Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Susan Boyle Matters

By now fifty million of us have seen the viral YouTube video of Susan Boyle’s remarkable performance on the BBC show Britain’s Got Talent. It’s the most widely seen video clip in world history, surpassing previous skyrockets such as “Bush vs. Shoes” and “Tina Fey as Sarah Palin”. The footage is absolutely gripping on many levels because it holds a mirror to contemporary culture revealing what is best and worst in us. But mainly I’m writing about this because every time I watch it I cry and I’m trying to figure out why.

Susan Boyle is an invisible 47 year old woman from a tiny cluster of villages in Scotland. She’s the kind of woman you look right past – frumpy, unkempt, one of the many, not one of the few. In the years since her father died, Susan shared a tiny apartment with her ailing mother. Then her mother died. “I live alone with my cat Pebbles,” she told the show’s hosts. “I’ve never been married, never been kissed.”

“How old are you Susan,” Simon Cowell asked as she stepped on stage.
“Forty seven,” she said. Cowell rolled his eyes.
“O.K.,” he said, barely containing his boredom, “what’s the dream?”
“I’m trying to be a professional singer,” she answered. Cut to a tight shot of a young woman in the audience shaking her head disdainfully and turning to her friend in commiseration.

Then Susan Boyle began to sing. The song was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. It is the heartbreaking lament of a wounded-in-love woman whose youth, innocence and trust were repaid with disrespect, disregard and pain. And yet there is a note of defiance, of transcendence, of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. It’s not in the words – which are unremittingly dour – it is in the proud clarity and upturned eyes of Susan Boyle’s magnificence. Looking at her face you can easily imagine – whether it’s autobiographical or not is irrelevant – that the song is about her, so perfectly does she channel its wrenching truth, that the world often mistakes and abuses beauty in its blind pursuit of vanity and insignificance.

Three seconds into her performance the mood in the room powerfully shifts. In one of the most spontaneous and explosive moments I’ve ever seen on television, the audience is swept away by wave after wave of shock and awe. People leap to their feet, their chairs no long able to hold them.

When the song ends, Piers Morgan is the first judge to speak. “Without a doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years of this show. When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said ‘I want to be like Elaine Page’, everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now. That was stunning, an incredible performance. Amazing. I’m reeling from shock…”

Then it was Amanda Holden’s turn. “I’m so thrilled, because I know that everybody was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical, and I think that’s the biggest wake up call ever. And I just want to say, that it was a complete privilege listening to that. It was brilliant.”

Simon Cowell rounded out the panel with his usual panache, ending his remarks by saying, “Susan, you can return to the village with your head held high. That’s three yeses”.

Susan Boyle matters. She is a walking rebuttal to all the bullies who ever walked the earth, preying on the weak, demeaning the different, imposing their arbitrary definition of “cool” on the rest of us. The only people who are really cool, the people who define cool, are the people who are absolutely oblivious to the very concept of “cool” itself. They are so cool they don’t even know what cool is. Even the bullies in the audience were wiping their eyes and rising to their feet in thunderous applause.

The entertainment industry needs Susan Boyle. As record executives scramble to foist upon us the next cookie-cutter Barbie doll pop star, we the people have spoken through the pure democracy of the New Media. And here is what we said: all we really want is the Real. We don’t care what package it shows up in. We just want Truth and Beauty, you know, all that stuff Plato wrote about twenty five centuries ago, “even if in the form of an unlovely husk.”

Susan Boyle empowers and encourages us with her unapologetic presence. She exhibits the perfect combination of fearlessness and humility. She demonstrates that courage and arrogance are wholly unrelated. In fact, arrogance and machismo are usually sure signs of the utter absence of confidence and mastery. Real greatness is humble. She reminds us that it is enough to show up and simply do our best.

Most importantly, Susan’s unintended beauty reminds us in no uncertain terms of our own unrealized beauty. Through her we realize our own magnificence. I’m convinced that’s the real reason her performance breaks us open. Look at the faces of the people in the audience. Look at the lump in Piers’s throat. Look at the wonder in Amanda’s eyes. Look at the warmth, even the love on Simon’s face. We’ve never seen that face on American Idol, never, not even once. Susan’s bold presence triggers something deep inside us, something we have kept well-hidden; a profound and abiding self-acceptance, even self-love. It is a love we have been withholding. Her beauty breaks the anchor chain and we drift into the light of the knowledge that we are beings of infinite value. After all the years of drought, suddenly we are awash in love. This is what Susan has given us. That’s why there are tears. And that’s why Susan Boyle matters.

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