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April 17, 2009
Scot Singer Susan Boyle, the anti-Obama?
There is something viscerally compelling about the current viral internet video. If you're one of the three people in America who haven't yet seen Susan Boyle's appearance on Britain's Got Talent--American Idol with a bunch of accents--you owe it to yourself to watch it. Now. Here. It may be the most riveting 7 1/2 minutes of television ever.
I, and apparently millions of other people, have found ourselves watching the video over and over. And I'm struck by our fascination with it.
From the moment she strides resolutely, solidly, on stage, this frumpy Scottish spinster captivates our attention. Not because of her beauty; to call Miss Boyle's appearance plain would be like saying the U.S. Marines have a lot of firepower. Or her style; she's wearing a beige dress, dark stockings and white shoes. Not because of her poise; at one point, flustered, she has trouble answering a question from the show's judges.
About the time she finds the right term -- villages, she realizes -- to describe her hometown, Blackburn in West Lothian near Edinburgh, we begin to suspect that we're about to be served haggis, when we had hoped for filet mignon. After all, average people usually only have average talent. And on first glance it would be stretching the word, average, to apply it to Miss Boyle, bless her big Scottish heart. A mini-bump and grind, causing the show's judges to roll their eyes, convinces us that heartburn will surely follow.
Then Susan Boyle opens her mouth and sings.
And her voice sends a shiver through you. Just as it must have the audience, even the jaded judges--come on, you've heard Simon Cowell called worse than that--on hand to hear it in person.
I have heard the song Miss Boyle sings, I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Miserables, performed at least a half-dozen times by professional cast members in theatres around the world. I have never heard it sung so beautifully. Even in London. Even in Paris.
Miss Boyle finishes to a standing ovation from a stunned audience, and two of the three judges. Then she walks off the stage.
She had explained in the lead-in to her performance that she "always wanted to sing in front of a large audience." Having accomplished that dream, she turns to exit, stage right. The judges have to call her back to review her performance.
It is a remarkable performance that, even now, gives me goosebumps. As Britain's Got Talent judge Amanda Cooper says in the clip, we've just been given a stunning wakeup call not to judge a person by her, or his, looks.
But I suspect that there's something more powerful even than that at work, to cause the almost-universal appeal of Miss Boyle's performance. What we sense is that this plain woman--hair unstyled, eyebrows unplucked, an image consultant's worst dream sprung to life--is the rarest of things in this age of soundbites and spin doctors and focus groups: a real person, completely lacking in artifice.
At a time when the President of the United States feels compelled to use a teleprompter for even the most minor appearances, when Grecian columns are necessary props for campaign speeches, when public figures are as carefully packaged as your morning cereal boxes, after watching plain Susan Boyle sing with a voice for the ages, you feel like you have witnessed a real person do something that's real. And right. And good. No, extraordinarily good.
She is, in effect, the anti-Obama. No artifice. No teleprompter. As likely to stumble over words, or do a spontaneous bump and grind as she is to belt out a song that could leave you with chill-bumps.
I don't know what Miss Boyle's politics are. I don't care. Whatever they are, I hope she keeps them, just as I hope she stays true to her small-town--uh, village--Scottish roots and to herself after the big, and no doubt well-deserved, payday she has coming.
William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author and unabashed Les Miserables fan
Update: Mimi Evans Winship sends this poem:
A Flash of Pure Joy
While across the landscape pretension and arrogance roil,
Onto the world stage steps Susan Boyle.
No personal hair stylist or makeup artist here.
Just a God-given voice, pure and angel clear.
As around her, madness leaves all decency in tatters,
With one untainted note she shows us what really matters.