Is Susan Boyle a Fake?

After all our gab about her here, here and here, brace yourself:


Read more of this post

Talent Without the Trappings

Hm. Well, a number of people could fit the Susan Boyle story arc to some extent: Roseanne. Rhea Perlman. Charlie Kaufman. Woody Allen. Andy Warhol. Beth Ditto. Less extreme examples: Eddie Izzard. Nathan Lane. Many of these, though, were (like Streisand) quite aware of their packaging.  I’m not sure, though, that awareness guarantees success. They fulfill your conditions in that they’re talented and they aren’t conventionally good-looking people wearing modernish clothes. Then again, several of these deliberately cultivated the iconoclastic package… do you consider that a version of the same thing?

Writerwise, Alice Munro. Came to it late with none of the connections, accoutrements or pretensions of the New York set, and soared. Pynchon and Salinger?



The Package

Dearest M.,

I spent the last few minutes trying to think of other arcs that parallel Susan Boyle’s:  the boldy unpackaged (though I do agree with a previous commenter that “packaging” may be very much at work here) real person that wallops the world with his or her sheer and undeniable talent.  What’s frustrating is, even though I think Boyle’s sudden recognition is the stuff of formula, I can’t actually think of any examples of that formula.   

In movies, the closest I’ve come is Billy Elliott and Funny Girl, but both seem negated because of their reliance on youth and a fair amount of good looks. 

In real life, we’ve got Barbra Streisand, too.  Like Boyle, her voice instantly seperates her from any crowd of wannabes, and she is often critiqued for her looks.  Yet, Streisand also started young, and marketed her looks as part of the package that made her brand more unique, and more irresistible.  Barbra is also famous for her aggressive focus on her career, and her early drive to be somebody in the world. 

I also think of Danny DeVito, who apparently got his break on Taxi by insisting that the producers audition him, and then getting the part through the shock and awe of his acting ability. 

Otherwise, I’m out.  I can’t think of anybody else in our culture that, through sheer talent that did not rely on suped up presentation, made it into the big time.  Boyle might be one of the first that  made everybody stand up and notice that talent has very little to do with looks, and that real talent is quite soul stirring: that art is a big deal for performer AND audience. 

The phrase “talent will out” has always comforted me.  It suggests that, like true love, things find their way and end up very happy indeed.  But, this little reverie has worried me.  Boyle is one case out of bajillions.  Every other form of talent I can think of is usually delivered by a good looking person wearing modern-ish clothes.  Even Clay Aiken had some ferocious highlights.  Perhaps Boyle is not a revelation as much as a cultural dodo bird (or maybe a coelacanth would be better. Dodo suggests dowdy, which isn’t the point)?  

What examples can you think of? Where has talent outed? Do you think the rules are different for writing? Radio? Film production?  I also put forward Jon Stewart as his own fable here, not because of his looks, but because his control of the format and his intelligence were so unexpected, and are now such an exquisite part of our culture. 



Susan Boyle’s Got Balls

Dear CF,

Tonight I give you the contrarian Snuggie of blanket statements, so general it comes with sleeves:

Men are better at demanding an audience. BUT—if an audience is supplied (in teaching, say)—women go to greater lengths to please.

That is to say, I think you (and the MLA) are onto something: it’s easier to respond to a concrete demand—wash a dish, make a lesson plan, grade a paper—than it is to generate and honor extra demands of one’s own.

To write a novel is to demand an audience. To write the Great American Novel is to demand that the audience you’re about to create ex nihilo hail you as the greatest. That takes balls.

Take Milton, who (in turn) takes as his subject the Fall of Man, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. And crams it all—all space and all time—into the first five lines of Paradise Lost. Says he’ll justify the ways of God to men. Announces his project of molding you—fallen twit that you are—into a “fit reader” of his poem.

He was an arrogant mo-fo.

This doesn’t come easily to those who are easily deterred, or who too eagerly welcome an escape from their own private hells into someone else’s vision.

