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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Susan Boyle: a cynic's view

You are being manipulated.

Maybe you've seen this video. Maybe, as with so many of the commenters, you've been moved to tears. The world is in uproar over this performance. More people have seen this video than watched Obama's victory speech. So what is it that makes her so special?

You are being manipulated.

Well, she has a wonderful voice, but we all know that's only half of it. The point is, she has a wonderful voice despite not looking like a star. See the looks of doubt and mockery sprinkled throughout the audience, and even the judges. The audience think she's a freak. The judges are playing their parts well.

Then Susan Boyle sings, and she can sing. It's a smack in the face. It's a shock. It's the ultimate ugly duckling story: a sad life story, the victim of bullying; ugly, yet quirky and irrepressably cheerful (with undertones of melancholy) - the 'talent scouts' who approved her submission must have thought they'd hit the jackpot.

I am being cynical, I know, but cynicism is merited with this breed of 'talent show.' How many ugly girls with beautiful voices do they turn away in a day? How many do they pressure and ridicule because it makes good TV? The people in charge of these programmes are in complete control of every detail. I expect every wiggle of the hips, every cheeky smile that fell from Susan's stage was subtly suggested behind the scenes.

"This isn't some contrived media event from the pop-culture factory. This is real." So claims Steve Rosenbaum of the Huffington Post. Steve, you underestimate the factory; they planned it, they filmed it, they edited it to take full advantage of every aspect of this story, and they fed it to the world.

I'm guessing it has worked better than even they expected. Everyone who works for that show, who stands to make a profit, who makes a living from playing these games - I bet they're delighted that this has gone viral. And good for Susan, I say, and I hope she enjoys it; because when the glow's faded a little, life goes on as it always did. I just hope there's a job for her in her new life.

Any voice even vaguely critical of this viral spectacle gets thumbs-downed so hard it never recovers, and yet here I am saying it again: we are being manipulated.

And yet, this whole kerfuffle has awoken new feelings in people. It has reminded them that we judge too readily; that we look too harshly on imperfection; that there are still things to be fought for and won, however late in the game. So who am I to stomp on the fragile bird of hope? Believe what you want to believe about Susan, but don't trust the show that made her. Read Chart Throb by Ben Elton, I think you'll find it eye-opening.


  1. Good post Anna, I think much the same way.

    In forums I've seen that suggest Susan Boyle is a plant (not the botanic variety) or that the creators of the show orchestrated the whole thing are often bombarded with comments such as 'stop being so cynical', 'isn't it a shame the World is so cynical' etc etc.

    But I don't really view this as cynicism, I think it's healthy criticism. Why shouldn't we criticise the information we receive from television? Those of us with half a brain know news shows will play around with a story to make it more appealing or more controversial, why shouldn't this extend to reality TV?

    I think many people forget that Susan Boyle had to audition first, the show knew she could sing. As for the looks of doubt from the audience, there's a good chance that these reactions were related to a completely different act but associated with Susan Boyle through the magical art of editing.

    I wonder if one watched a clip of Susan Boyle without having to watch all those looks from the judges and the audience, would it still create the same level of shock?
    I don't think it would.

  2. Very good post! I sympathize for Susan. She's being used for publicity, in my opinion. Thanks for being brave enough to talk about this! Love it!

  3. I guess I just try to look at in the perspective that this lady got to show her talent to the world. I am happy for her and watching someone's dream come true is pretty cool.. it's tv.. it's all manipulation in my opinion

  4. Tv is manipulated, but I am personally blown away by her talent. That is all. By no means did the audiences reaction or judges "doubt" make it any better for me, just her talent (which she has)

  5. Honestly, her voice wasn't even that great on the show, in my opinion. The 'Cry Me a River' song was extremely good, but years ago, so now I just don't see the hype. Like looks have anything to do with talent anyway, and I agree it's all set up to manipulate us. Go best talent, or whatever.

