Susan Boyle: A Multipart Discourse

The underlying isms to the Britain’s Got Talent viral sensation.


That Susan Boyle can sing shouldn’t be surprising. Size, strength, and accuracy of vocal chords are not linked to glowing skin, a lithe figure, or a symmetrical features. And she can sing, albeit with probably too much vibrato and room for improvement in phrasing. But she has an excellent sense of pitch, and just as important, an excellent sense of performance. “I Dreamed a Dream” was an inspired choice, both musically and emotionally. I wonder if her performance would have been as notable if she had performed a pop tune, or a folk song, or even a song from a show like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown rather than the selection from Les Miserables. Truly, although her performance is very enjoyable, it is not the primary highlight of the clip from the show. That honor belongs to the initially smirking, condescending judges and the reaction shots that demonstrated their changed attitudes. But why did those attitudes need to be changed in the first place?


The first and easiest answer is Looksism. The Brits, as much if not more than Americans, ascribe to a celebrity culture of beautiful people in their beautiful lives–and the schedenfreude of seeing the beautiful people brought down.  A dowdy, 47 year old woman with a round face, a double chin, and eyebrows in need of a good plucking does not fit the stereotype of a pop star.

But looksism isn’t limited to the pop world. A 2004 opera scandal involved Soprano Deborah Voigt being fired from a performance at the Royal Opera House in London for not physically fitting into the little black dress her character was supposed to wear. Even in the opera world, which many musical lay people only know by the cliche that “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” appearance matters.

And it should matter. Pop stars, Broadway stars, and opera singers are all performers playing a role through their music. If we as audience members cannot suspend our disbelief because of the gross difference between a performer’s appearance and a character’s description than the aesthetic spell is broken.

However, Susan Boyle was judged long before she opened her mouth to sing. There are at least three other isms underlying the looksism at work in this viral sensation.


In the clip, one of the first three questions Simon Cowell asks Susan Boyle is her age. When she answers, the camera cuts to his very exaggerated eyeroll. She then shakes her hips a little as if to demonstrate that she is still vivacious. A second judge, Piers Morgan, seems to wince at this display. Should the age of a singer affect a preconception of ability? Maybe.

Singing is a skill. Innate talent is a starting place, but there is a reason professional performers train their voices. Projection, phrasing, dynamics–all aspects of vocal performance that an intuitive performer may understand, but will most likely improve with coaching. It is a reasonable expectation that a 47 year old performer without that training would be less than exceptional and notable that her current top competitors are under 20 years old.

The grey hair that comes with age also contributed to the sense of “dowdy.” Some women carry their natural hair color with stateliness. Susan Boyle was not one of them.


Another of the first three questions Cowell asks is Susan Boyle’s hometown. She answers, stumbling, describing Blackburn, Scotland and a collection of villages. One aspect of the “World Wide Web” is that a British clip in which an accent telegraphs location and class, is easily transmitted to a different geography in which those cultural connotations are lost. As an American, I cannot readily identify the difference in various British accents, but, as My Fair Lady taught us, they are important.

I can read the other visual, signifiers of class, though. A pale dress with pale shoes and black stockings looks like a fashion mistake. A slightly messy, hair-do clearly not controlled by a team of professionals. Some of the judges preconceptions surely are linked to these signs.


A fascinating comparison exists between Susan Boyle and Paul Potts, the 2007 winner of Britain’s Got Talent. On Youtube, the top video of Paul Pott’s first audition has over a million views, currently at 1,894,500 views. Susan Boyle has yet to win the show, but the top youtube of her audition is at 47,257,453 views. Paul Potts, too had some issues with looksism–imperfect teeth and a heavier body. So why is she more viral than he? Perhaps her musical selection was more accessible. Perhaps people are looking for more of a distraction from hard news in 2009 than they were in 2007. Or perhaps there is underlying sexism in the surprise and excitement of the contrast between Boyle’s appearance and her voice.

