Saturday, May 30, 2009

On the fall of a hairy angel

I, like everyone else on the planet Earth (and since I don't think the viewing metrics can track extraterrestrial downloads, that's as far as I can realistically hyperbolize), watched and was amazed by the audition of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent. To see the look of shock on the Judges' faces was a delight. To hear the audience go from jeers to cheers in eight words was thrilling. And everyone else thought so too.

She became The Current Thing in no time flat. She is, at the moment, the fifth most-viewed clip on you-tube, beaten out by the work print of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the monkey sniffing his finger and falling off the tree branch, the Original Laughing Baby, and that goddanmed Numa-Numa song.

Seven weeks is a long time. And she stayed at the top of the buzz chart all that time. People found old performances of hers and uploaded them, and we ate them up with ketchup. She stayed out of the limelight as much as possible, giving a few interviews but all told, the media spent much more time talking about her than they did talking to her. And that usually only just makes the press more ravenous.

I started watching the clips of the other acts on the Britain's Got Talent website against my own better judgement. I don't watch reality shows all that often, I've never watched the American version of BGT, and have had no interest in American Idol, knowing their names a careers only thanks to the able hands of magazines like Entertainment Weekly. But I found myself being smitten by several of the acts. There was no one to compare with Susan, but there were acts which made me think there would be quite a fight for second place.

Dance troupe (and eventual upset winner) Diversity knocked me off my chair. More than simple dancing, they built 3-D structures with their bodies, including a Transformer, a phonebooth and the BGT Judges desk. Like a hip-hop version of American dance troupe Pilobolous. And it took a second look and reading a few interviews, but parody dance act Stavros Flatley won me over as well. They knew damn well they were there as a lark, they were having a great time, and the audience rewarded them with a spot in the finals. A classic example of a one joke act, but it's a DAMN good joke, and they kept it fresh enough to make it to the end. Yes, it meant there was no space for autistic showtune singer Callum Francis (2 Grand? Really? REALLY?) but you can't have everything.

Several of the other child acts were quite good indeed, mainly 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi. I predicted a three-horse race between Boyle, Diversity and Shaheen, but tenor saxophonist Julian Smith came from behind and slipped into the top three at the final.

The semi-finals were filled with as much drama as one could hope for. Susan cracked a bit on the opening of her song "Memory" but rallied quickly, and by the time she blew the doors off the ending nobody minded or noticed. Hollie Steel got lost in the middle of "Edelweiss" and started to cry. Simon, master manipulator that he is, declared that they would make time for her to compose herself and come back and try again. She did, and made her way to the final.

The finals were almost a let down, compared to the drama of the Semis. Almost all the acts went back to their audition songs, including Susan, who did a softer rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream". Diversity, OTOH, brought a brand new performance, and personally I think that's what won it for them - they delivered something new while the other gave the same thing again. And in today's society, "The same thing" is not all that popular.

As has been the norm with AmIdol here in the US, many of the finalists are already being courted for more fame. Disney is apparently interested to talk to Shaheen, reports UK paper Wales Online. Judge Piers Morgan jokingly reported he already had text messages asking to book Stavros Flatley when he got backstage. And if you could advance order albums, I dare say Susan's would already be multi-platinum. Simon Cowell is having a new money bin built, as all the acts are signed with his production company, just like there are for AmIdol. Win or lose, they will all make him money.

But that's not why you're reading this.

Of course, the vast majority of the drama was happening off-screen. From the moment Susan hit the airwaves, the frenzy has been unprecedented. By that Monday she was on all the US Morning news shows. Britain fell in love with her. She was the perfect story - spinster lady with mild learning disabilities in a frumby dress and a hairdo by a rusty eggbeater comes out. Audience starts laughing before she even makes center stage, judges already writing her off.

And then she sang.

You couldn't write anything that good.

Or can you?

Susan has let slip on several interviews that she did not in fact audition for the show - the producers (defined as "Simon Cowell") found her. While this does not diminish her talent one whit, it does suggest that her story was far more carefully crafted, and much less of a surprise than it initially seemed.

Watch that audition again - Piers and Amanda were gobsmacked; Simon was smiling like George Peppard, watching the plan come together. He knew DAMN well what was coming, and was pleased as punch when everybody reacted as they did.

