Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Meaning of Applause: The Popularity of Susan Boyle and Her Public Dream

Last week I received three or four emails in rapid succession, each with a link to a YouTube video. All of the messages said something like “You’ve got to check this out – amazing.” I didn’t check out the video; I get so many messages like that, mostly from students or former students, that I’d have to add a few hours to my days to look at all of them. But these messages weren’t coming from my students – they were coming from friends. Friends who are in their 40’s and 50’s and 60’s. Friends who are not usually susceptible to idiotic Facebook quizzes or chain letters or Jackass-like stunt videos, friends who don’t send me dumb or time-wasting attachments. After yet another email from another reliable source, I finally clicked on the link.

Like forty seven million others, what I saw was Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables. She’s a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, and the video shows, in what seems to be its entirety, her appearance: a short backstage interview, a brief interaction with the show’s panel of judges, and then her rendition of “Dream.” It concludes with the reactions of those judges after Boyle performs.

Several things are remarkable about the video. First is the disdain Boyle is shown by at least one of the judges, as well as members of the audience who are panned by the camera as Boyle answers a few initial questions from Simon Cowell, the most visibly cynical of the panel. It seems obvious that Boyle is being perceived as a joke contestant, one of the by-now familiar losers who provide comic relief on much-watched programs like American Idol. The viewing audience enjoys laughing at these deluded wannabes, seems to find a good amount of glee in mocking their off-key attempts to find fame and fortune.

Susan Boyle – 47 years of age, plain, dressed the way your aunt might at a cousin’s wedding – does herself no favors by strutting onto the stage, forgetting the word “villages,” swiveling her hips, and – perhaps out of nervousness or a natural joie de vivre – momentarily vamping it up onstage. Cowell asks “what’s the dream?” and Boyle, without hesitating, responds that she wants to be a successful singer. When asked why that dream hasn’t been realized sooner – a moment in which it is clear that Cowell is setting her up, in front of the audience, who can see, they believe, exactly why the dream has been unrealized – she responds, simply, “I haven’t been given the chance.”

The next remarkable moment comes as Susan Boyle sings the first line of the song. It is instantly obvious – instantly, from the first note – that the woman can sing. Members of the audience spontaneously begin to applaud, and within ten seconds – that's literally all it takes to turn the tide of doubt that had built, just as quickly, when Boyle first hit the stage – the audience is on its feet. The camera takes turns highlighting the reaction of the judges, who one-by-one are shown jaws dropping, eyebrows raising, then smiling and clapping with delight – and showing Boyle, who appears confident and at ease, immersed in the song. She easily hits a high note, which sends the audience into a louder and more sustained ovation. Eventually we see Cowell sigh with pleasure, which may make us almost want to forgive his earlier assessment of this contestant.

Like many, I found Boyle’s performance thrilling, beautiful, and inspiring – I’ve watched it several times, and think of it as seven minutes of joy. I also found the follow-up reactions – those that have been published, at any rate – quite interesting. Most seem to focus on the clip as a resounding slap in the face to ageist and “looksist” stereotypes – stereotypes most often, but not exclusively, applied to women. Being 47 and lacking conventional good looks is apparently something many of us can relate to; I concur that the popularity of the video can be, at least in part, attributed to that interpretation – what my students would call the “relateability” factor. A lot of us are too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too short or too tall or too haggard or too uncouth or too uneducated or too this, too that. Most of us, I’d venture, are too something. But what the video represents to me, even more than a refutation of age or appearance stereotyping, is the triumph of the underestimated, the overlooked, the dismissed or easily ignored. It probably came as no surprise to anyone that Boyle claims to have never been given a chance before. She is not someone to whom chances are generally given.

I don’t like reality shows, in part because I believe they are often apt depictions of reality – aspects of reality that I rarely find entertaining. Britain’s Got Talent is, to me, a reality show – those few moments when the audience rolls its eyes, collectively, at Boyle say a lot. But – those moments don’t say it all. We can be a cold, uncaring, cruel people… but as Boyle’s voice hits the eardrums of every listener, the immediate and unanticipated reaction is one of utter surprise, pure pleasure. I’d like to believe that everyone in that room who had dismissed Susan Boyle ten seconds earlier was thinking, in that moment, “I was wrong.” I would like to think that they felt apologetic, that the enthusiasm of their applause was also a request for forgiveness -- and, perhaps, a mass thank-you.

In an age when we are all in danger of being overlooked or dismissed or taken for granted in any number of ways, I believe she makes us feel, for just a moment, a little less alone.

That's my dream, anyway, and I'll dream if for a while longer. And every time I watch Susan Boyle's video clip I'll whisper to her my own private thank you.


  1. Would the standing ovation/goosebump applause still be relevant if an attractive female were to sing the same song and hit the same notes?


  2. It seems to me that your earlier post about "not being a cheerleader" but still wanting to hear the comforting words that things will get better is linked to this one. The under-appreciated, yes, need and deserve recognition. And the amazing emotion that performance evoked (I, too, ignored many requests to view it until just two days ago) is more than admiration and empathy. It's the same emotion you feel when someone says, "Things will get better. You have value, and that value will be recognized." Susan Boyle is a symbol, an audio-visual experience of those necessary words. We can see it: her life matters. So, too, might ours.

  3. Eloquent and apt, Katie. Thank you.

  4. I watched her performance and was weeping, without a grain of sand in sight to blame it on.

    Does it matter that she's not "attractive?"

    Is it the "American Mentality" in us that loves to see this?

    Would this woman's performance matter to 8 year old "Bond, James Bond" hawking postcards at the steps of Angkor Wat?

    I think Boyle's a sensation because her performance shatters an assumption based upon looks, that's what exponentially catapults the email FWD. Perhaps if she was "attractive" we would lose the "train wreck" appeal.

    Maybe what keeps us coming back is honesty and vulnerability. It's in the welling of tears, the soul between her notes, and on the breath of a judge's sigh.

    I found the same inspiration during the feedback session on American Idol after William Hung auditioned.

    Hear me out.

    Those notes issuing forth from Boyle, conjure the same emotion that I felt when Cowell's blatant sarcasm was met with Hung's plain and simple response, "Um, I already gave my best and I have no regrets at all."

    It was all I could do to just stop, listen, and be.

    Maybe this is what I crave?

    Taking chances, giving my best, living without regret, simply being here in the moment.

    Maybe we all do.

  5. Thank you, Alvarado. I'm not sure if you're the Alvarado I know or the son of the Alvarado I know... I suspect the latter. If so, a) I really like your blog; b) I adore your mother.

  6. It's the latter and younger of the two Alvarados. I rub that in every chance I get.'s all I got.

    I think that the horrible auditions on AI are a result of people assuming William Hung's fifteen minutes of fame came because he performed so poorly. I think his infamy was born from that same place in people's heart that makes Boyle the "You go, Girl!"

    I still can't get those tackle boxes out of my head from your earlier post.

    I just picture them on rocking chairs facing West. Waiting for someone to take them down to the lake. The sound of the water lapping up against the rocks.