Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle: Famous for Being Frumpy

Susan Boyle, the singing Scottish spinster, has already been blogged and twittered unto death, so I won’t describe the video that everyone in cyberspace has already seen. I can’t forbear adding my chatter to her already viral celebrity—for which I apologize—but I haven’t seen anyone say yet what I think most needs to be said about the phenomenon of her celebrity: she’s famous for being frumpy!

No other quality but looking like she just stepped out of a Monty Python skit would have inspired the media moguls who manipulate the youth culture/market to set up a woman of her age and class for instant Internet celebrity. A lot of people made a lot of money off of that mobile phone salesman with the bad teeth who sang opera, and they wanted to make a sequel that would be even more marvelous, implausible, and profitable because their new character is female and no longer young. Susan Boyle isn’t famous for her truly beautiful voice; she’s not famous for being “Our living lesson that when life provides a stage, sing your heart out, and prepare to be blessed!” (Tom Morris, “one of America's most active public philosophers,” tweet & blog); she’s absolutely not famous for being “a genuine populist phenomenon” (Jane Hamsher of; she’s not famous “because she showed the underdog in each of us that we can win” (“award-winning TV writer Steve Young”); and she’s certainly not famous because “Watching an older person---especially an older person who doesn't seem very hip---prove she still has time to emerge from her cocoon is exciting because it reminds us that we can still sort through our own problems” (Mark Blankenship, Pop Culture Critic). And heaven help us, she’s the exact opposite of being famous for being “an up-yours to the cocky youth culture that often writes us off,” as none other than Letty Cottin Pogrebin of Ms. Magazine blogged--"us" referring to “women of a certain age.” (All the blogs cited in this post can be found on the Huffington Post). How could so many intelligent people be taken in by such a transparently contrived spectacle, when, as Mr. Blankenship himself sees, “this narrative is just as manipulative as anything else on reality television”?

Susan Boyle does have a lovely voice, but so do many women of all ages. Hundreds of trained but struggling opera singers no longer in the first flush of youth crowd New York City alone. Why should she have been singled out for stardom from among the hosts of the undistinguished-yet-talented? Dennis Palumbo asks, what if it had turned out that Susan Boyle couldn’t sing? (The moral he draws, very correctly, is that in that case we should’ve embraced her humanity and “inner beauty” anyway—yet it’s perfectly obvious that we wouldn’t have). Tamar Abrams gets right to the heart of the problem with the Susan Boyle phenomenon, which “is that recognition of her talent is directly proportionate to her lack of good looks and youth.” Yes indeed—which is why I ask the opposite question to Dennis Palumbo’s: not what if Boyle had turned out to be untalented, but what if she had treated her audience to the same talent, at the same advanced age, but without those classically Monty Python drag-dowdy looks?

Well, it’s clear she never would even have been allowed on the show without that, her finest asset, because its producers must know that without evoking Monty Python, she’d never had inspired any extreme response, positive or negative. Let’s imagine for the sake of thought experiment that a pretty Susan Boyle had somehow been allowed to strut her hour upon the stage of “reality,” despite failing to reinforce the youth culture’s negative stereotype of the appearance and lifestyle of “women of a certain age” (and, let’s not forget, of a certain class and region too). Had she simply defied those stereotypes—had she walked out there looking just slightly closer to Madonna or Sharon Stone or Demi Moore than to Michael Palin in drag, her voice might have charmed, might even have raised a few eyebrows—but it never would have made her an overnight sensation. Such an appearance would simply have failed to make sense to that audience (and that’s the reason such a creature would never have been admitted as a contestant)—unless by being explained away as another horrid triumph of techno-medical artifice.

And there’s the rub—Madonna and Sharon and Demi are in danger of beginning to fray the edges of the old stereotype of the middle-aged woman, and popular culture isn’t ready for that. We still can’t be allowed to believe that women of the generation of Simon Cowell and “Gen X” Barack Obama might be equally vital, attractive, sexy, and at the peak of their powers. We still need Susan Boyle to represent “nature” in a rigid opposition to the Frankenstein-like scientific artifice we’re constantly reminded ought to repel and horrify us in the deceptive beauty of figures like Madonna, Sharon, and Demi. Even observant Tamar Abrams falls right into the trap of this opposition: “Talent and intelligence and heart are all internal; they don't rely on plastic surgery to sustain them. Looks fade, the years pass and it is a process that is natural and appropriate.” No one seems to notice that forty-odd years of a sedentary lifestyle fueled by the notorious Scottish diet, which includes such delicacies as the “chip butty” (French fries on a hamburger bun) and deep-fried Mars bars—than which no greater artifice has been devised by mankind—all done up at the village hairdresser’s, is a treatment every bit as artificial, if slower, cheaper, and lower-tech, as anything that could be done to enhance the female body in Hollywood.

If women in their 20s and 30s are still caught, as seems astoundingly to be the case, in the old opposition between virgin and whore, those in their 40s and 50s are now caught in the new opposition between Michael Palin in drag and Bride of Frankenstein.

(These two oppositions are of course not unrelated: Susan Boyle's broadcasting her virginity to the world was an essential prop of her drag image as unfeminine and unattractive, indeed hardly female, even, we are forced to conclude, when young. The recent announcements, whether true or not, that she's been offered $1 million to lose her virginity on camera for a porn movie indicate that those who've seen some men make money by publicly humiliating her as a superannuated virgin see the potential for making just as much money by publicly humiliating her as a superannuated whore. Meanwhile the play on both virgin and whore in "brides of Frankenstein" like Madonna is so obvious as to require no comment. But in general brides of Frankenstein tend toward the whorish side of the old equation, seen as oversexed and luring men with their illusory charms, while it's clear that part of the success of Susan Boyle's Michael Palin drag lies in that claim of sexless virginity.)

