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Thoughts on Susan Boyle

Posted: 04/20/09 06:47 PM ET

I've tried to find a polite way to say it, after receiving the link from nine or ten friends, some of them show biz professionals, but the truth is I'm just not that thrilled. I want to say to my friends, really? Close your eyes, listen, think! It's an adequate voice, singing on pitch, with a microphone to make it bigger, with no particular nuance or expression, not even a so-called "legit" head voice, but a belting voice.

As a veteran -- okay, old -- American stage actress, in particular, having spent a number of years on the road with the national tour of Les Miserables, I am struck by our current fascination with Susan Boyle, the apparently sweet woman from Scotland who has sung "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent. Okay, sure, it's wonderful that a mousey little unknown gets to sing for these three people, and an international audience. And I'm told, the sensation is all about the "surprise" that anyone who looks like she does can sing "like that." I repeat, what surprise? Just a reasonably pleasant (young-sounding, perhaps too young for her age) woman's voice singing on pitch.

I'm a pedantic party-pooper, I guess, but I really take issue with the entire process. The whole thing smacks of Simon and his lot elevating their opinions to the level of the gods on Olympus: yes, my dear, we have spoken, you are good. (And please, was it absolutely necessary for his two colleagues to point out that "everyone hated you"?)

Still, it's a great story. The greater story would be if someone actually offered her a role in a West End musical like her idol Elaine Page. Which won't happen. Apart from the ultimately ordinary quality of her voice, there's her looks. Amy Wilentz wrote about this in the L.A. Times yesterday, pointing out that "dateability," as she calls it, runs second to talent in this kind of competition.

That's certainly true, but again, she misses the point. The point is, Susan Boyle isn't that good. Wilentz actually compares her to Piaf, which is simply ludicrous -- Ms. Boyle hits the notes all at one volume and smiles most of the way through her sad song, making a single repeated arm gesture. And the song, which Wilentz lauds as a perfect choice for Boyle, is about a great lost love, a terrible abandonment while too young to cope. Piaf's life, perhaps, but not exactly Susan's, if we are to go along with the Wilentz's and others' automatic judgment of her as a virgin, or a loveless frump.

This is something else that bothers me in all this: the fact that many of us cannot believe that 'unattractive' people have sex. Yes, Virginia, all over the world, even in this country.

It's not bitterness talking, well, not entirely. I'm just so very blue about the way our view of what constitutes "quality" has degraded in the last few decades. It's the whole hyperbolic nature of show business -- everything has to be FABulous, giGANtic, aMAZing. I know I'm not the first to say it -- still, you have to drop a chandelier to have a long-running show on Broadway, and to do well at the movie box office usually requires wholesale mayhem with THX sound. There are no drawing room blockbusters. It's all about quantity over quality, noise over substance, vocal size over vocal nuance.

While I don't find Susan Boyle's voice to be extraordinary in any way, the circumstances of her rise to fame are, and this is my point. We seem to reserve our fascination for extremes only rather than carefully considering the actual substance of whatever performance is presented to us. We prefer emotion to analysis, feeling to thinking. Feeling and emotion are wonderful and necessary to a life well-lived, but there must be a balance. After all, the absence of analysis or thinking gives us bad entertainment and idiot presidents.