Susan Boyle, Folk Hero
by Steve Stav
At a time when superficiality is championed and mediocrity is king, the fates have delivered unto us an antidote -- a "frumpy" YouTube sensation who reminds us that for every homecoming queen, there are a hundred wallflowers waiting to blossom.
In the days since Susan Boyle's appearance on Britain's Got Talent, I've ticked off the ways in which her story -- as we know it, so far -- is so remarkable, so unbelievably compelling. I'm now out of fingers. She's a little eccentric, sure; hardly a barrier to fame and fortune. Boyle appears to be also pretty tough -- Simon Cowell called her a "tiger," after all. She reportedly struggled with a learning disability, and, like previous BGT champion Paul Potts, was bullied a bit and had some struggles with confidence. Very moving elements, indeed, but when one realizes how genuinely nice Ms. Boyle is, that the bulk of her 47 years have been spent caring for others, that's when the floodgates truly open.
The full-length version of the YouTube video should be used as a measure of one's humanity, like the android tests in Blade Runner. If moisture around the eyes isn't detected, there's certainly something amiss, and the subject should be removed to a place where he or she cannot harm others. The test should be a requirement for politicians and government employees.
With all the media coverage, the one term I haven't read is "romantic," which is odd given that Boyle's story is ultimately a romantic one. She's Scottish, for starters, and though her hometown of Blackburn, West Lothian probably isn't quite as picturesque as we'd like it to be, it's still a Scottish village. Very, very romantic, this legend-in-the-making, this story of a seemingly ordinary woman, living alone with her cat, waiting for her big chance and then seizing it. I have this mental picture of a frazzle-haired, heavy-browed Snow White in my head, singing, "Someday My Prince Will Come" with a Scottish accent; little birds land on her shoulders while she hangs her laundry. I don't think I'm the only one with these sorts of notions.
The most compelling aspect of the Boyle phenomenon, of course, is that somehow a "frumpy" woman can have such a voice, can have any talent at all. A fairly recent notion, and a strange one, that a singing star has to also be able to grace the covers of Maxim and FHM. Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and a century's worth of opera divas managed to get by in their time, when a great singer was often a big woman with a big frame that housed a set of big lungs. Piaf was an exception.
One of Hollywood's most beautiful Oscar winners is no longer criticized for having a normal body, and for two seasons now, a plus-sized bombshell has been running Mad Men's offices. Will Susan Boyle deliver a death blow to the media/fashionista conspiracy of rail-thin images? At least a teeth-rattling uppercut, I think.
Almost as fascinating as Susan Boyle is the world's reaction to her. In a neo-Orwellian age when any fear-monger with a computer can make himself heard, when too many people's attentions are focused on tiny screens rather than on the persons sitting beside them, technology has managed to bring people together on an emotional level. The news of Boyle's triumph certainly reached the world much faster than any teletype, television, or town crier. Weeks and days have become hours and minutes, in terms of making a genuine folk hero.
Which brings me to the precarious, newfound relationship between Ms. Boyle and her admirers. We've realized that this inspirational saga is both too good and very true, but has this led to her placement on too high a pedestal, in too short a time? It might be better for everyone concerned if the folklore-weaving came to a close.
Earlier this week, the pessimist in me decided that someone needed to get Boyle into a studio, record "I Dreamed a Dream" and release it as a single before something bad happened. I initially regarded her performance as one of those rare flowers that bloomed for a day, every 50 years. But that won't be the case. This story is far from over, and the speculation on the next chapter has made the talent contest irrelevant. Boyle, who apparently isn't inclined to move away from her beloved Blackburn, West Lothian, is nonetheless going to be a singing star.
In the meantime, I would suggest that a soldier in plainclothes sleep on her couch, answer her door, and be positioned at this national treasure's elbow at all times. In less than a week, we've invested too much for her to stumble on a crack in the sidewalk now.
Perhaps the world won't be completely ruined by the mighty, the cruel and the ignorant after all; maybe, just maybe, the Susan Boyles of the Earth will wind up inheriting the whole thing. We can only hope.