Fri Apr 24 2009
It has been nearly two weeks since the music world was irrevocably changed by the arrival of Susan Boyle. Since her anointment as the new Beatles, major-label scouts have combed the world's church basements and knitting circles in search of future pop idols; Madonna has stocked up on floral patterns and regrown her unibrow. The clip of Boyle's Britain's Got Talent performance has been viewed more than 100 million times—though I suspect that at least 2 million of those hits have come from my own incessant watching.
The clip is a masterpiece of the YouTube medium, a startling indication of the contemporary era's compressed entertainment cycle. In just seven minutes, it covers the emotional and narrative arc of an entire Hollywood film: A stock comic character is introduced, immediately identifiable. She is a female Napoleon Dynamite all grown up, a depressing side character from a Ricky Gervais sitcom. She is mocked, doubted and humiliated; the powers that be turn up their noses at her preposterous dream—imagine her, a singing star!—while younger people snicker. At one minute and 56 seconds, Boyle is finally given her shot; and at the two-minute mark, the audience crowns her a star. One almost expects her comeback tour to begin at minute four.
As many have pointed out, the clip is phony and manipulative, nearly pornographic in its gushing sentiment. Its theatrics are reminiscent of professional wrestling. We realize it's a setup—clearly, the producers screen their contestants—but nonetheless absorb it as fact. I cannot say I enjoy Boyle's singing itself: Like all the chintz promoted by Simon Cowell, her performance is histrionic and corny. (Cowell is like my Aunt Sylvia: I love his personality yet find his taste appalling.) But Boyle herself is a revelation—everywoman as star, the comic dunce as heartbreaker and heroine. Her story would seem ripe for a novel or film, except for the fact that her YouTube performance has rendered such treatment unnecessary. It's all encapsulated in that brilliant little clip, a diva's tale squeezed into seven enthralling minutes.