Whether by training or instinct, I think women are pretty well-equipped to seduce and placate an cater to audiences. It is, after all, women’s traditional mission to be desirable. (I don’t offer this as a good or bad thing; just as a matter of historical fact.) Culturally, we’re understood to be the beings who adapt—who wax and tweeze and diet and curl. Biologically we expand with babies and deflate and swell and bleed and stop depending on the women around us. Obviously our system of reward revolves around external demand and validation. And good qualities are associated with this: charity, generosity, nurturance, even intelligence and talent.

This is why I find Susan Boyle so fascinating. For so many years she DIDN’T perform to an audience. Nor did she demand one. Think about the difference between her virtually anonymous recording from 1999, and compare that to this guy:

Look at him. He’s her equivalent in many senses, but he’s creating an audience right there—the picture of post-indie self-effacement and he manages to plug his album four times.

And yet—just now, all at once—Boyle has received an audience ready-made, voracious to see her made-over and redone. It’s slavering for her to finish the story they want for her. Talk shows. Makeovers. A boyfriend. An onscreen kiss. It’s hollering demands.

Will she listen? Or will she remain unresponsive to the thousand distractions that threaten to eat her up and do her thing—sing? It’s an interesting experiment. Let’s put off our personal projects and watch.


Simon Cowell Fake-Smiles While Susan Boyle Sings

Dear CF,

Talking about wish-fulfillment and how movies model response, I want to spend a moment on Britain’s Got Talent and the way they packaged Susan Boyle.

It pains me—truly—to bring cynicism to her triumph, but it doesn’t tarnish her accomplishment any to point out the fakery around her. She was the only genuine thing in the room. And the exhaustingly teeth-whitened, hyper-coiffed, fish-eyed panel of judges—not to mention the exuberant clowns pointing at the camera screaming “You didn’t expect that, did you?”—were her foil.

The video of her triumph, clearly modeled on a hundred underdog movies, is packed with reaction shots. Our response is constantly modeled for us, first by the crowd, then by the blond judge, then Piers.  And then comes the climax: Simon Cowell, elbows on the table, hands holding his head. Like a child, gazing raptly, apparently entranced. Then, suddenly—and not for any obviously musical reason—his expression of total absorption gives way to a blinding smile.

To give credit where credit’s due: it was a fine idea. Oh, we were meant to think. Look at how even this, the harshest of all critics, is moved! It’s that sublime moment in films when true merit and real desert win over the antihero’s chief rival.

Except that Simon Cowell is a godawful actor, and no one who has ever been really moved by a piece of music has let a smile spread slowly, theatrically, across his or her face. Faces do weird things when they’re moved. They contort and wriggle. They tear up and flush. My father watched this video today. He gulped back sobs. His chin trembled. It was inelegant.

For someone who judges performances, Simon might—if he insists on stage-managing this sort of narrative—spend a minute or two working on his own. Paul Ekman, the facial-muscles microexpression analyst, could use him as a case study.  And in this case it was sheer bad taste. It was embarrassing. It was actually offensive, in that it distracted from a moment that should not have relied on his response.

Which brings me to my next point: while it’s brilliant for the show to grab her story and behave like it “discovered” her—creating the impression that she existed in a hamlet for decades, unappreciated and unknown—she’s clearly a trained singer. You don’t manufacture that kind of polish on unkissed middle-aged gumption and sass. Talk about myths of instant mastery! This is the ultimate reduction of years of effort.

Here’s what the “discipline”/training  film version of Boyes’ life would be: hours upon hours practicing, perhaps performing in churches, honing, refining—knowing her life would likely remain a size small and finding satisfaction, not despair, in the solitary intimacy that a musician develops for her instrument—here, her voice. What if this BGT thing wasn’t the crowning moment of her life? What if it was just One More Thing?

That’s a movie I’d wanna see.

Lastly, I can’t have been the only one for whom this woman, even before she sang, offered something pure, a sheer visual relief. I’m not talking about aesthetics. I’m talking about her carriage, her insouciance, her self-consciousness and her deployment of it. She was so charming, so alive, so apparently unstudied and unsullied by the oppressively defined (and homogenized) features that are the work of Hollywood cosmetologists. She was a face! A delight.

And a much better performer than Simon. Mr. Cowell, next time you want us to believe in your transcendent moment, stop mugging long enough to have one.

Susan: cheers.



PS–Speaking of makeup, what did you think of the “makeupless” and unPhotoshopped French Elle?