The success of the movies of Judd Apatow demonstrate the, if not approval at least acceptance of the shlubby, imperfect male protagonist. But there is no equivalent messy, imperfect woman hero. That opera singer from earlier, Deborah Voigt, underwent gastric bypass surgery following her firing. This surgery could have altered her voice, ending her career. Thankfully it did not, and she has gone on to wear that little black dress.

The contrast between reactions to Paul Potts and Susan Boyle should teach us that the wall from which an audience must suspend its disbelief is much higher and harder to climb for female performers.


One element of the Susan Boyle excitement is genuine appreciation for talent. If music be the food of love, the world has fallen in love with Ms. Boyle. But another element of the excess media coverage is the schedenfrauden delight as the looksism, ageism, classism, and sexism of the judges is defied by this singer.

But the honest audience member must ask him/herself, was that my evaluation, too? Did Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, and Piers Morgan reflect my judgement? Breathe and take comfort in the thought that your condescension was not caught on camera and go find something new to watch on youtube.

Secret Ingredients of a Pop Star
AKIE BERMISS: I was just as shocked as everyone else, I think, to hear about the Susan Boyle-story/ news-cycle that’s been sweeping the nation.  But I was not shocked because Susan Boyle didn’t sound like a troll — no, not shocked that she had a very nice broadway-style voice complete with bright, thorough vibrato: not that at all.  I’m shocked, honestly, by the naked prejudice that we’re all willing to admit we commit on a day-to-day basis.  You know, what I love about “look-ism” is that its a gateway prejudice.  Most people won’t admit to being age-ist, or sexist, or racist.  Oh no — too declasse in these heady times.  We’re all enlightened now.  We watch The Wire, we love Ellen Degeneres, we think Michelle Obama is awesome, and on and on and on.  Of course overt prejudice is all but eradicated as far the “civilized” world is concerned.  Whether or not one does hold overt preconceptions about certain large swaths of people, its just no longer acceptable to speak about it in mixed or open company.  But when it comes to ugliness and prettiness — we still feel pretty confident about speaking out loud.  Oh yes, because calling someone ugly is perfectly acceptable… as long as they are ugly.  It doesn’t lack a biting edge, but at least it won’t offend polite company.

And, look, I don’t want to get into it about who’s ugly and who ain’t.  That’s a pointless bit of argumentation where about 80% of the world population is concerned.  I’m sure there are psychologists and image experts who are much more interested in wrestling over that little conundrum.  Let’s just leave it at saying there are extremes and varying degrees of ambiguity in-between, and that looks are hard to define because what we’re all looking for is utterly different.  However, as a society (and I’m speaking mostly on the Western end of things, in this regard) we have some agreed upon sign-posts: fatness, hair-style (including facial and body hair), facial symmetry, and size (as in height and width, regardless of obesity).  And so, we generally find people who are fat, with unkempt hair, sloppy facial construction or composure, and either too short or too tall or too wide or too skinny (though i’m not so sure about this one any more) to be unpleasant to look at.

And you know what?  That’s fine.  As a not-so-thin, not-so-symmetrical, not-so-coiffed, not so moderately-sized individual myself, I’m very aware of what the prevailing notions are.  The issue that is at the heart of this article (and the vacuous material about to be spouted forth by your’s truly) is when the judgments of ugly or beautiful lead us to make other assumptions.  Assumptions which, all of us who know a little something about genetics also know, are not at all based in fact.  Well that’s just LOOKSISM, friends.  Or UGLISM!  or GOODLOOKINGISM!  or, well, something that’s not cool.  How much evidence is there all over the world that attractiveness have nothing to do with talent, intelligence, or ability.  Given that we, as intelligent individuals (and by intelligent I mean, you know, conscious creatures… not necessarily intelligent.  That’s apparently arguable), know this to be true why do we still react to people who are not attractive like they are therefore incapable of contributing to humanity.

Unless, of course, we have it shoved in our face.

