So many have heard of Susan Boyle and so much has been said about her in such a short amount of time, that it’s now even quite cliché to make her a dinner topic. It’s easy to forget that her story just hit the Net in April and, within a matter of two months, has left a very bright trail across the virtual landscape. From accumulating 100 million views on YouTube during the first nine days (by comparison, Avril Lavinge’s ‘Girlfriend’ video took more than two years to accumulate 118 million views), to guest appearances in Larry King and Oprah, and to becoming a cultural icon as seen on references in South Park, The Simpsons and The SIMS 3.
She’s become the (social) media darling within two months, and in that same period, it seems like the same thing that ‘created’ her is now out to destroy her. Criticisms are flying out her way because she decided to add some colour to her wardrobe and change her appearance ever so slightly. After being heralded as the shining proof of the wisdom behind the saying, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, she is now being judged exactly by what she has changed in her appearance. And this bothers me greatly.
In being witnesses to her story; in sharing it, reacting to it and eventually, co-creating it, I wonder whether we are truly telling the story of Susan Boyle and not something we’ve fashioned for ourselves.
Anti-brand as brand
The story and the telling of the story are essential elements in building and driving brands especially in the Internet age. Amidst the ever-growing influx of information, the brand with the most memorable story, the one that resonates stronger in our own lives and the one that moves us the most is the one we are most likely to listen to, advocate and share.
Susan Boyle represented the opposite of the Hollywood star. While glamour, outer beauty, sex appeal and youth were the standards by which today’s entertainment industry abided —standards that only a selected few could meet — Susan Boyle compensated for this ‘lack’ with her amazing voice that soared above the expectations of the crowd. Obviously the expectations were downright wrong or set at the lowest notch ultimately because of her appearance, so when she did sing with amazing ease, the story we already had in our head, took a drastic turn. Such sudden shifts always make up for an exciting story, and exciting stories full of twists and turns are the stuff people like to talk about.
By being the anti-brand; by taking the role of the opposing force; the emerging change that could potentially sweep away the current foundations of Hollywood stardom, Susan Boyle became a distinct brand of her own. She represented the greater majority of people who could only aspire to Hollywood’s standards of stardom. She became the great protagonist of this story about the glittering city and the common folks at the margins. She was the underdog that survived the fight, the Cinderella whose inner beauty outshone the pretentious social-climbers, the little David that threw the shot mightily at his opponent and defied the expectations of all. We’ve set up Susan Boyle as the hero. But the moment we defined her role, we excluded other meanings and other paths her story could take.
A feminist view
With Paul Potts fresh on the minds of viewers around the world, it would’ve been expected that comparisons or associations would be made with Boyle. Unlike Potts who was shy and unsure of himself, Boyle was confident and ready. She walked on the stage, this 47 yr. old woman looking like your everyday home-maker, and not appearing one bit a super star-in-the-making. She didn’t look like anyone you would see on billboards or music videos. But she held her head high and announced she was to rock the audience. She was funny and cheeky and people didn’t like that. They wanted someone of her ‘station’ and appearance to be meek like Paul Potts. And afterwards, if she proved herself deserving, they would applaud and permit her 15 minutes of fame.
As everyone now knows, Susan Boyle blew their cynicism and self-righteousness away. A 100 million page views later, some plucked eyebrows and wardrobe upgrade; the same people, the same media who sang praises for her talent and professed that books shouldn’t be judged by their cover, are now lambasting her. Why? Because we are disappointed that an icon of non-Hollywood coolness is starting to succumb to the glamour of make-overs and this was a decision we already excluded for her since we assigned her a new role. Susan Boyle is changing the story in our head and we don’t like that.
However, if it were Paul Potts who opted to change his looks, make himself look more confident or dress more smartly, do you think he would’ve gotten this same negative publicity? He would’ve been praised and encouraged for changing; the media would’ve given their nod of approval. But because Susan Boyle is a woman, anything she does with her appearance is magnified and scrutinised.
Mediating Susan Boyle
The more I think of it, Susan Boyle was first set-up to be despised before she could be loved. Before she took on the sympathetic role of the underdog, she was set-up on Britain’ Got Talent as a potential source of comic relief. The way the producers directed the telling of her story would have made a lot of people want to smirk at Susan Boyle and downplay any potential talent she could possess. They were preparing to stage the dramatic highlight and they accomplished that successfully.
After showing the spunky side of Susan and the cynicism of some members of the audience (remember the woman who rolled her eyes when Boyle said she wanted to be like Ellen Paige?), the context was already architectured to elicit exactly the kind of response the viewers gave.
This story was perfect for the internet: short, unexpected, dramatic. It was also perfect because it resonated the aspirations of a lot of people in a time of financial and socio-political crisis: as long as I keep the faith and dream the dream, I can face the odds and survive in the end. I can keep on hoping and I will earn the respect and admiration of my peers. I can acquire value and account for something.
And Susan Boyle has done exactly this. It took her a lot of courage to pick up again the dream she set aside to care for an ailing mother. She faced the mockery and disbelief in her. She trusted herself and took the risk. And indeed, for this she deserves everyone’s respect.
But as the contest progresses and she takes on the challenges given to her, I think we all should try to remember the most important thing: it’s about her talent, her singing prowess first and foremost.
Before she became a phenomenon, a cultural reference, a Twitter trend, and a YouTube most-viewed video, she was an ordinary person like you and me who had a dream and wanted to make it real. Whether she opts for a make-over or not; whether she remains the Susan Boyle we imagined her to be or she breaks out of the shell we’ve placed her in; whether in the telling of her story she acquires new roles and changes as a character, we should strive to first listen to her sing.
There will lots of new stories about Susan Boyle especially after the semi-finals. New videos will be posted and shared. New comments will be added to all the conversations. I just hope we can still see after all this has come to pass that the most important story of all about Susan Boyle was the story she herself told.