When it comes to tragic spectacles in this sorry age of reality television, beyond even the pathetic sight of Patti Blagojevich eating bugs on “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!” falls the obnoxious exploitation of Scottish homebody Susan Boyle.
Diagnosed with learning difficulties and, she says, verbally tormented and physically abused by teachers and schoolmates, Boyle also was blessed with a pure, clear and ringing voice. Until a few months ago, the 48-year-old singer most often displayed her talent in church while living quietly with her cat Pebbles in the house where she was raised. But things dramatically changed last April, when she appeared on the third season of the U.K. television show “Britain’s Got Talent.”
Though Boyle ultimately lost the talent contest–placing second to a dance troupe–she became a worldwide phenomenon as millions watched clips of her singing a track from the musical “Les Miserables” and the standard “Cry Me a River” on YouTube. Now comes her debut album, “I Dreamed a Dream,” arriving in stores Tuesday, but already the bestselling pre-order CD in the history of Amazon.com, topping “Jay-Z, Whitney Houston and even the Beatles’ remastered CDs,” according to her publicists.
“One of the things that is so unique about Susan Boyle is her ability to touch people around the world,” according to her American record label, Columbia. And it’s certainly true that many of her fans have been attracted by the power of her voice and the story of an ordinary woman’s triumph over the superficialities of our celebrity culture.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that the way that story was calculatingly scripted into “Britain’s Got Talent” has attracted just as many people–the kind who get a real kick out of watching a former governor’s wife and failed “American Idol” Sanjaya Malakar eating bugs and enduring other tortures in the jungle–who are laughing at Boyle and ruthlessly mocking her on the Internet, on radio and in gossip columns, unleashing the same callous cruelty as those who attacked her during her school days.
Boyle has paid a price for all of this. Hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic the day after she lost on the TV show, she also dropped out of many of the dates on the live tour that followed. The British press endlessly speculated about her health and well being, though she said she needed to conserve her voice for her album.
Columbia refused to provide reviewers with advance copies of “I Dreamed a Dream,” but despite one of the tightest security clampdowns in the digital age, the music finally leaked on the Internet Thursday. The verdict: While Boyle’s voice is an impressive instrument, it cannot be denied that her interpretations of the
12 11 covers and one original are nowhere near extraordinary enough to merit a fraction of the attention and anticipation they’ve garnered if considered solely on musical merit.
Arranged for maximum orchestral bombast and drenched in schmaltz, the material clearly was chosen for the broadest marketing appeal. There are Baby Boomer-friendly pop songs (“Wild Horses,” “Daydream Believer,” “The End of the World”), traditional hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art”), the tunes she sang on television and even, in consideration of the season, a closing version of “Silent Night.”
None of these can fairly be considered the definitive reading of the song, as artful as the work of a Charlotte Church, or even anything beyond the capabilities of a thousand gifted mezzo-sopranos regularly appearing in musicals staged by community theaters around the world. The difference is that Boyle, for better or worse, is in the midst of Andy Warhol’s fabled 15 minutes of fame.
In the end, the most notable track is the one purported to be Boyle’s sole original, “Who I Was Born to Be,” which stands as an autobiographical anthem. “I’m not a girl/I’ve known the taste of defeat,” she sings over syrupy strings. “[Now] I’ve got the world in my hands/And it feels like my turn to fly/Though I may not know the answers/I can finally say I’m free/And if the questions led me here then/I’m who I was born to be.”
Let’s hope that Boyle truly is as free and as happy as she asserts.