What is it within the cynical souls of the pundits and reviewers of the mainstream media that has unleashed such a torrent of reproach against Susan Boyle, the previously unemployed daughter of a Scottish coal miner who recently was so enthusiastically received on Britain’s Got Talent and as a result is unemployed no longer?
Last week John Doyle, television critic for The Globe and Mail, admonished: “This Susan Boyle woman should just go away and get over herself.” Doyle himself received such a torrent of response that he had to follow up in a column the very next day assuring his Globe readership that he was only acting as a responsible journalist when he wrote those remarks. Holding himself well above the misapprehensions of the hoi polloi, he intoned earnestly: “It is the journalist’s job to step back from the emotions and think, not feel.”
Doyle’s colleague in the Globe, music critic Robert Everett-Green assured us that Boyle’s musicianship was also found to be wanting. “Her nicely integrated vibrato has become a heavy buffeting vibration. She doesn’t differentiate one phrase from the next and sings the whole song at maximum power.” Everett-Green concludes: “Considered strictly as a musical performance, it’s pretty dull.”
Richard Ouzounian, theatre critic for the Toronto Star observed, “…Susan Boyle’s success has less to do with the way she sounds than the way she looks,” referring to Ms. Boyle’s plain Jane physicality and persona when performing on stage. He added: “The pop music scene chews up and spits out novelty vocalists quicker than you can say Tiny Tim.”
Will no one cut this woman some slack?
Meghan O’Rourke, writing in Slate, dismissed the whole phenomenon as “a savvy, cynical piece of TV editing…” and went on to quote Aristotle (no less) as an authority on how these things are manipulated and designed to create a “crude catharsis.” Finally, author Nora Ephron huffed in the Huffington Post that Ms. Boyle’s choice of song, the power-ballad "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical Les Miserables, was “was “the all time most horrible song ever in history.” Ms. O’Rourke also referred to the song as “that schmaltzy music.”
Hogwash -- all of it.
These arts journalists are overlooking an important part of the popular culture algorithm that we associate with the performance of popular song -- especially popular songs that come out of the musical theatre tradition.
Within the international songbook of the musical theatre there are numerous examples of songs that have struck the zeitgeist and entered the popular repertoire to become what we call “standards.” Many are imbued with a social consciousness that places them at a critical moment within the larger musical of which they are a part. This is the case with songs like "Ol’ Man River" (from Showboat, written by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern), "Summertime" (Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin), "Somewhere" (West Side Story, Sondheim-Bernstein), "Climb Every Mountain" (Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein), "The Impossible Dream" (Man of La Mancha, Darion and Leigh), and "People" (Funny Girl, Styne-Merrill) to name a few.
With all the emphasis on prefab “jukebox musicals” that are all the rage these days (Jersey Boys, Mama Mia, et al), are these “breakout songs” mentioned above just one-off events that are the results of cleverly crafted PR campaigns that boosted audiences for the show while selling records at the same time or is there something deeper within the zeitgeist at play here? The answer is probably a combination of both.
For the post WW II generations especially, songs such as these speak to the individual as well as to the collective life experience of the community and may be read on many different levels. The songs speak to meeting past, present and future challenges; personal friendships that will endure and hardships that can be overcome; civic pride and spiritual values, etc.
Sometimes these show songs contain musically bold qualities that literally drive them into the popular psyche. Montreal native Galt MacDermot composed the anti-war anthem of the 1960s "Let the Sunshine In" (with collaboration from James Rado and Gerome Ragni). The song begins with a pulsating, minor mode baseline covered by a syncopated base drum, snare and high hat punctuated with bursts of staccato trumpet that builds into ascending arpeggios as the portentous verse finally gives way to a glorious, life affirming chorus.
The people’s anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing?" (Schönberg/ Boublil) from the musical Les Miserables employs a full chorus and orchestra in a song that honors the fallen students at the barricades and proclaims to the world that “the the blood of the martyrs shall water the meadows of France.”
I think it would be a mistake to write the whole thing off as just so much schmaltz. Interestingly, Boyle didn’t choose the anthem number from Les Miz sung with such confidence by the university students of Paris as they march off to the barricades. She chose the hopeful ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream," which is sung by the much less confident, Fantine also a lower born woman and mother to Cosette.
Susan Boyle approached the cynical and often hostile crowd that makes up the TV audience of Britain’s Got Talent (where guffaws can turn to jeers in an instant) with confidence and resolve. She was absolutely right to adopt a full throated, full voiced delivery with this group -- subtlety and nuance would have been lost on them entirely. It was now or never -- full speed ahead and she knew it instinctively. Seventy million clicks (and counting) on YouTube from people who wanted to view her performance were not propelled because they thought she was dull but because they heard she had been triumphant.
It is true that Susan is now in the hands of the Simon Cowells of this world who can be very cruel indeed. The entertainment industry is renowned for its iniquity and mendacity. But for this brief shining moment in time we are savoring her victory right along with her. And who cares if she gets her hair coiffed, has a facial and buys a new pair of shoes along with a nice handbag?
God love ya’ Susan Boyle, and Fantine and all the women of this cruel world who are not afraid to dream a dream.
Robin Breon is an arts journalist and a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association/Association canadienne de critiques de theater.
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