While her body is purveyed as “natural” for a 47-year-old woman, Susan Boyle's voice is often portrayed as supernatural. It is not being portrayed on the reality show as “internal” to her, or as actually produced by that body. That supernatural voice is in fact ventriloquized by the spectacle itself, by the spectacle of the audience. The main spectacle in the Susan Boyle phenomenon for her vast television and Internet audience is of course not Boyle’s own performance, but the studio audience’s response to it. The camera zooms in on the sneers on the rather ordinary female faces of the studio audience, faces whose appeal consists solely of the three things Susan Boyle lacks: extreme youth, extreme thinness, and extreme eye shadow. Their patronizing but inaudible judgment is then given voice by Boyle’s male contemporary, the slightly OLDER Simon Cowell, whose even more advanced age manages to have the opposite effect to hers, through the mojo of media power and hip masculinity. His voice validates hers, but her body image—and the image of all women in her and Cowell’s age group—is the price of her exceptional vindication. Her appearance, “humble” background, and willingness to be humiliated by this audience lends it the power to reinforce the stereotypes our culture insists a forty-something woman should fulfill by making an exception of her on the basis of a voice that is consistently characterized as disembodied: it is repeatedly described as “the voice of an angel,” or “on loan from the gods,” etc., as though it could not possibly be physically produced by the vocal chords behind that double chin, or supported by the diaphragm behind that thickened waist.

The spectacle of the audience endowing Susan Boyle with renewed life and a super-natural voice, neither of which seem self-generated, makes her serve as the exception that proves the rule that a woman’s life is over by the time she reaches the age of Simon Cowell and our shockingly young president Barack Obama. When it’s not over by that age, there’s something discomfiting and unseemly about her making a spectacle of herself by continuing to look alive; but that discomfort can be overcome by everyone in the whole world watching the smug audience of unaccomplished but young consumers generously grant her the thumbs up once she has been humiliated before them in the gladiatorial arena, and by attributing her powerful voice to something, anything, other than that humiliated body. She might be more talented than the young people in the audience, but at least she reminds us all that without the power they hold over her, her voice would remain as inaudible as the sound of a tree falling in the woods. The “we” of popular youth culture is the angelic higher power that suddenly sings through her.

Because Susan Boyle is famous for being an exception, she’s hardly there to inspire the rest of us to raise up our voices and make our mark on the world. She’s there to remind us that it’s “natural” and “appropriate” to look like Michael Palin in drag once we’re over forty, and that if we just relax, have another deep-fried Mars bar, and let our inner beauty shine through, we'll be embraced, because the whole culture will be better off for it. Andy Borowitz got it right when he blogged, “Professor David Logsdon, who studies the rare occurrences of ugly people in the media at the University of Minnesota's School of Communications, warns that the isolated example of Ms. Boyle may give ugly people around the world too much hope. ‘The fact is, only one in a million ugly people will ever get on TV,’ said Professor Logsdon. ‘Most of them will wind up in academia.’” So true. Academia, as I first noticed when I was an under-twenty undergrad, is our culture's convenient holding tank for all the over-thirty and other ugly Cassandras who are too prone to raising their voices, where they will sound, to those out in the "real world"--or is it the "reality world," now? just like trees falling in the forest, or voices crying in the wilderness.


Briallen said...

This is so brilliant April. I did have a half-formed thought that if Susan had looked like the 38-year-old blonde judge on the panel and had the same voice, she would have been patronized by the judges-- it would have been assumed that she had missed the pop star boat by ten or twenty years, and her talent would have been beside the point. (Apparently people over 30 can't be on American Idol at all.) But I hadn't thought through all these issues properly at all.

That said, I think what I find compelling about Susan Boyle is less the frumpy than the freak. I'm quite curious about the role of her disability and also the role of bullying and ostracism and disgust in her story. On some level she is a comfortable drag frump stereotype, with the bright no-nonsense banter and comedy hip swivel; but there is also the Gothic tale of being a despised freak child, and then living alone for decades with the mother and then alone in mourning, taunted by children even in middle age whenever she left the house... This is getting beyond "frumpy" or even "ugly" to the kind of extreme collective disgust and ostracism we saw initially with Jade Goody, which was then also turned to this adoration... The initial perception of abnormal stupidity, animalesque grotesquerie... It's more than just "ugly." It's not e.g. Roseanne Barr working-class frump we're talking about here. This is about a kind of extreme abjection turned into something else. At least for me...

Susan Bernofsky said...

Thank you for this. I think you really have captured the crux of the *sadness* of Susan Boyle's sudden elevation to fame. She's famous not for singing well but for her public scorning. How fascinated we are by our own penchant to mob, mock and cast out - and by the objects of all this ugliness.

lacostepolos said...

thanks for sharing your analysis and idea,really impressive

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Joan Yin said...

marketing for susan boyle reminds me of consumer gaps between nightingale songsters from britain (slightly frumpy, if overweight, it's only when you can believe her events surpass a seeming public condescension for image) and say, margaret cho, whose tv sitcom came on when I was a teenager who refused to let her image turn into a sitcom, and is now featured in the chinatown theatre district of post GenXer London. at least the business of asian consumption is starting to let me think that margaret cho isn't a postmodern imaginary of my mother (packaged British-style) and image is still only what they say about you.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you! Brilliant. Now, it's 2012, and people are beginning to tell Madonna to throw in the towel. Sexy is "disgusting" at 50 apparently.

As a musician and performer for most of my life, age started to become an issue around 30 for me - even though I look(ed) much younger than my age (which is now 41) - and perhaps because I look(ed) younger.