Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Voices Soft as Thunder

Dear No One in Particular,

A week ago Susan Boyle was not a household name. Now the 47 year-old Glaswegian is all anyone can talk about.* Since I'm an only child, and therefore the centre of the universe, I feel the need to weigh in.

What troubles me about Boyle's newfound fame is this ridiculous obsession with her appearance and its apparent relationship to her ability to carry a tune. Shows like "Britain's Got Talent" and "American Idol" rub me the wrong way because, as much as it is a search for a genuinely gifted individual, it's also freak show: attention seekers and clueless individuals alike are humiliated on national (and now international) television, creating a sort of weeks-long Roman holiday for the tuned-in masses. Naturally, this always works out well.
People are lauding Boyle as this season's Paul Potts: a working class schlub who most unexpectedly turned out to be a hit. Articles on Potts and Boyle often have an oddly reverential tone, as though they triumphed over great adversity -- but, really, they didn't. They overcame grinding mediocrity to become national sweethearts. That's the rub -- they're almost aggressive in their total normality.

Contrary to what people are saying, Boyle is not ugly. Sure, her brows could use a quick pluck and she could benefit from a slightly more flattering frock, but she's not exactly the monstrosity the media is making her out to be. Granted, she won't have a She's All That transformation should she make a threading appointment and slip into a new dress, but she's not climbing down from the bell towers in her current state, either.
So why are her looks as important as her singing voice? When token lady-judge Amanda Holden bestows Boyle with the backhanded compliment "I am so thrilled because I know everybody was against you", you can be sure the audience wasn't rolling their eyes because Boyle lives with a cat named Pebbles**. Why was the state of her hair enough to set an entire nation against this sweet, unassuming Scottish spinster? What shift occurred in our thinking that makes us equate external beauty with talent? Katy Perry is conventionally attractive, yet she doesn't exactly have the voice of an angel. Why, then, are we so ready to dismiss Boyle based on her looks? What prompts Ant or Deck to point at her gleefully and squeal "didn't expect that did you? Did you?! NO!" as she sings?

When I first watched Boyle's audition, I was actually a bit scared that she would be the British version of William Hung. You remember William Hung, right? God, I felt terrible for that man. The optimist in me would like to think that he was in on the joke, yet the realist in me knows this not to be true. Watching so many people laughing at him made me feel like the entire world was back in high school, bullying the poor "weird kid". I hated what happened to Hung, and I really wish that on no one.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Boyle was not in possession of a good singing voice, she would have been laughed off that stage. Hell, she was laughed at the second she walked on.
And here's where I express my most unpopular opinion: I don't think she's that good of a singer. Don't get me wrong, she has a beautiful voice, but she's not exactly blowing my mindgrapes with her rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream". She hits the notes perfectly (though she struggles a bit with the low notes), but there's no oomph. The whole performance, frankly, is a bit reminiscent of karaoke; I don't get a sense of strong emotion driving the song and "I Dreamed A Dream" is all about emotion, you know? It should sound like her heart is breaking with every syllable. I'm sure the standing ovation from the people who, just seconds before, were laughing at her affected her performance, but ... ok, I'm really cynical, but I think that if she had just a so-so voice she would have had audience support, and I think this is because the audience had lowered their expectations of her due to, you guessed it, her appearance.

As it is, Boyle really does have an immense talent and deserves to be praised. But what really floors me is how delighted people are to be proven wrong. If the media is to be believed, Potts and Boyle save us from our shallowness. Just as that teenaged snot in the audience rolled her eyes at Boyle, I can't help but roll my eyes at society: if we are simply giddy over our false judgements, why don't we actually take the necessary steps to remove such misconceptions? Why don't we stop the painful, mortifying auditions for American Idol and its ill-gotten ilk?
Why don't we do as Boyle recommends and learn the big lesson to stop judging a book by its cover. Since that book has no interest in being made over, let's focus on her lovely voice for once.***



Apparently, whether or not Susan Boyle needs a makeover is the talk of the nation -- I just listened to an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation discussing this very topic. The contributor, Robin Givhan, a fashion editor for the Washington Post (natch), was insisting that Boyle be "polished": pluck her brows, get her hair did, etc. What galls me about this nonsense was Givhan's insistence that this is simply the way the music industry works. Boyle is talented, and will no doubt get a recording contract and then go on tour; she is expected to pretty herself up for her performances and be "the whole package". End of story. Now get in that salon chair, woman, and shut up until you're asked to sing again.

I call bullshit on this. No one is going to buy a ticket to a Susan Boyle concert expecting something on the level of Celine Dion. She isn't going to put a show on the for the masses, she's going to open her mouth and sing -- which is what she should be doing. I still don't see how the thickness of her eyebrows relates to the quality of her singing voice.

Givhan kept pointing out that singers -- really, performers -- are expected to look a certain way, and Susan Boyle does not fit that mold. While Gihvan points out that Boyle is something of a Cinderella story (I don't believe she is, but no matter) for the normal person (a fairytale in which someone who dares to be average reaches above average heights), she seeks to penalise Boyle for that very normality. Boyle has a gift, and we have to pretty up that package in order for her to be anything of interest.
Disgusting, and I can't believe my beloved NPR allowed such ignorant drivel to be spouted on the airwaves. Instead of insisting that this is the way the music industry works and condescendingly patting Boyle on the head, saying oh, it's lovely that you're you, but now you have to change, we should be engaging with why we believe that Boyle needs to slip into some Spanx and have her hair frosted in order to be a worthwhile musician. Again: bullshit. She's a worthwhile musician because she can sing, not because her highlights look nice under the stage lights.

