I have a theory on why Susan Boyle has become such an instant and inescapable internet star.
But first, let me clarify the scope of her fame: Last night, my dad sent me an e-mail about her audition on Britain's Got Talent. My dad, y'all. He's a sixty year-old retiree who mostly uses the internet to play online chess and download classic rock. If he's hearing about a YouTube sensation mere days it hits the web, then it must really be something.
In case you haven't seen it, here's the celebrated clip, which shows Boyle, a forty-seven year-old spinster, blowing away a roomful of skeptics with her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.
"I Dreamed a Dream," by the way, is currently one of the top 50 best sellers on iTunes, meaning a scene from a show we can't even watch in this country has prompted the kind of sales that are usually reserved for nationally broadcast hits like American Idol. That's another barometer of this woman's impact.
Here are two reasons she means so much to us:
(1) Susan Boyle rebukes the bitchy cynicism that often defines reality talent shows.
By now, it's an unavoidable trope: The unusual-looking, weirdly-mannered outcast shambles on stage for an audition on a show like American Idol or America's Got Talent and promptly makes a fool of herself. Her embarrassment is played for tawdry laughs, and viewers are encouraged to feel superior to her and so feel better about themselves.
And obviously, the producers of Britain's Got Talent know that. They introduce Boyle with the goofy music reserved for the usual freak, and they show her talking about how she's never been kissed and how she lives with a cat. The audience audibly mocks her as soon as she takes the stage, which encourages all of us at home to sharpen our claws.
After that, her singing---which is very good, if not quite excellent--- naturally causes an uproar. We've been primed for dog food, but we get a burger, so it tastes like steak.
This narrative is just as manipulative as anything else on reality television, of course. Boyle could have been presented as a winner from the very start, but that would've ruined the drama.
But as fabricated as it is, her on-camera arc is undeniably moving.
That's partially because Boyle herself seems so lovely, but it's also because this clip enacts a story that we want to be true. No matter how much we mock those we consider beneath us, it's much more satisfying to be reminded that everyone has dignity.
That's because when we laugh at someone for being a freak, we're laughing out of fear. We're laughing because we want to prove that we are not like that loser over there. If we can shame the people who don't belong, then we can prove that we do.
When we embrace an outsider, though, we're paving the way for our own acceptance in the future. Eventually, we'll all feel like outcasts, and none of us wants to be laughed at. The Susan Boyle Story suggests we won't be. Instead of fearing for our own eventual shame, we can count on society to hear what's beautiful in us. We can trust that if we just show our true selves, we will be embraced.
Whether or not that moral is true in the real world, it's alluringly true in the Susan Boyle Story. By participating in the narrative that television has constructed for her, by cheering her on and watching her video over and over, we can not only feel good about graciously welcoming an outsider, but also feel relief for helping create a world that will someday welcome us.
(2) Susan Boyle isn't young.
The Susan Boyle Story is even more powerful because Boyle isn't a geeky teenager. You can look at the most maladjusted adolescent and think, "Well, she'll grow out of it. There's still hope." But when a woman is an outsider at forty-seven, it's easy to think it's too late---that she's doomed to a permanent life on the fringes. That's certainly the pervasive pop cultural story: That "older and single and cat-friendly" is the same as "failure."
Watching an older person---especially an older person who doesn't seem very hip---prove she still has time to emerge from her cocoon is exciting because it reminds us that we can still sort through our own problems.No matter how old we are, we're dealing with something, and it's refreshing to be told that that's okay.
NOTE: I've edited the last two paragraphs from their original form, as my original wording wasn't communicating my intent.
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