Susan Boyle, an unknown, dowdy woman from Scotland, became an immediate sensation after nailing a song from “Les Miserables” on “Britain's Got Talent." Stories have since abounded from pop culture pundits who viewed her performance as a moving triumph, as proof that great things can come in the plainest of packages. She was to them and to me (and to the thousands who have since wished her well on her fan Web site) one of those rare pieces of evidence that reality TV, for all its faults, really can uniquely allow the unappreciated to get what they deserve.
But while those kudos have rained down, others have objected to Susan’s limelight share. The common theme to their nay-saying is that the overcompensating media attention just proves how shallow and condescending the TV public usually and truly is. And to those people, I say this: You may have a point, but more important is that you stop being such sopping wet blankets and let others enjoy the moment.
Just in case you haven’t joined the millions who have since watched the footage of Susan’s performance, I will here recreate the scene.
It’s the glitzy, vapid world of the reality TV talent competition. Streams of youthful would-be pop stars and starlets flow into the theater to audition in front of attractive judges, including the intermittently cruel Simon Cowell. The audience revels in hollow ogling and schadenfreude. This goes on for hours and days and seasons.
Then, in the midst of this predictable circus, a middle-aged, thick and motherly woman walks onto the stage. She is unexpected and bathetic. She is Gertrude Stein’s face on a Pussycat Dolls album cover.
The audience snickers at her, and young girls roll their eyes. Susan, oblivious to this disdain, is simply nervous. She stumbles when she answers questions, and everyone laughs when she says she wants to sing professionally. Then the music starts, and by the middle of the first note, all the Doubting Thomases are quiet. By the end of the second, people are cheering. By the song’s finale, everyone is on their feet.
In addition to being surprisingly talented, the 47-year-old Susan was captured on film before her performance and sweetly, resignedly told the world she had never been kissed. Shortly after her song’s success, she went on record saying she had no intention of getting a makeover or changing her plain dress or being anything other than plump. Her total apathy about the world’s standards was arguably as enchanting as her complete defiance of them, and everyone, from Larry King to Oprah, wanted to congratulate her.
Meanwhile, the objections to the Boyle Bonanza have gone something like this. Her voice is great, but it’s not that great. And by treating her like she’s the world’s most unexpected Pavarotti, we’re acting as if people who aren’t beautiful should be held to a lesser standard. We are treating her as if she’s a dog who learned how to talk, instead of, you know, a person.
By so loudly applauding her for being the talented yet ugly duckling, they continue, we’re simultaneously admitting that such meritocracy is the exception to the rule. By redistributing to her the extra attention others have been denied, we are in essence using her to excuse ourselves for our general shallowness.
Certainly there is some truth to this. And as such, our applause might not be as worthy as its object. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean the bonanza isn’t still something genuinely beautiful and important, something we should spend our time appreciating instead of criticizing.
Susan’s song was the definitive how-do-you-like-them-apples to a world that has obviously not paid enough attention to people such as her. Even if her voice is garnering a little more praise than it merits, there are plenty of other people out there who now have a precedent they can look to when they want to chase a dream career after the age of 45 or when they think that first kiss really might elude them forever. (I simply can’t imagine how much Susan’s virgin smooch would go for at Sotheby’s.) There's just no price that can be put on that. Who cares if we're going a little over the top?
Granted, I understand not everyone tears up at the end of “Rudy,” and I don’t mean to suggest that we should treat Demi Moore’s tear ducts as definitive moral barometers. I do, however, love nothing more than seeing people stick up for each other, and the support that so quickly rose during Susan’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” has turned into all-out rallying from plenty of people who need her success as an example to follow. I hope that keeps her in the public spotlight for as long as possible; if the nay-sayers don't like it, they can get out of dodge.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.