute when it is one of the most subjective concepts in our human nature. When 80% of a population desires a certain characteristic, then it creates a supply-and-demand rush towards the top 20% of the population that possesses that characteristic.

    Attraction is a form of socialized psychosis. So many people deem themselves objectively unattractive when there is no such thing.

    The world is a much better place if everyone carries themselves like Susan Boyle – – as if they are the top 20%. The idea that there are “leagues” is one of the greatest maladaptive principles of American dating culture.

  23. That’s a bold, mature move, Jim: way to go.

  24. Don’t pretend you didn’t crack a smile, Olivia.

    I think Tilda Swinton is great.

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