I was really hoping that as a culture we were just going to let this one go, but as I just read a series of blogs and gossip sites attacking someone for criticizing Susan Boyle’s album, I guess we’re not yet done with this particular sob story.
For the uninitiated (and extremely lucky), Susan Boyle is a singer who shot to instant fame when a YouTube clip of her audition for Britain’s Got Talent went viral last April. Though she ultimately finished the competition in second place, her debut album, I Dreamed a Dream, was released in November and immediately sold an obscene amount of copies, breaking all sorts of records and becoming 2009’s highest selling album in the world.
Why has this shy, middle-aged Scottish woman so captured our society’s attention? Basically, because she isn’t very pretty.
If you haven’t watched Boyle’s audition heard ’round the world, watch it now. The gimmick behind the clip, the reason that so many people thought it was fascinating enough to pass on to all of their friends, is that Boyle is an unattractive, dowdy, asexual 47-year-old woman, but in spite of that, manages not to have a terrible voice. The judges and audience members’ mouths literally drop open when Boyle begins to sing, as if the fact that she is awkward and physically unappealing makes it completely inconceivable that she would have other redeeming qualities.
This clip, the message of which is “isn’t it incredible that this ugly person is good at something?,” is essentially the entire reason for Boyle’s fame. Her multi-platinum album is named after the song that she sung at that audition, and her devoted fans are much more likely to rhapsodize over Boyle’s “inspiring” life story than over her actual music.
Because the truth is, Boyle is not an amazing performer. She is only a moderately talented singer, certainly nothing extraordinary vocally, and nowhere near resilient enough to be a dependable live act. She missed several nights of the summer’s Britain’s Got Talent tour, during which she was expected to sing a mere two songs, due to exhaustion and instability, and she was seen having a public breakdown during her U.S. media tour to promote her album.
What’s more, her album is nowhere near musically deserving of this much attention. I Dreamed a Dream is made up of eleven oddly chosen covers, including a truly bizarre version of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” and one original song, a treacly mess called “Who I Was Born to Be.” Boyle has a decent if technically unremarkable voice, but it is obvious that the executives handling her career saw no need to put actual artistic effort into crafting her album.
Rather than trying to make music, rather than trying to turn her into the artist she always dreamed of being, they decided they could rest on the extreme novelty of an unsexy woman who is not completely useless to popular culture. And they were right.
ETA: I’ve written a follow-up blog, here.