Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"I hope Susan Boyle is okay because she is a really, really nice person."

I kind of forgot I'd mentioned blogging about Susan Boyle until Kathy prodded me. It feels extremely after-the-fact at this point but a few days ago she was still, or again, a trending topic on Twitter so I guess it's still relevant. Whether I can add anything new to the discussion is questionable; I haven't been following the media in this regard. Anyway, here's my feeling (partially inherited from John, who first told me about the phenomenon and was equally disgusted):

The English-speaking world has apparently been warped into complete delusion as to what constitutes musical talent by the British and American forces of manufactured pop. The very idea that physical beauty has anything to do with musical ability is preposterous. And yet, that's the entire basis of Susan Boyle's sure-to-be short-lived fame. People seemed to find it incredibly refreshing and amazing that an old (really, middle-aged), fat, unattractive or at best average-looking woman could sing. The implication is that you expect unattractive people to be worthless in every respect. Are you also surprised when 3's, 4's and 5's can write/act/do taxes?

In reality, there are far more unattractive people who can sing than attractive people who can sing, because in the second case you're selecting for two uncommon attributes rather than one. The whole point of shows like American Idol is to find attractive people first, and then figure out which of them is a decent performer, because the public demands eye-candy-ness in their pop stars in at least equal degrees to talent.

Go see musical theater in any major city, or check out a selective church choir, and you'll find medium-looking people with good voices. The reason they're not famous is because they don't look like pop stars, not because it's some amazingly rare gift to be able to carry a tune.

In fact, doesn't being overweight actually improve vocal quality? I'm pretty sure obesity is common, even encouraged, in opera because having extra fat on your body deepens resonance.

In conclusion: The Susan Boyle story isn't heart-warming, it's an appalling glimpse into how shallow we've become as a society.


In not really related news, I saw a bumper sticker this morning that said "ATTITUDES ARE THE REAL DISABILITY." Is it me, or does that sound like a criticism of disabled people? I.e., "NOTE TO DISABLED PEOPLE: GET AN ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT"

Besides, isn't "attitude" a value-neutral term? I assume only bad attitudes are "disabling," not having any affect at all.

If this post is any indication, my attitude is totally disabled.


Kathy and I have four poems in the new West Wind Review. Lots of good and funny contributors. I'll be reading this on the train for the next couple days.


  1. Yeah the Susan Boyle thing is lame. But wasn't even like Beverly Hills 90210 lame back in the whatever 90s for the same reason? Or do TV shows get a pass b/c part of the point is to look at good-looking people?

    Of course it is not just looks, shows like 90210 are pretty much all white people, which just looks plain weird.

  2. I'm annoyed specifically by everyone acting like her voice is so shocking. Yes, all TV shows revolve around attractive white people wherein talent is backgrounded ... I'm just surprised that people accept this as the norm now, to the degree that they assume you can't be talented if you're not attractive first.

  3. That bumper sticker's another of those incoherent stickers that are supposedly carrying a message. I mean, it's supposed to be saying that other people's attitudes towards disabilities (and everything?) are the problem, not physical disabilities. Right? I mean, I guess. It's just that it doesn't say it.

  4. Right, I assume, but yeah, message fail.

  5. I don't really have anything fresh to add to the SuBo convo, but thanks for honoring my request.

  6. Great post -- Yeah, the irony here is dulled because, like everyone else on American Idol or its offshoots, Susan Boyle is famous entirely because of how she looks.

  7. You are so wrong to insist that looks have nothing to do with musical talent. Look at all these hotties who can sing and play: Pavarotti, Kenny G., Joe Cocker, the lead singer for Steppenwolf, all four members of Ara Vora.

  8. i want the "I have no idea where i'm going" bumpersticker ...

    trying to break down/parse why susan boyle's so famous. her "ugliness" (though i think she's probably just ugly-for-tv and she'd be considered perfectly fine looking for her age in real life) is certainly a factor.

    is it also just her age though? it could be dramatic just that someone with a supposedly big talent has been living an ordinary life for so long... i think the whole hype machine would have worked just as well if she had been an equally-humble but not-bad-looking fortysomething.

    i also think a lot of it is down to simon cowell's glorious spit-take when she started belting (mediocrely, right?) which must be half of what he gets the big bucks for. and then i find my conspiritorial mind wondering how much of it was engineered beforehand.

    i thought the previous dude to undergo the same phenomenon was more impressive. he really gave me chills.

    this guy:

    (found it by googling "american idol british old guy singer" - second result - good luck bing!)

  9. I guess that I still think there have got to be so many people with that level of talent living "ordinary lives" ... but that most of them don't try out for American Idol or the equivalent ... because they just don't see it as realistic. And for the most part it isn't, because by and large they are screening for young hot people, and this was just a fluke. Similarly the people on ANTM are not the most beautiful girls in America at any given time, just a selection of the people that ended up trying out.

    I also think it's interesting to compare it to the William Hung phenomenon ... who basically became famous because he was not only not hot but also very enthusiastically NOT talented. between the two of them they kind of cover everyone, the shallow people who want to weep and the shallow people who want to point and laugh.

  10. I assume the bumper sticker meant, like, "If you're disabled, like me, take heart, because you, like me, can live a full happy life if you have a positive attitude!"

  11. I am about to sound like I have a enormous head, but I spent my teenage years winning singing competitions and I sing much, much better than Susan Boyle. I couldn't even watch a single clip of her all the way through because I felt so outraged that this was supposed to be a display of shockingly good talent.

    It isn't true that fat people sing better, but it is true that physical stature affects vocal fold size and quality. Tiny petite women are sopranos because their folds are skinny and thin and can stretch to high notes. Larger people have thicker folds and their voices are richer lower. Facial structure also affects tone quality, which accounts for the difference you hear between white and black singers.

  12. Leigh, you're cuter than Susan Boyle too. Can we do karaoke?

    Also, I believe you. I'm no vocal expert, but I certainly wasn't that impressed. You know what would be interesting, is a blind signing competition. I mean, not that the contestants are blind, but the judging process is. Like orchestra auditions. Of course, that's not "good TV."