  6. I think you're right, we are being manipulated. What I don't agree with, however, is the implication that this is a bad thing. Before you protest loudly, hear me out. In normal circumstances, manipulating the public is a bad thing: it's dishonest, unfair and generally done for negative reasons. In this case, however, I can only see the positive outcomes of the Susan Boyle Phenomenon.

    Here is a woman who is truly talented, but has never really had the opportunity to showcase her abilities, and definitely has never been famous for them. Now, thanks to Britain's Got Talent, she has been recognised for what she is: a very good singer. And most of the comments and feedback I have come across are very positive, which is quite unusual for the British public, never mind the internet!

    People who watch Britain's Got Talent, and indeed, any heavily edited and manufactured television talent show should be aware that what they are seeing is manipulative and constructed. If they don't realise this... well they're not very clever, are they? And if these talent shows weren't constructed in this way they wouldn't be entertaining and everyone would complain about that, too.

    If you needed any more proof that the entertainment value to Britain's Got Talent is mainly based on manipulation, look no further than the little boy who performed the following week: he started to sing and Simon Cowell stopped him mid-line, saying something like "No, no stop that. That was awful, have you got anything else?" In a normal talent competition, a young child would be distraught at this reaction, and would almost definitely not be able to continue with their act, never mind immediately begin singing a second song without a flicker. This was planned. It would be cruel if that wasn't the case.

    Television is a manipulative and untruthful medium. We should question everything we watch, just as when writing an essay we should question our sources. This isn't a bad thing.

  7. Blueskies, I agree to some extent, I'm just not sure how far they're 'using their power for good' when there's money in the equation. And yes, I'd love to see people questioning what they're presented with more, but they don't. Most of them don't.

  8. I know, you're right. The fact that people SHOULD question things doesn't actually mean they do.
    And you're right, programmes like BGT are mainly in it for the money.

  9. I agree with you Anna. And the sad thing is, she's very good but by the time the final comes people might well be sick of her already...that's how fickle the world is.
    Her voice isn't any better than alot of west-end stars out's just coz she looks different that people are taking it to be a huge deal.
    personally i loved the boy last week, he had the cute kid factor which tends to be more sucessful than the ugly duckling factor i think. but likewise it was also very set up.
    ah well, it's all good tv!

  10. I totally agree with you - how is it that you always write what I'm thinking? (Always in a much better way than I could too...)

    The Apprentice is manipulated in much the same way - with its dramatic music and carefully edited face pulling - though I do like the Apprentice...

    Have you watched any of the Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe or Newswipe?

  11. No, but I've heard of it... what channel?

  12. BBC4 - You may be able to catch one on BBCi player. He's really interesting, He has a column in the Guardian as well which is worth a read.

  13. you know i never thought of it that way..but that makes since. i like the angle at which you think.

  14. the judges assessment was according to their own point of veiw since all knew that she can sing....just her talent gave her the day.

  15. Great stuff!

    Beware the myth of "Real People".

    People on TV are not "real", even if they think they are. Susan Boyle is a carefully manufactured product, constructed with no respect for the raw materials. If she truly believes that she's "playing the system", that only makes her the more tragic.

  16. Well-written! Thanks.

    I think your view will become more mainstream as people discover the M.O. of the show.

    As "you didn't expect that" gets uttered on every episode, people will look back at the Shaheen Jafargholi "impromtu" change-ups and wonder.

    Not to detract from the raw talent on the show, which is very cool, but the back-story is what really launched the media flurry.

    I totally agree- "this isn't some contrived media event..." just sounds silly on a broadcast program.

  17. Anyone who thinks that that was the first time those judges had seen Susan Boyle is an idiot. Amanda Holden's acting isn't good enough to pull it off.

    And she's not amazingly talented. She's got a decent voice. Better than mine, maybe even better than most, but not good enough to fuel a whole career. Sadly, unless you are phenomenally talented at singing/playing an instrument, people either need to want to fuck you or patronise you, otherwise no-one will buy it. It's wrong, it's harsh, and all of that jazz, but that's how it is, and how it will always be.


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