Saturday, April 25, 2009

Susan Boyle and my crawling skin

The world has fallen in adulation at the feet of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old Scotswoman whose rich voice stunned Great Britain’s cynical television viewers last week.

And it is a marvelous voice, and Susan Boyle (who apparently has spent the last many years looking after an aged, sick mother) will knock audiences dead if she gets a career in song at this point in her life.

But I find creepy — in fact creepy-crawly — the behavior of people who have seen that You Tube episode in which her voice was first heard by millions. Within less than an hour earlier this week, close to a dozen people had forwarded me that piece of video. I just read the blog of a UU minister who wrote that she had been listening to Susan Boyle’s voice all day.

Is this really about her music?

Of course not.

It’s in reaction to the expressionless, cynical sophisticates who were the judges, stagehands, and audience of the show on which Susan Boyle appeared. But isn’t it every bit as patronizing as their amazement?

Honestly, I can’t think when was the last time that more than one person forwarded me a piece of music because the performer was so talented. I have been sent nice pieces of music, sure, but not over and over and over. The metanarrative here is that everyone knows — and everyone knows that everyone knows — that it is impossible to be taken seriously as a female performing artist unless one is beautiful.

Consider the last couple years at the Metropolitan Opera. Renee Fleming as Thaïs and Natalie Dessay as Lucia and La Sonnambula — all characters who are beauties — were promoted at least as much for their looks as for their talent. In the world of classical music, woe to the young woman performer who cannot be made to appear beautiful in her publicity photographs.

So I guess the metanarrative of the frantic emailing was “See! See! See! A woman with unplucked eyebrows and she still has a wonderful voice!” And while that starts out as the opposite sentiment from that of the television show judges, it winds up coming from exactly the same place … and I guess that’s why it seems creepy-crawly. Particularly the minister who listened to Susan Boyle all day. When do you suppose was the last time that minister listened to a single song for hours on end?

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