Posted by: coloradokiwi | April 18, 2009

The Voice of an Angel

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve seen the stunning footage of Susan Boyle, the quirky parishioner turned international sensation, via Britain’s Got Talent.  Indeed the clip I just linked to is a remarkable piece of television in its own right, setting us up through its music and editing to suspect that (like most people who go on such shows), we will witness something of Hungian proportions.  And then all of a sudden…we are made into fools and then lovers.

Perhaps Susan Boyle is already (!) on the verge of being over-exposed, but I would like to dwell on her in that clip for just a moment.  First, let’s not so easily dismiss magic.  And that is truly a magical performance for the following reasons:

1. It is indeed a huge surprise.  Certainly to some extent this is about her frumpy appearance:  the extra chin, the untweazed brows.  But for the record, I think the issue of people being cynical is not just about her appearance, but her manner:  the way she talks, the somewhat bawdy stroppiness, the weird mannerisms…it all seemed to indicate someone with perhaps an inflated sense of self-worth and/or mental issues.  Whatever the source for them, all of our preconceived notions about her vocal talents, of course, are shortly obliterated.

2.  This is a goosebump and/or  tear-inducing performance.  The depths of her passion, the power behind her notes—my God, she doesn’t take a breath for a whole stanza prior to belting out that crescendo!  It is a truly professional quality performance, delivered on the spot, having never performed in front of a large audience.  It may be fashionable to dump on “fogey music,” and far be it for me to try to reinstill some notion of high-low culture divisions when we’re talking “talent.”  But seriously, there’s something to be said for sweeping melodies belted out with passion and verve—sung well, it can be very moving, and you’d have to be a hard-hearted bastard not to be moved by Susan Boyle’s performance.  

3.  This was a truly canny song choice that now borders on being the stuff of legend.  In the context of the play, this is Fantine’s lament that her dreams have been crushed by a cruel world, where she dreamed that “God would be forgiving,” and this turned out not to be so.  It is the lament of someone whose life has been a great disappointment (or actually, even worse than that).  Susan said that she chose this song “because…it fitted the circumstances at the particular time, it was the way I was feeling at the time.”  Without knowing the full extent of whatever hardships Susan’s faced in her life, there are stories emerging now that she was at one time mercilessly bullied, and that she spent the last several years forced to look after her elderly mother.  Unlike Fantine, it seems, Susan’s life may yet turn out to be more than she had ever dreamed.  

And this is where, beyond the clip, beyond the hoopla, beyond whatever becomes of Susan Boyle, her story should be particularly moving.  Only now, getting the chance on a show like this, has her incredible talent made it out into the world.  Read through some of the comments on the Youtube clip (which at this writing has roughly 25.5 million hits and counting).  Susan has truly moved people, and I suspect she will continue to do so.  So the real issue comes back to this, a sentiment I am borrowing from a famous quote that I can’t quite recall and so I can’t cite it, roughly paraphrased here:

How many Susan Boyles have died in obscurity on the plantation, on the streets, in the factory?  Indeed, how many Susan Boyles have remained Fantines?

For me this is really what gets to me about her performance, in the end:  I know that for every Susan Boyle out there, there are probably a hundred Fantines—people who have dreams and maybe even a true gift to give to the world, or a singular genius that will make the planet better (singing is great, but curing cancer might just be a little better).  Such marvels are denied us, because at the end of the day we live in an unjust and skewed world. Lives are snuffed out or twisted.  Some are merely squandered or whither away.  Whatever the reason, arguably most people do not realize their full potential, and even fewer have their potential appreciated by someone else.  

Often when we argue about politics, about “making the world a better place,” this is ultimately what is at stake.  A more perfect world is one in which people’s talents can be truly applied, where their gifts can really make this planet a more joyous one, where everyone can meet their full potential, and that potential is welcomed by others.  It is a world in which the sorts of conditions that inspired this song, with which Susan Boyle has just set the world aflame, are made obsolete.  Perhaps this is not a realistic goal, but we must reach for it, we must try.  For this is the last lesson of Susan Boyle:  go for it, for despite long odds you might just make it.



  1. I wasn’t going to say anything mean, per se. I mean, I was very moved when I first watched the clip as well. I was teary-eyed, and my initial thoughts were, “Holy Shit!” It’s just that, well … in areas she really just had a tiny biy too much vibrato.

  2. Palb, you are a real douche bag.

  3. I think it’s fair to say she’s not the bestest singer evah: there is work to be done. But it’s still PRETTY good, made moreso by the context. Her predecessor in nearly every sense, Paul Potts, is similar: not the best tenor around, but very good, and people are rooting for him.

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