And react they did. Interviews, fans at her home, a general hysteria. They kept talking about how she had oxygen deprivation at birth, but went to great lengths that she had "learning disabilities", but was not retarded or brain damaged. She was a woman who dealt with challenges all her life, took care of mer mother, etc. Couldn't ask for a better story.

When she made an appearance after getting a "makeover" that consisted of a bottle of conditioner and a sharp pair of tweezers, Britain lost it, claiming she was "being changed". They wanted her to stay dumpy and frumpy, to remain an inspiration to the dumpy and frumpy of the world. If I may drag the column to comics for a moment, I was reminded of how many comics fans are against the idea of Barbara Gordon regaining the use of her legs, as she's such an inspiration to paraplegics now. If Chris Reeve could have gotten an operation to restore his legs, would anyone have said "No, you won't be an inpiration anymore"?

In his stand up act, when Robin Harris' friends asked him if he would change when he got famous, he replied, "You God damned RIGHT I'm gonna change!" Considering the people that were likely throwing themselves at her to do her up, I thought her improvements were reparkably restrained. This too, I'll warrant, was part of the plan.

By the time of the semi-finals, one can only imagine how hot it got under that magnifying glass. The semi performance was good, but when the news hit of her tantrum at her hotel, people were ready for the next chapter. It came and went in the press so fast, like a scientist measuring the life span of a quark, you'd be hard pressed to prove it ever happened at all. So at the final, everyone was waiting to see her "come back" from such a dramatic event. And she was...good. Which was not enough. She needed to swing for the lights, and she went with a safe infield shot.

The audience, now educated that she was prone to tantrums, all leaned forward to see if they'd get some fireworks. They got none - she happily congratulated the winners and everyone applauded her graciousness.

Then the cameras turned off.

Just like before, the details of what "really" happened will likely never be revealed. But Susan finally let it all catch up to her, and whether she cried, screamed, cursed, gyrated or what, was slipped away to a private hospital for a "rest". I'm not surprised. because it's not like she was going to be allowed to pack her bag and go back to Scotland. She's going to be very carefully tended, much like a veal, for quite a long time.

It's Monday Morning, and NOBODY is talking about Diversity. Lots of people are calling it "Second place syndrome" where the place-winners do better than the winners of these shows, mainly because of that "He shoulda won" feeling, like Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, and the two new guys whose names I've already forgotten (Irony!).

It's Monday Morning, and they are still riding Susan's coattails. Amanda Holden guest-hosted the CBS Early Show today, partly to talk about Susan's episode, but mainly to push herself to American viewers and producers. Susan's voice coach was interviewed as well, as was Piers for the fourth or fifth time. And they spent all their time talking about Susan, and making sure everyone got their names spelled right. Amanda got a very nice intro piece, making sure America knew she did a lot more than just sit at the Paula Abdul position. For all our faults and foibles, the mindset is ever the same - you're not REALLY famous until you're famous in America.

If they don't have Susan Boyle as a "special guest" on the next run of America's Got Talent, somebody is seriously slipping. They've already said they're actively looking for "similar stories" for acts on AGT. They are praying they can find an American Susan. And I don't think they will, or if they do, they won't get as big a reaction. Because as I said before, the Internet Generation is not that keen on seeing the same thing again.

There are likely more people discussing Susan's career right now than her mental health. I don't think it's anything more dire than a woman being dropped into a situation she coldn't possibly be prepared for. Again, they're being VERY cautious to correct people who use phrases like "Brain damage" about her - they don't want ANY suggestion that she's not in possession of her faculties. And to be fair she's lived by herself for years, and cared for an ailing mother for years before that - not the actions of someone having a full set of wits. I'll bet the best term would be the old favorite "pixillated" - she's got a full deck of cards, but a couple are bent.

I wish her well, I wish her wealth, and I wish her happiness. It truly is a storybook tale, I'm just hoping the story isn't Valley of the Dolls or A Face In The Crowd.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog entry, with your points hitting all targets. I'll be curious to see just how much more fame/money/attention all concerned get out of it. I do hope that once Susan Boyle pulls herself together (I agree that all the hoopla simply caught up with her and she just needs to rest up, maybe a nice tranquil holiday at the shore), she'll be able to enjoy her fame, use her talents in positive ways, and that the folks "handling" her won't cross the line into "using" her.