So right — back to Susan Boyle.  So she’s a frumpy english woman with a rather splendid voice that came on television and made everyone looking at her shiver and sneer and shake uncontrollably.  But then, after all the sniggering was done, she sang about five notes of a song and — we all fell in love.  In a moment of true enlightenment and humanitarianism she was given three “Yes” votes on BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT.  And with that she became the world latest example of why you shouldn’t judge the proverbial book by its proverbial cover.  And all us schlubs out here are just hoping and dreaming that she’ll be pop’s patron saint of the not-so-pretty.

And so it is with great sadness that I have to admit, at least to you, dear reader, that its not very likely to happen.  And for a hostof reasons, at that.  A few of which I will set forth following this, now over-long, preamble.  I fear I shall be called a villain for my frankness.  So let me be like the Bard’s Puck, then, and say that: if I DO offend, I mean no harm.  Consider that, for the sake of argument, these are but dreaming-words.  born-man thoughts.  or even, pray you, mere theories.  I mean Susan Boyle no harm.  I wish her the best, though I speak to the inequities of men which will likely do her harm.  She’ll be fine.  She may not be “attractive” but I assure you, she will survive my little scratchings.

So, bear me no malice, dear reader.  Take my hand if we be friends — and Akie shall restore amends.

They Said: “Fiat Pop! ” And They Saw That It Was… Okay.

Pop music, by and large, is NOT great music.  Not by any critical standards.  It is, for that reason, only great in how popular it becomes with the masses.  Real art — real great music — not only entertains.  It challenges, frightens, inspires, and transforms.  Pop music has a couple basic purposes:  1. It makes us happy or feel good.  and 2. It passes the time between the events that are what we might call real life.  And what we love about pop is that its fun and we don’t have to be critical about it.  Does it sound good? Then its good.  So what if the lyrics are completely opposed to our personal beliefs.  If the song is about one sort of semi-grotesque use of bodily fluids or another — its all good.  If its denigrating to women or men or babies or baby deer — it doesn’t matter.  As long as “Smash That Doe Up” is catchy.  As long as we can dance to it or drive to it or groove too it — its, literally, all good.  We make very few demands on pop and in turn we get it churned out by the bucket-load.  All the pop you can stand.  More than you can stand, really.  Anytime, anywhere.

The flip-side, however, is that pop music demands a great deal from its purveyors: your local, international, big screen pop-stars.  Most people know this on a subconscious level but haven’t reconciled with it in their waking hours.  A pop-star is a strange, devoted, and much-betrayed beast.  To be one, you must conform to whatever is passing for pop at the time.  If its auto-tune with a drum-track, miasmatic vocalizations over string-sodden schmaltz, or unambiguous sexual ululations over the sound of sitar — it doesn’t matter.  You gotta do it.  And you’ve got to put your heart into it as well.  What kind of singer is going to fit into that mold?  The mold of: any mold?  Well, the answer is as obvious as it seems — a completely competent imitator.  An utterly malleable null-singer who can basically sound like anything.  Its cruel — but its true (shhhh….. look at Diana Ross and The Supremes, but don’t tell them I told you…).

And once that’s taken care of, the rest is all image.  That is, pure and simple, attractiveness.  If you’re going to be peddling a product the essence of which is basically that its just sweet filler (read: candy) to munch on between the rich heaviness of life — then you’d better make damned sure that when we’re looking at this act we’re seeing something that is just as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears.  That means they’d better be devoted subscribers to the aforementioned beauty categories.  And as with the music end of pop, they’d better have a malleable handsomeness that can be made to work with any kind of style that may be in vogue.  Interestingly, people often think that because I am an avowed snob, I hate pop music.  Quite the contrary, friend: I love me some pop music.  Love it, love it, love it.  But that said, if I’m already forcing my snobbish ears to accept sweet-sounding drivel, then I am that much more ardent in my desire to be fed that insubstantiality by someone gorgeous.  And I mean that.

