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"We may be ugly, but we’ve got the music."
–Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel"
What is most astonishing about the Susan Boyle phenomenon is not that a frumpy middle-aged woman stands poised to win ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent and take home the £100,000 in prize money and then waltz into big-time commercial recording money, but that the machinery of pop culture has taken so long to exploit a category of entertainment with such venerable appeal—the ugly singer. She vaulted to prominence and the top of the Youtube charts with her first-round performance on the reality talent show at the beginning of April, and this past weekend won her semi-final round. The finals are tomorrow.
For true connoisseurs of the genre, Boyle hardly rates among the ugliest. In truth her looks would best be described as normal. But by the standards of pop culture, and its manufactured obsession with the artificial body, Boyle’s thin, frowning lips, esoteric teeth, frizzy drab-grey helmet-hair, pinched eyes, double chin, and squat, lumpy figure render her a veritable freak of nature.
Add to this her age of forty-seven, which counts as uninsurable according to the actuarial tables of the dominant youth culture, and a you’ve got a list of characteristics that would seem about as appealing to the masses as swine flu. With her thick Scottish accent and feisty manner, Blackburn’s anti-diva should be one of Macbeth’s witches not a pop star in the making.
The definitive account of the erotic power of ugly musicians comes from Rousseau’s Confessions. While serving as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice in the 1740s, Rousseau made repeated visits to the Pietà, the convent where Vivaldi had famously been director of music and for whom he had written most of his five hundred concertos and reams of motets. Rousseau’s breathless encounter with trendy Italian music is now excerpted in many a university music history and music appreciation textbook as a way, I suppose, of piquing the hormone-driven interest of college students: apparently, the good Catholic girls of La Serenissima could get the blood boiling as vigorously as the Pussy Cat Dolls can nowadays. As in so many things, Jean-Jacques twisted tastes anticipated those of our own time. Plus ca change:
“Vespers are performed in barred-off galleries solely by girls, of whom the oldest is not twenty years of age. I can conceive of nothing as voluptuous, as moving as this music. What grieved me was these accursed grilles, which allowed only tones to go through and concealed the angels of loveliness of whom they were worthy. I talked of nothing else. One day I was speaking of it at M. le Blond’s. ‘If you are so curious,’ he said to me, ‘to see these little girls, I can easily satisfy you. I am one of the administrators of the house, and I invite you to take a snack with them.’ When going into the room that contained these coveted beauties, I felt a tremor of love such as I never experienced before. M. le Blond introduced me to one after another of those famous singers whose voices and names were all that were known to me. ‘Come, Sophie,’ — she was horrible. ‘Come, Cattina,’ — she was blind in one eye. ‘Come, Bettina,’ — the smallpox had disfigured her. Scarcely one was without some considerable blemish. Two or three, however, looked tolerable; they sang only in the choruses. I was desolate. During the snack, when we teased them, they made merry. Ugliness does not exclude charms, and I found some in them. Finally, my way of looking at them changed so much that I left nearly in love with all these ugly girls.”
With Susan Boyle we have a dramaturgical reversal of the progression from hearing to vision, from sound to sight. Instead of the desire-stoking veil of the convent’s rood screen there was Boyle’s saucy march to the proscenium. At the Pietà, Rosseau is first seduced by the girls’ music, then shocked by the baroque faces that produces it. Afterwards a more sophisticated experience, mingling the erotic with the aesthetic, comes into play: rather than looking past their ugliness, Jean-Jacques revels in it.
By contrast, Boyle made her appearance in the full glory of her mute plainness, was duly greeted with disbelief by all, then given a few seconds to display her jaunty non-singing charms much like the girls of the Pietà at snack time. The worldwide audience basked in the artificial gulf between her looks and her professed desire to become a “professional singer,” as if it never occurred to them that a normal person could sing.
The ITV strategy was to let the underdog dig her way into the hole with her junkyard looks, then vault out of the pit on the wings of ferocious song.
I’m not sure which form of unmasking is more effective. Had Boyle performed from behind a screen, as happens at auditions for symphony orchestras, the collective imagination would have fabricated a million variants of the pop singer ideal: blond, snowy, stacked. Then when the screen lifted the ideal would have been shattered, and those initially enthralled by the disembodied voice would have had to reclaim their desire to listen and to lust. I think the Rousseauian route is more sophisticated: Chateau Lafite and single malt are acquired tastes, revolting to children and teetotalers. Likewise, the unusual vintage from Blackburn.
Only the most naïve would interpret the Boyle ascendancy as simple Platonist proof that one should not judge a book by its cover, nor a chanteuse by her caboose. “Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul,” warned The Republic.
To endorse that interpretation would require a gullibility so complete as to accept the fundamental lie of the Britain’s Got Talent: that what we see on screen corresponds in any way to truth. There is no more self-annihilating oxymoron than that of “reality t.v.”
