With a zillion plays on YouTube and an insane amount of press, you’d have to be half brain dead not to have seen the Susan Boyle YouTube clips from Britain’s Got Talent (embedding was disabled) and to have not read some analysis about it. However, my take on the situation is a little different. I was certainly moved by the homely, unemployed, 47 year-old’s performance, but it wasn’t because of her age, employment status, or lack of aesthetic appeal. Susan Boyle is interesting because she’s genuine.
We live in an age of artifice and many artists thrive on personas, posturing and a facade. I would venture to say there is nothing wrong with indulging a certain part of yourself and making it part of your act (David Bowie, Misfits, Kraftwerk, The Doors, etc.) The difference is making sure that this is really part of who you are and not a gimmick. Historically, no matter how much we are exposed to pop crooning, corporately manufactured bubble-gum nostalgia and all sorts of packaged nonsense, genuine and earnest talent always has a dramatic effect on people. Take the case of another talent show phenomenon: the song “Hallelujah”.
For years, other American Idol candidates chose inane pop songs and trite show tunes to showcase their “talent”, but contestant Jason Castro picked a more literate and sincere tune, the 1984 Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” (already a cult hit from the 90′s from Jeff Buckley’s cover version). Suddenly an entire generation (and perhaps some older folks too) who had never heard the Cohen or the Buckley version were exposed to a brilliant and painfully personal song and responded by sending the Buckley cover version to #1 on iTunes. It seemed impossible that an audience who was used to such consumable popular culture could appreciate a song of such depth and passion, but the results were undeniable.
It is the same sort of sincerity that allowed Robert Zimmerman to drift in from Hibbing, Minnesota with a scruffy voice, questionable musical ability, writing odd folky songs people had never heard the likes of before and eventually become Bob Dylan. In an age of hip, good looking, clean cut young men, Dylan rolled in looking like a bad Dust Bowl reject playing mainly acoustic based songs (in the age of the electric guitar) with a voice only a mother could love. The difference was his voice sounded like truth and people believed it.
Susan Boyle has certainly not proven herself to be a venerable artist of this caliber, but she sang “I Dreamed A Dream” from the musical “Les Miserables” with great conviction and without an ounce of irony. Writing and performing is not always a pleasure. As Erykah Badu mentioned in the documentary “Before the Music Dies“, some of the greatest art comes from pain and honesty with one’s self. That doesn’t mean getting a painful haircut or wearing painful clothes to look tortured, it means going inside yourself to come back out with something you can share that you are proud of. It’s the unifying thread that created larger than life artists like Bruce Springsteen, Otis Redding, John Lennon and James Brown. I had never before seen a whole episode of Britain’s Got Talent (or American Idol for that matter), but next time she sings, Susan Boyle will certainly have at least one more fan watching.