And so, to bring it back around, I don’t think Susan Boyle has much of a chance to become a pop sensation.  A record deal or two, perhaps.  Some appearances? Certainly, after a professional make-over.  But if you think we’re going to watch her grind it up on MTV, you’re kidding yourself.  For one thing, her voice is very distinctly broadway/show-tunesy and for another, not amount of image work is going to make her a young, sexy ice-goddess.  What Susan has is human talent.  An open, honest talent.  The likes of which could never do much in the pop world.  She could do wonderful things as some kind of alternative singer.  In a market where looks are not so fetishized — or even in the circles where a human talent like Boyle’s is considered a prize.  Where looks are deliberately over-looked.  Where the prize is greater than the surface situation.

But with pop music — its not about judging a book by its cover.  The cover is, ostensibly, all there is.  There is no more.  Or, at least, no more that we care about.  It is perfected non-importance.  And, let’s be honest, we don’t want to see Boyle become a pop star.  We don’t want to see her cave in to the pressures and mores of the vacuous elite.  She is meant to be an every(wo)man kind of hero — meant to be the justification to go against the establishment.  There is no way she could do that from inside the pop establishment.  Unless, of course, we’re trying to say that the world is ready to be beauty-blind.

Which is preposterous.

Susan Boyle, C’est Moi

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Let’s face it: Pretty is the new pretty. And the old pretty. And next season’s pretty. Looks are about all we have the attention span for these days—words take too long to listen to; forget about ideas. Because we like pretty, we prefer to get much of our social and cultural stimulation from pretty faces, which is sometimes hard, because pretty mouths don’t always say pretty things. Or smart things, or things that make sense. This is not a tragedy, since at this point, nobody wants to know how you got your sharp wit or your theory of post-modern architecture—they want to know where you got your shoes.

Attractive celebrities, it is ever more commonly believed, are by virtue of their attractiveness able to excel at many different kinds of things. Models design clothing lines. Actors discuss globalization in tabloid interviews. Bono is an Op-Ed contributor for the New York Times. Jenny McCarthy speaks out against vaccinating your children. Tila Tequila wrote a book. Meanwhile, authors scowl, and schedule a professional photo shoot for their next dust jacket, because they have to do what they can to keep up appearances. Appearances are important, because they count, and they are what they seem. If you are attractive, you will likely receive the attention you deserve.

When these attractive people stumble or fail at something new that they’ve tried a hand at, we mock them, sure—but deep down, the very fact of their attractiveness tends to earn them our grudging respect. We are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Because they are attractive, they deserve to be treated as special.

In turn, these attractive celebrities do their best to remain attractive to us, their public. They get plastic surgery, they diet and exercise and attempt to make their bodies as appealing as possible. They get their hair and makeup done, they put extreme amounts of consideration into picking out their clothes.

Sure, ugly is still there, plodding around behind the scenes, rearing its turtle head into the spotlight occasionally, but we prefer not to think about it. We see enough ugly in our real lives; on the bus, at the gym, in the office. In the mirror. When we open a magazine or turn on the television, we’re ready to see some pretty, please.

When relatively unattractive people venture into these realms of television and magazines, therefore, they have the deck stacked against them from the beginning. This was demonstrated during Susan Boyle’s audition for Britain’s Got Talent. The audience took one look at this dowdy older woman and dismissed her. This is a common reaction to plainness. We lack patience for the unattractive; particularly the unattractive person who has the same hopes of achieving fame and fortune as attractive people do. Relatively unattractive people remind us that sometimes, we are vulnerable and human and unattractive ourselves. We too make mistakes, and we fear that no one will give us a chance either.

When Susan Boyle surprised everyone by being reasonably poised and talented, the most surprising thing about it was how much the audience disliked her before she gave her performance. When you don’t know someone, you can’t hate them—but you can hate the parts of them that remind you of what you hate about yourself. The loathing and disdain directed at Susan Boyle were not really meant for her.

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2 Responses to Susan Boyle: A Multipart Discourse

  1. Pingback: Twitted by dontsteelmusic

  2. KK says:

    One correction: You state that Paul Potts’ top video has 1.8 million views. As of today it has 49.6 million views – one of about 35 videos of the same audition – and climbing. Altogether his videos have hundreds of millions of views.

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