A little cynicism about the Susan Boyle phenomenon

Jason Mittell's picture

First off, I just wanted to mention that I’ll be at Media in Transition 6 this weekend, so if you’re in Cambridge, say hi! I’m a respondant on a panel about using moving images as a rhetorical mode of film & media criticism on Sunday morning – it should be an interesting discussion.

In the past, I’ve noted how talking with the press can be both gratifying and frustrating, as often quotes are decontextualized, cut-off, or otherwise misconstrued. So to give credit where it is due, I want to point to Amy Rosenberg’s piece on the Susan Boyle phenomenon in The Philadelphia Inquirer for capturing our conversation effectively in a compelling article. Let me elaborate beyond the quotes here:

I’ve mostly been mystified by the online spread of Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent, watching dozens of Facebook friends link to the video, celebrate it in their status updates, and join her fan page. I watched the video, and didn’t make it through the whole thing once I got the point (note: I hate Les Miz, so the song does nothing for me). As quoted in the article, I didn’t quite understand why the crowd, judges, and online fans all assumed that Boyle’s appearance would indicate anything about her singing, so the surprise seemed unwarranted.

In fact, anyone who knows BGT or its previous spreading video of Paul Potts should have expected Boyle’s performance. Potts was a similiarly unassuming working-class, middle-aged singer with an impressive voice who wowed the crowd and judges, going on to win the first season of BGT. I remember seeing Potts on YouTube, and being surprised by his performance – less because an unattractive person was singing well, but because his working-class demeanor didn’t fit with his preferred musical genre of opera. Potts established the narrative hook for BGT that distinguished it from the Idol franchise: highlight people based on talent instead of celebrity/stardom potential, and craft feel-good narratives of people who seem truly commonplace with exceptional abilities.

Boyle fits with this narrative too well – so well that the surprise on the judges’ faces seemed disingenous. Certainly Simon Cowell, who is a producer of the show, would know better than to be truly surprised by Boyle fulfilling the perfectly cast role of diamond in the rough. But everyone played their parts: Boyle seeming out-of-place on stage until she started to sing, the crowd voicing skepticism based on her appearance only to immediately transform into a cheering throng upon hearing her voice, and the judges melting their cynicism on demand. It is a perfect example of how reality television can be both unscripted and completely plotted – through casting and genre conventions, the show offers surprise exactly as we might expect it to.

What I don’t understand is why so many people have embraced this as a marker of the triumph of the human spirit. For me, it’s a confirmation of how the media creates untenable beauty norms and ideals – the judges and crowd’s dismissive tone toward Boyle before she sang confirmed the ridiculous assumed linkage between conventional beauty and talent. Their shift in attitude was not Boyle’s triumph, but an indictment of this assumption – which will certainly last no longer than Boyle’s run on the show. Boyle herself is irrelevant to this narrative – it’s not about her talent (which, to be honest, is fine but not truly exceptional) or her story, but rather she is just a vehicle to make us feel good about how open minded we can be about frumpy people.

One last point: BGT is now in a bind. Boyle clearly has to win the competition, or her swelling fanbase will rebel (and the Cowell led record contract will suffer). But after Potts and Boyle, the formula will be laid so bare as to make the presumption of “unscripted” untenable. Obviously the economic gains of Boyle’s success is all that counts in the short-term, but the genre conventions cannot be made so obvious and predictable that the premise of the show suffers in the long-term. At least until next year’s token ugly singer “surprises” everyone yet again.

Posted in Genre, Press, Television, TV Shows Tagged: britain’s got talent, reality tv, susan boyle

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 24 Apr 2009 03:34:57 +0000