Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA

Simple dreams

What will success mean for Britian's Susan Boyle?

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

If you haven't seen the YouTube video of Susan Boyle's debut on Britain's Got Talent, broadcast over Easter weekend, it's worth checking out. In less than four minutes, a double-chinned, frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman from an obscure Scottish village blows away a glitzy panel of judges and a skeptical audience with a single song.

Here's the story: While caring for her aged mother in West Lothian, Susan nurses a dream to become a professional chanteuse. After mum's passing, friends encourage her to audition for Britain's Got Talent (a UK version of American Idol), where she works her way up to the Saturday night broadcast.

"So what's your name, darling?" asks a condescending Simon Cowell. The pre-performance interview doesn't bode well: Susan falters in describing her home turf, performs an odd little hip gyration upon stating her age (47), and naïvely reveals that she would like to be as famous as Elaine Paige. The song she has chosen to sing is "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.

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Dream on, suggest the rolled eyes and sidelong glances in the audience. But after the first few notes, the crowd goes wild.

To someone unaccustomed to American Idol (that would be me, whose last sustained exposure to televised talent shows was Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour), the reaction seemed a tad overdone. If they liked her voice so much, why didn't they listen to it, instead of screaming almost nonstop all the way through? Susan's voice is exceptional, though not phenomenal-at least in this performance, it couldn't quite handle the lower notes. But that's a quibble; what brought the audience to their feet was the unexpected assurance that carried those notes. As one who has belted out "Don't Rain on My Parade" over the kitchen stove but choked up before a small congregation, I am in awe of the lady's chutzpah.

Within hours of its posting, the YouTube video was receiving hits: over 20 million to date. Oprah and Larry King were calling, blogs were buzzing. Despite some skeptical noises about a set-up (Cowell must have known), the Cinderella story has enchanted viewers. What an inspiration, in a world filled with cynicism! What a lesson about judging from appearances, about the divine spark within each one of us, about following your bliss! Don't you love the way Simon's jaw dropped as soon as her first notes filled the hall? And the song: "I Dreamed a Dream." How perfect!

Well, let's hope not. The song is about disillusion, as the tragic character Fantine recalls how youthful naïveté left her pregnant and unmarried, at the mercy of an uncaring society and forced into prostitution: "I dreamed a dream that life would be/So different from this hell I'm living. . . ."

Miss Boyle is now public property and an object of debate: Should she go for a makeover? Should she sign a recording contract right away, or get a little more training? Go, Susan! Wait, Susan! Don't let the music industry chew you up and spit you out!

They love her because she doesn't fit the polished template of showbiz success. But actually, she does: the ugly duckling, rough-diamond template. What she likely doesn't fit is the demands of a performance career, with its grueling schedules and exaggerated pressures that often lead to tabloid headlines. Her parish priest back in Broxburn worries that she's vulnerable. A learning disability (due to oxygen deprivation at birth) has rendered her unemployable and sometimes causes odd behavior. Will success spoil Susan Boyle?

So far she seems to be the same simple soul who won our hearts on Easter weekend. But simple stories have a way of getting complicated, just as Palm Sunday adulation quickly became Good Friday disillusion. That's Act Two, by which time the public will likely lose interest in Susan Boyle. Here's hoping her dreams do not go sour. But in fact there's only one dream that consistently holds up: the Easter story, where Act Three sings on.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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