I guess this is the Susan Boyle post we had to have.

Talent shows are as much a part of television as cops shows, hospital drama and the news and weather. And integral to talent shows is the possibility that a contestant will be awful enough for the judges and/or the audience to say mean things about them. In fact, the chance of that happening is one of the reasons we watch; just like people watch car races on the off chance that there’ll be a prang, the more spectacular the better.

Not that we want to see any hurt, but a bit of ritualised humiliation (in a talent show), or gladiatorial violence (car race and other sports) is all part of the deal.

The thing with Susan Boyle is that she played into and against the expectations of this television staple.

On first glance, she was going to be the butt-ugly lamb-to-the-slaughter on a show whose head judge is the Voldermort of talent show judges. She walks out, is scoffed at, dismissed by the audience on the basis of her looks alone and her unconfident demeanor, and everyone is primed for the ritual slaughter. So far so good.

Cue music.

Low and behold, the ugly old (yeah, right, mid-forties, old, and like, you’re some sort of oil painting) chick can sing.  Paradigm subverted big-time, and a star is born. What happens next is as inevitable in its outcome as it is unpredictable in its specifics.  You mightn’t have known what exactly, but you just knew something had to go wrong.

And it does.  She goes onto the finals, a hot favourite to take the big prize, but is beaten, leaves the studio, and has some sort of breakdown. Let the retribution begin.

So we have Nicci Gerrard writing in The Telegraph (via The Age) saying that we all should be ashamed of ourselves:

There are no magic wands in life, and the story of Susan Boyle, which was sold to us as a fairytale come true, now reads like a lesson in sadness and shame. Her sadness and our shame.

Not so sure about that. I do agree with Gerrard that there was nothing accidental about Boyle’s initial performance. She would’ve auditioned for the show, so those in the know knew she could sing, and so the ugly-duckling-becomes-singing-swan thing was indeed a set-up.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily diminish the power of what happened, and I for one thought it was pretty great television. Even if the judges knew that Boyle was likely to surprise people and baited the trap by feigning ignorance of her abilities, it was bloody great to see the audience, so to speak, get their comeuppance.  How superior we could all feel.  Bloody poms.

But yeah, it gets into a weird area. Boyle’s subsequent breakdown looks tragic by any measure and maybe the whole thing is exposed as a cruel sham, yet another example of corporations manipulating people’s emotion for massive financial gain. Maybe Gerrard is right:

You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas). And after that, we will all forget about her. She will be yesterday’s story — a barely remembered casualty devoured and spat out by our celebrity-addicted age.

In fact, I just noticed the headline: “Susan Boyle ‘recovering well’ after breakdown”, and the article notes that “…celebrity judge Simon Cowell [is] planning to help her launch a professional career.”  So there you go.

Like I say, it gets into a weird area, and it all depends on just how much Boyle actually was manipulated.  It seemed to me from the little attention that I gave it that she genuinely wanted to be on the show and that she wanted to win.  Stories of her developmental problems–and I have no idea of the severity of those–cast some doubt on how well she could understand what she was getting into, but then again, nothing could probably prepare you for what she went/is going through.

Gerrard’s probably right: we’ll follow the story like we’ve followed a million others and forget about it when the next one soaks up all the media attention.

By the way, did you see that thing on YouTube where…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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