Monday, April 20, 2009

Truth-telling does not get much better

Although I have small interest in popular culture, and even less in reality TV, like pretty much everyone else in the English-speaking world I found myself arrested by the incredible story of Susan Boyle. It is a story that is particularly fitting for our time, because it requires more than words.

I had caught a short segment about Boyle on a morning show that my wife was watching as she dressed for work. But I had been unaware of the background to the segment—unaware either of her life prior to appearing on Britain’s Got Talent ten days ago or the reception Boyle was given by the audience at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow. And I was only vaguely aware—aware, that is, beneath the level of verbal consciousness—of how the television directors, in both the U.K. and U.S., had selected camera angles that emphasized the 47-year-old Scottish spinster’s physical awkwardness and lack of beauty. The contrast between her looks and her voice was intended to be shattering. The power and depth of her singing—she performed “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical drama Les Misérables—were more than sufficient to move even a casual listener. For television, however, and for a world that has been schooled in its visual values, her singing was not enough. Boyle was a sensation precisely because the beauty of her voice was treated as astonishing given her lack of physical beauty.

And I write all this—not one word about literature till now—because this morning, warming up with a cup of coffee, I read a wise and lovely column about Boyle and her worldwide reception by Colette Douglas Home, a Northern Irish writer who is married to the editor of the Glasgow Herald. As they say, read the whole thing. Truth-telling does not get much better.

Update: In the New York Post, Maureen Callahan is suspicious. It is not that she believes there is really no such person as Susan Boyle. Rather, she is suspicious of the impresario Simon Cowell. “Not since P.T. Barnum has there been a show business master of the trompe l’oeil like Simon Cowell,” she says. I am in no position to judge, having only the vaguest knowledge of Cowell. Yet Callahan goes on to say that Boyle’s story “would not be so compelling without the contradictions: the beautiful voice possessed by this defiantly unglamorous woman, who can somehow fully inhabit and interpret a love song without ever having been in love.” And I wonder if his genius, if indeed Cowell staged the whole thing, may be to spot a good story when he sees one—and to know just how to heighten the contradictions, to make a good story even better. Even if all that is true, the fact remains that the contradictions depend upon just the cultural assumptions that Douglas Home identified in her column: “Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect.” Even from the likes of Maureen Callahan.

Update, II: David P. Goldman, the Asia Times columnist who writes under the appropriate pseudonym Spengler, for he too is convinced of the West’s decline, argues that Susan Boyle validates the mediocrity of popular audiences and represents a “[c]hurlish resentment of high culture.” Tone deaf as I am, I have no truly informed opinion about Boyle’s singing. As Robert Levy observes, the whole thing was great theater. Yet I still maintain that Colette Douglas Home has reported a real cultural distemper—our confusion of youthful beauty with talent and goodness, and our increasing willingness to show a lack of respect for those who do not meet our standards of youth and beauty. That insight, rather than Boyle’s singing, is what motivated my original post.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I can't help thinking of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma every time I hear or read of Susan Boyle.

Her song choice was especially poignant.

Great story and article.

Toast said...

Yes, and also except but that anyhow, Susan Boyle does not have a beautiful voice. She has mostly good control of a pretty shabby instrument that she bolsters with ridiculously excessive vibrato.

D. G. Myers said...

Ah, well. You’re the one who does not believe that bringing evaluation back to criticism will stem the tide of whatever is bearing down upon us.

R/T said...

Alas, the cynics are armed and angry. Maureen Callahan and Toast seem reluctant to be seduced by truth and beauty. (I should probably say something about Keats at this point, but I need to stay on point.) At any rate, my substantive addition to the conversation about Susan Boyle, though, is simple: I am concerned about the ways in which the media and culture will now seize upon Ms. Boyle's life and talents, and--when they are finished with her, which will probably be soon--I worry that they will leave her rather diminished when they are finished with her; I hope that the seemingly innocent Ms. Boyle can survive the exploitation and the cynics.

Robert Levy said...

You are such a supreme cynic!
Of course you could nitpik even the most normative of issues, such as a vice presidential pick. Is there nothing you would accept at face value?

Of course the whole enterprise is a publicity piece - designed to create hype. That however does not diminish the interest and human interest of her story. No matter how hard the press try to dig (and of course they are using every angle to find dirt) they have not uncovered anything to suggest that Boyle is anything other than what she is presented as - a dowdy spinster who sings.

Does she have a beautiful voice? I cannot judge. Was her performance engaging theatre? Absolutely.

D. G. Myers said...

Nitpick a vice presidential pick? I thought McCain’s selection of Palin was brilliant.

Your point that the hype surrounding Susan Boyle does not diminish her story is an excellent one, Rob. Of course, I might say the same about the anti-hype surrounding Palin.

Now when are you going to start posting on your blog?

R.T.: Callahan worries about the same thing you do in the closing graph of her piece. I myself think there is no chance Miss Boyle will not be diminished by the media attention, no matter how sturdy and inspiring her story.

Interesting that you and Rob use the same word: “diminish.” Whatever it is finally to be called, Miss Boyle represents something that has miraculously escaped the culture of fashion and personality—something that is larger and more important than the amazements of novelty. And you are saddened at the prospect of its reduction to the size of the jaws of the publicity machine.

At all events, a remarkable convergence of feeling.

R/T said...

Hoping to sound not too cynical, I would further argue that a significant portion of contemporary news media usually does not waste much of its energies or time on celebrating the noble (e.g., Susan Boyle's performance and her phenominal effect upon the world) but instead the media seem more interested in seeking out, exploiting, and--too frequently--celebrating the ignoble. And that, my friends, is at the heart of why I have concerns about Ms. Boyle's future, and--at the same time--I remain surprised about the generally positive reactions up to this point, though the exploitation and celebration are probably just around the corner. (If anyone doubts that cynically portrayed scenario, please carefully reflect upon recent news cycles involving celebrities, politicians, and business leaders targeted by the media for annihilation.)

Roger Forseth said...

"Some mute inglorious Milton"? Gray, "thou should'st be living at this hour"!

Toast said...

There's no truth, beauty, or nobility in Susan Boyle's little media event. What you're mistaking for those qualities is nothing more than sentimental maundering. There's no difference between Susan Boyle's 15 minutes and that of Elian Gonzalez, JonBenet Ramsey, Laci Peterson, or any of the million other examples you could readily name: they're all a fraudulent exceptionalism that really consists of nothing more than anti-intellectual mawkishness, and, most often, some sort of moral panic: "Oh my god! How could we be so cruel to that lovely lady. We are bad people! But now we'll make up for it by lionizing her for a week and a half! Hoorah! Plus also, any other old ladies who are just as sad and lonely and frumpy as Susan Boyle, but can't sing — we still don't care about them."