By Wil Forbis
At this point, It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't seen the infamous video clip* of dowdy spinster Susan Boyle auditioning for English television show, "Britain's Got Talent." Within days of the video's first appearance in my inbox Susan was being prominently featured on the pages of USA Today. A few weeks later, she was doing the talkshow circuit, gushing about how the experience had changed her life. The video itself may turn out to be the most viral in history, surpassing Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin and President Obama's acceptance speech.
* I enclose a link here, with the warning that youtube keeps removing uploads of the video so I'm not sure how long this will last.
There's a reason for this. The video clip is undoubtably one of the most affecting moments I've ever seen captured on film. At the beginning, Boyle, a portly 48-year-old who could be most generously described as plain, is seen chattering with talent wranglers backstage. Wearing a nervous smile, Susan notes her age, the fact that she's unmarried and that she's "never been kissed." She immediately attempts to brush those last two comments off, as if they've had little effect on her, when it's obvious they are an onerous weight she's carried her entire adult life. Susan is then called onto the stage of the large theater and she chirpingly greets the audience and panel of judges including Simon Cowell of "American Idol." Everyone in the room makes the barest attempt to suppress a group smirk. "This old bird?!" their eyes seemed to ask. "She thinks she's got talent?" Cowell forces polite (for him) conversation and Boyle demonstrates all the tics of someone who's learned to use humor to compensate for a lifetime of humiliation. She then announces that she's going to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables. The instrumental introduction of the song fills the hall, a phalanx of horns rising to an emotional crest. And Susan opens her mouth.
It's not that Susan is good, it's not that she's great, it's that she's fucking spectacular. The voice that comes out of her mouth is sheer perfection. The audience, totally duped by the presentation, goes apeshit: cheering, clapping and standing up from their seats. The judges are floored, two of them so caught up in the beauty of the moment that it seems they might weep. All the while, Susan keeps crooning in an operatic mezzo-soprano—her best moment coming a few minutes into the performance when the song builds to a crescendo while changing key and her voice climbs up to unerringly hit the high notes.
Those of us watching the video on youtube or pirated MPEGs realize we fell right into the trap. We know the shots of eyeball rolling audience members and groaning judges were placed specifically for us to think that Susan was going to fail. (One can't help wonder whether Susan herself overplays her image as a clueless dunce—immediately after finishing her song, she starts to walk off the stage before show employees herd her back to the center for the requisite post-performance interview.) But the thing is, we don't mind being tricked. The raw power of the moment overwhelms any duplicity. We know that the core of what we've seen is a real-life Rocky* moment—the underdog, forever put upon, rises up to prove for skeptics wrong. Susan has undoubtably had many detractors throughout her life—the snarling prom queen who mocked her unglamorous appearance, the gangly legged band of boys who taunted her while she walked home from school. And as we watch the video, we are certain of one thing: those bitches just got served! In the space of 10 minutes Susan has ascended to a level of cultural awareness her enemies could only dream of.
* It's a telling comment on the Internet age that we can receive the same emotional catharsis from a five-minute web video that we would normally sit through a two-hour movie to achieve.
As we sit there, coming off a high of the moment, it seems easy to decry the cultural forces that held Susan down for so long: the lookism, the sexism (male singers are obviously held to a different standard of appearance than females), the ageism. Perhaps we feel a bit of pride because Susan has given us a chance to embrace our better nature, and we've eagerly taken it. Cheering Susan on grants us a certain absolution.
When the Boyle video went viral, I, ever the cynic, jokingly made a comment on a friend's Facebook page along the lines of "she'll probably get a record deal and turn into Amy Winehouse." As the comment hung in the air, I started realizing how blatant the contrasts between Boyle and Winehouse, both British, are. Though Winehouse has certainly hit some artistic highs, she's a woman of inconsistent vocal ability, certainly not capable of the emotional dynamicism that Boyle is. Winehouse's appeal is instead based on her wanton sacrilege; she sprung to international fame in 2007 with the song "Rehab," a horn laden R&B number that sneered at the paternal forces who were begging her to get the drug and alcohol counseling she so obviously needs. Tattooed and unsteadily perched atop a pair of high heels, Winehouse is the consummate bad girl, the polar opposite of Boyle, who looks to be the sort of matronly woman who would cheerfully advise children on the medicinal benefits of cod oil.
Of course, the likelihood is that Winehouse will have the bigger career, if she can stay alive. Why? Because Winehouse has sex appeal. And by "sex appeal" I don't simply mean that Winehouse is physically attractive. (In fact, according to the hyperinflated standard of beauty most female stars are judged against, Winehouse, although beautiful, is probably below average.) I mean to say that Winehouse knows how to use sex as a weapon, to knowingly and effectively transmit those ethereal signals that men find so irresistible: availability, lasciviousness and a certain looseness of morals. Even before you meet her, the zipper on Winehouse's designer jeans is halfway down.