All I'm trying to say is: the question should not be "does Susan Boyle need a makeover?" but rather "why do we insist that she does?"

*The weirdest part about Boyle-mania? My father, who watches only 24 and CNN, knows who she is. Listening to him talk about her is like like listening to Paris Hilton wax intellectual about Keynesian economics.
**For whatever reason, I think 'Pebbles' is the most hilarious cat name ever.
***I love her for refusing a makeover. LOVE her. Her sensibility is refreshing and hopefully contagious.


Vanessa said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. When I saw Susan's audition a few days ago, it really touched me (and God did I want to kill that girl who give that LOOK when they cut to her) to see her succeed, just knowing what would happen if she was actually BAD like everyone expected. I'm sure this mentality has to do with the kinds of musical artists we're exposed to today-- you see very many conventionally ugly ones? Pretty just goes with talent to a lot of people, so of course if you're not skinny and gorgeous it's impossible that you could have any redeeming talents. I do agree with you that I thought her voice was not actually the most incredible voice I've ever heard. Better than most, just not the best. What struck me was the feeling that, like Amanda Holden said, everyone was hoping/expecting she would fail miserably, and she proved how judgmental people are.

Diana said...

A post waiting to be written. I can't believe NPR jumped on the bandwagon on this.

I totally agree, she is just a woman with a great voice at the right place, at the right time.

daddylikeyblog said...

This post is fantastic--I agree on all points and you are such a good writer!

amanda said...

@Vanessa: Her joy at being recognised as a good singer really was the most touching part of her audition.

@Diana: I'm so, so disappointed that Neal Conan was even entertaining this conversation.

@daddylikey: I...I'm so insanely flattered! Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

You know, you gotta give crazy NPR lady credit for sticking to her guns. Here everybody has jumped on this bandwagon, wildly proclaiming, "You can look like a horrible miserably horse-faced sack of nothing and still be somewhat worth the attentions of humanity!" but this woman, THIS WOMAN, saw through all that and stuck her rebellious finger in the air, declaring, "The old ways are best, and nobody shall be heard without a Bikini wax!"

Gotta admire her tenacity.

I agree that the woman's performance, while good, wasn't so tear-reducing stunning, and honestly, it might even be a touch patronizing that the world is so swept up over it. Far kinder, I think, to treat her like all of the other competitors and say, "You have a whole lot of talent. Maybe a couple of areas to work on, but huge potential!" rather than kissing her feet and saying, "Well, aren't you just BRILLIANT for an UGLY PERSON."

Lesley Denford said...

Awesome article! It really bugs me that performers in the music industry are also expected to be thin and photogenic and conventionally gorgeous - looks have nothing to do with talent.

What I love about Susan Boyle is her CONFIDENCE. I do think she has a great voice, but it's the way she carries herself, the quiet confidence she has in her singing that makes her a star. Singing brings her joy, and it shows in her entire body when she performs. I hope she can continue to be an incredible inspiration, and let her talent and passion shine.

amanda said...

@saturdayjane: I honestly don't know what to make of Givhan. She made a comment to the effect of "we all know someone who has an absolutely gorgeous voice, but will never make it because they aren't pretty enough!" Sweet Jesus Lord, take me higher -- I damn near had a stroke.
The fawning over her really is a touch condescending in my opinion, and it is a problem.

@Lesley: She really, truly loves singing -- loves it with every ounce of her being -- and it shows. Her total delight at being told "yes" by the judges was the best part of the video. She was so genuinely happy!

ana b. said...

These are some interesting sentiments. I think the principles could be applied to fame in general - there are not many non-good looking people who are famous. Video killed the radio star! Unfortunately, the society we live in equates beauty with goodness and worthiness, despite evidence that this is not a strictly true correlation!

Anyway, thank you for your comment. Most of the things I ate when I went back home to the Philippines after 17 years where things I ate when I was a kid. It was a real mind-trip. I recommend the hopia for taste and nostalgia purposes!

Diana said...

I just awarded you!

amanda said...

@ana b.: Yes, it definitely extends to fame in general, especially since many are famous simply because they're attractive (Kim Kardashian, anyone?). My bug-a-boo with this society's seeming complacency with this. Susan Boyle comes along and challenges (in her way) such standards and instead of really tackling the issue, we brush it off and try to Botox it into submission.

My parents recently visited the Philippines and I'm kicking myself for not asking my mother to bring back some hopia! And mamon ... mmm, Filipino desserts. ;)

geisharock said...

Great post! I agree wholeheartedly - those teenagers in the audience rolling their eyes were awful. I think that she has a good voice and deserves a break, but its true that people are getting so hung up over her image. Lets just hope she stays as sensible as she seems to be :) xoxo

Diana said...

ah, it is so addicting! i think it's cute when girls have scattered tattoos, but when guys do it, it looks funny.

Brittney said...