Saturday, April 18, 2009

Misery Loves Company

This week the main focus of YouTube's auditory culture seems not to be the heavily publicized YouTube symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas but rather the much-forwarded and viewed online clip of Susan Boyle's appearance on the television show Britain's Got Talent. Boyle presents her matronly figure and ungroomed face to the potential mockery of the audience, but then the the middle-aged singer follows the script for defying expectations and bursts into a song from Les Misérables, and soon the crowd is on its feet cheering her on. As the New York Times reports in "Unlikely Singer Is YouTube Sensation," the clip is garnering millions of views and lots of chatter in the blogosphere.

In "Why Susan Boyle Makes Us Cry," self-described feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin argues that there are reasons that this particular online experience is such a powerfully emotional one, which contradicts the dominant paradigm of the detached web-surfer perusing the database of human experience on YouTube with detachment and irony.

After she got her unanimous Yes votes from Simon, Amanda, and Piers, I typed "Ageism Be Damned" in the subject line of an email and sent the YouTube link to everyone on my Women's Issues list and within an hour, more than a dozen had written to tell me that it made them weep. Since then I've talked to other friends who've confessed to the same reaction. What are we all crying about? What is it about this woman that touches us so deeply?

Partly, I think it's the age thing, the fact that a woman closing in on 50 had the courage to compete with the kids -- and blew them out of the water. "Women of a certain age" should be forgiven for finding vicarious satisfaction in Susan's victory. In plain words, it's an up-yours to the cocky youth culture that often writes us off.

Then, too, we were weeping for the years of wasted talent, the career that wasn't, the time lost -- both for Susan Boyle and two generations of her putative fans. If someone with a voice like Julie Andrews' spent decades in a sea of frustration and obscurity, how many other women (and men) must be out there becalmed in the same boat? I believe we were crying for them and for whatever unrealized, yet-to-be-expressed talent may lie within ourselves.

But I'd wager that most of our joyful tears were fueled by the moral implicit in Susan's fairy-tale performance: "You can't tell a book by its cover." For such extraordinary artistry to emerge from a woman that plain-spoken, unglamorous, and unyoung was an intoxicating reminder of the wisdom in that corny old cliché. The three judges and virtually all those who watched Susan Boyle in the theater (and probably on YouTube as well) were initially blinded by entrenched stereotypes of age, class, gender, and Western beauty standards, until her book was opened and everyone saw what was inside.

I think we cried because her story appears to be en route to a happy ending, but also, perhaps, for all the books whose covers have never been cracked.

However, not all bloggers for the Huffington Post were in agreement that the clip is a devastating strike against ageism and sexism, if its character as a curiosity piece indicates only -- much as a freak show does -- that exceptions only prove the rule of lauding narrowly defined physical beauty. Dennis Palumbo argues in "What if Susan Boyle Couldn't Sing?" that its shock value only confirms our culture's prejudices about attention to appearance. Indeed, this happened in the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, whose story and music from the analog age lives on in the digital one.

Andy Borowitz uses satire in "Talented Ugly Person Baffles World" to state the premise explicitly and then to suggest that such people generally end up in academia, where they are safe from public view.

From a scholarly perspective, the clip is interesting in relation to Henry Jenkins' thesis in "YouTube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic" that YouTube rewards modular performances, variety and diversion, actor-centered choreographies, and direct appeals to the audience. Much like a similar video by Paul Potts from the show, I might argue that it actually reinforces the norms of broadcast visual aesthetics by emphasizing the role of distant audiences, managing hosts, and editing of background stories.

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