It's certainly not news that sex appeal provides a distinct advantage in the entertainment business. And while our teeth grate at the unfairness of it all—we want to believe we live in a society where people are judged by their ability and not their appearance—our protests dim when a really sexy star hits the stage and we start to feel the blood rush from one part of our body to another (this applies to you ladies as well.) As much as we like to complain about the corrupt nature of idol manufacturers, we reach for the sweetest snacks they offer.
Why are we so shallow? Because we look for the same characteristics in pop icons as we do in potential mates. Men look for young, attractive babes because, as any evolutionary psychologist will tell you, these attributes identify a partner who can best carry forth their genes. Youth bespeaks of the potential to have many children, and attractiveness—which can loosely be translated into characteristics like symmetrical features, smooth skin and hair etc.—signifies a lack of disease or genetic imperfection. Women's interests are similar, though they're probably less interested in youth, and more interested in a powerful partner at the top of the social hierarchy (which explains how Mick Jagger was able to maintain his status as a sex symbol well into his fifth decade.)
This would all seem to paint a pretty grim picture for the Susan Boyles of the world. And it must be frustrating for a performer like her to see the ascent of a less talented, but more glamorous chanteuse. But are there other reasons—deeper, more sub textual reasons—that explain our preference for attractive entertainers?
Let's consider Susan Boyle's confession of having "never been kissed." Our tendency as an audience is to mock such an confession. We sneer at the fact that a woman of Susan's age is such a romantic failure and we take some pride in our comparative romantic successes. But does Susan's admission also paint her with an aura of virginal purity? Those of us belonging to the 98% of humanity who have been kissed may think of ourselves as worldly sorts, but we are almost unavoidably plagued with guilt and regrets stemming from our worldliness. We've broken hearts, had our hearts broken, and committed God knows what other indiscretions in the metaphorical (and literal) back alleys of the sexual arena. Does our initial resentment of Susan comes not from our sense that she is deficient in something, but that she is in some ways richer than us? Do we resent her because she is not a "fallen angel" (like us) and does that resentment only increase we hear the almost angelic nature of her voice? (Mind you, I make these points, and asked these questions, as a committed atheist, but there's no doubt that the religious beliefs of the Western world have molded and affected all of us.)
So, if we wish to avoid the reminder of our infidelities and heartbreaks that comes from observing such a divine icon, into whose arms do we fall? The arms of a whore; or, in this case, Amy Winehouse. Amy might be less talented than Susan, her instrument less perfect, but we surely have no fear of her judging us. Indeed, most of us can enjoy her music with the sense that whatever our imperfections may be, they can't compete with hers.
This is all, of course, entirely unfair to the real Susan Boyle. She would no doubt like to experience the taint of romantic entanglements. (Better to have loved and lost than to never loved at all, the old saying goes.) But, as an audience, we don't interact with the "real" Susan, nor the "real" Amy, we interact with our perceptions of them. And our perceptions of our pop idols are weighted down with our innumerable personal issues—our petty jealousies, our real or imagined inadequacies, our egos—in the same way that our perceptions of our romantic partners are often similarly burdened.
Years ago I had an ongoing debate with a friend of mine about a subject related to this. I argued that we ought to be able to enjoy music purely on the basis of how it sounds, with no reference to the appearance, beliefs and morality of the performers. The fact that Axl Rose was a maniac and a racist should not impede our enjoyment of "Sweet Child O' Mine." The fact that Billie Holiday lead a tragic life should not make us overly sympathetic to her rendition of "God Bless the Child." My friend argued that the life of an artist, the look of an artist, the era in which an artist lived were all inseparable from that artist's work and, in fact, heightened its effect. He posited that what made the music of Guns N' Roses work was that they so perfectly represented the netherworld of rock 'n roll hedonism. And what makes the music of Billie Holiday continue to resonate is that it represents hard living in a bygone era.
The debate was never settled, but I have to concede that my friend had a valid point. Lately I've been spending the wee hours of the night watching 50s and 60s jazz performances on youtube and part of the appeal is a look of these videos—the crisp contrast of the black-and-white footage, the suit and tie sophistication of the players. It all combines to create a certain atmosphere, and when I stumble onto jazz videos from the 70s—filled to the brim with bright colors, bellbottoms and ascots—I get immediately turned off no matter how good the music is.
Still, when we listen to music I think we are behooved to make an effort to understand why we respond to it the way we do. Because much of it has nothing to do with the performance or the performers, but rather with ourselves. How we listen to a musician famous for being a drug addict is affected by whether we've ever done drugs. Whether we enjoy a performer who is openly affiliated with a certain political party depends a lot on our political beliefs. And how we respond to a frumpy, plump middle-aged singer from Scotland has a lot to do with how we feel about our own looks.