The look of incredulity of the face of Simon Cowell, the show’s creator and its most notorious hatchetman of judge, was pure fakery. Were we really to believe that with so many millions of t.v. dollars resting on the production, he would have no idea who this woman was and what she could or could not do? The roll of the eyes and the grimacing flash of the blinding white Cowell teeth when the unemployed Boyle admitted she was 47 and never been kissed and lived with her cat and wanted to be a singer ranked up there with Nixon claiming he was not a crook in the annals of televised bunkum.
The cameras cutting between Boyle and lone female judge Amanda Holden reminded viewers—as if they needed such instruction—of the “ideal” feminine form and its opposite. Holden’s siliconized body, highlighted hair, enhanced lips, all parts of her expertly glazed, seemed to taunt Boyle’s unmodified features. None of these contrasts spoke louder than the eyebrows: Holden’s plucked and painted with micrometric precision, Boyle’s as wild as highland heather. When she began singing, the eyebrows danced between the brambled bluffs of hair and the rugged landscape of her face. These are her best most expressive feature, almost as rich in evocation as her now-famous voice. The Holden and Boyle eyebrows were the perfect parable of art versus nature.
As the Boyle voice filled up the sound system to the accompaniment of a canned orchestra, Holden lay back in her judge’s chair, raised her bare arms and brandished her waxed armpits, as if luxuriating in a salt bath, like a Malibu princess delighting in the atavistic magic of a cave singer howling in the fire light.
Beamed into the fantasy land of world TV, the dowdy woman was seemingly as out of place as banjo-strapping Malcolm X leading a couple choruses of Dixie at a Ku Klux Klan campfire sing-a-long. The feigned catcalls and sneering wolf whistles that greeted her entrance on to the ITV and world stage on April 11th were silenced by the first sounds of song emanating from her jostling wattle. The sarcasm gave way to the orchestrated eruption of euphoric applause.
With mock spontaneity the concerned looks of disapproval and doubt on the faces of the three judges and the audience gave way to smiles of rapture. How surprised they all seemed to be to find that an allegedly ugly woman, never loved, could really sing. The underdog’s comeback was the quickest ever: such was the contrast between apparent power of her voice and her physical appearance that she to earned the quickest standing ovation possible. Like a lottery winner, the transformation from loser to winner was instantaneous.
But it was all staged.
You can bet the show’s producers delighted in each of Boyle’s above-mentioned physical demerits as they checked them off on their clipboards, before registering the gutsy power of her determined mezzo-soprano voice. You can also be certain that the back-stage stylists worked twice as hard on Boyle to make her look dull and dowdy as they did on Holden.
Cowell’s Britian’s Got Talent flirted with the ugly singer back in its inaugural season of 2007, when the nondescript cell phone store manager Paul Potts, one the inaugural contest. Since then he’s gotten his teeth whitened, his hair slicked and trendily combed forward, and shed a good deal of the fighting weight that won him the title. He has strayed from the game plan that won him the talent show: truly boring cell phone guy who can sing—never mind, that it turns out Potts was hardly an amateur, but had sung professionally and had lots of training, even with Pavarotti.
I doubt Boyle will make the same mistake. She seems canny enough to keep the flab and the mordant wit. In a show-biz world of saturated in sex and glamour, she’ll do well to guard her unique brand of authenticity.
In real reality Boyle is the kind of talented, ambitious and probably lonely singer you can meet in thousands of church choirs on a any given mid-week rehearsal night. Only reality t.v. can twist everyday life into a mock miracle.
In appearance and the more the crucial matter of musical taste she is fittingly matched to the composer of the dismal anthem—“Memory” from Cats, which she sang in the second stage of her ITV odyssey. Rumors now lumbering through the British tabloids hold out the possibility that the execrable Andrew Lloyd Webber, Baron of Sydmonton, might give her a shout for a West End musical.
But it was not just Boyle’s technical skill and the raw power of her voice that won her the affections of her suddenly-vast audience. The potent force-field generated by the twin charges of chastity and sensuality that energized Rousseau’s libido in Venice also had the needles of ITV’s gauges dancing during Boyle’s performances. How could a spinster tap into the oily wellspring of emotion bubbling up from Webber’s swamp of schlock? It was Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in reverse. There the libertine imagines herself stepping over the threshold from purity to sin. With Boyle the still-chaste conjures the possibility of romance with a voice saturated in eros and longing. For a few minutes of sentimental song, Boyle’s voice promised that anyone could be loved.
Having harbored the same hope in their lives, the ghosts of the Pietà wait in the wings while Boyle sings. How long before reality t.v. embraces the truly disfigured and wheels them to our side of the rood screen?
The finals of Britain’s Got Talent tomorrow and Boyle will doubtless triumph over her so-called competitors, a collection of goofy dance routines and saccharine singers. Bookmaker William Hill now pegs Boyle’s odds at 8/13, the closest thing to a shoe-in in the history of the show.
Dear Susan, Jean-Jacques and I are both rooting for you — but our money is on the fat Greek dancers. Even in the rigged world of reality t.v., we hold out hope for the long shot.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org