Does Simon even love us anymore?
Look at his face as he watches Susan Boyle, the dowdy never-been-kissed global singing sensation, on stage in “Britain’s Got Talent” (about 70 million have already).
Has a Brit knocked ‘American Idol' off its pedestal?
No smirk. No sneer. No boredom. He believes. He is nearly transcendent. He is not wondering why he is sitting there. He is not doing anyone a favor.
He likes “Les Miz.”
Whereas we, “American Idol” nation, are like cynics in the headlights, caught mid-snark, yukking it up over the blind guy, voting for the worst, clucking over our tattoo Barbie Megan Joy, choosing from a pool of people who seemed to have already formed their backstory on YouTube.
We were still living for Simon Cowell’s next witty takedown, the next “Idol” train wreck (tejano disco, anyone?), while over in Britain, nurtured in the proverbial small and remote, what’s the word - oh yes, dear Susan, “village” - a lonely but chipper, dowdy but defiant, ordinary but extraordinary 47- (“and that’s just one side of me”) year-old-woman, Boyle, was changing all the rules, rewriting the fairy tale.
Could it be that “American Idol,” for years the zeitgeisty show of the moment, has fallen out of step, left behind like a haughty stepsister (and registering on Tuesday night its lowest ratings since 2002)? Since when did looks cease to matter? Since when did we value innocence over experience? Success over train wreck? Were we really supposed to be having a singing competition all along?
A devotee known as “Artistboynyc,” the 191,975th commenter on one version of the video, that one viewed 39 million times, wrote Wednesday: “i don’t care what anyone else thinks, i’ve been listening to this every day since first heard of it. it gives me chills - such joy on her behalf.”
Susan Boyle backlash, where are you already?
(The makeover has apparently begun, with the Daily Mail reporting Boyle’s upgrade from matronly to patterned dress, leather-look jacket and high heels, headlined: “And you said you wouldn’t change, Susan Boyle!)
And already, the public hype had moved on to “the next Susan Boyle” on “Britain’s Got Talent” - 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, a little Stevie Wonder type, with a meager two million-plus views. Paging Adam Lambert.
Boyle is “either campy or an extraordinary sign of hope in our times,” said Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, who is writing about Boyle both as a global “spreadable media” phenomenon that has raced ahead of broadcast television’s outdated protectionist policies and as an example of differing “genre expectations” between “Idol” and “Britain’s Got Talent.”
“‘American Idol’ this season has seemed conservative,” he said. “They look like pop stars already. ‘Idol’ has just become a star factory. Susan Boyle wouldn’t qualify because of her age. And if she did, they’d play it for laughs for a couple of weeks and cut her out.”
Jason Mittell, associate professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College, isn’t buying the moment as a genuine shock to the judges. But he knows the global public is. Indeed, Simon looks like a Simon transformed, glimpsed in his home country, no longer the cynical outsider, hands-over-cheeks adulation over a true undiscovered talent.
“Do you want my cynical take on the whole thing?” Mittell asks. “The Susan Boyle thing was a setup narrative, 100 percent consistent with how these shows are produced. Everybody has fallen for it. I am unmoved.”
Mittell points out that to be truly surprised by her singing, you have to first buy into the idea that Boyle’s unstyled appearance somehow is a predictor of her singing ability, which is ridiculous.
But the clip has obviously struck a (very vibrato kind of) chord, pointing up as it does its American counterpart’s obsession with star packaging, youth (“Idol” won’t even consider anyone over 28), and all the superficial elements the public supposedly requires to anoint a “Pop Idol,” as the British version is called.
Television critics are calling for a return to the simple pleasures of the undiscovered gems in the rough of the earlier Clay Aiken era. Feminists are charmed. Priests are seeing God’s work. As for age, Barack Obama already made 47 sexy and powerful; now Susan Boyle is standing up for the unlucky-at-love set.
“It plays into a narrative that seems authentic,” says Mittell. “The idea that she is just a real person, following her dreams. There’s a sense of discovery of something authentic. It tweaks that pleasure. It plays especially well in the U.S. because our frame for the genre is ‘American Idol.’ ‘American Idol’ is about young people who look the part, act the way in which we expect a pop star to act.”
Nonetheless, “American Idol,” with its 20-something-million viewers, is still outpacing its closest rival by 12 million viewers. Representatives for the show did not want to publicly compare “Idol” with the Susan Boyle phenomenon, though they were quick to defend the show’s rags-to-riches, out-of-the-woodwork bona fides.
Still, “AI” judge Randy Jackson seemed cognizant of the shifting paradigm of reality talent shows this week when he told Kris Allen - (after a typically bizarre Paula Abdul comment about his choice of a Donna Summer song being like shopping in the women’s section) - “We’re looking for the best undiscovered talent.”
Thanks for reminding us, Randy.
And newly sentimental Simon seemed saddened by Lil Rounds’ sadness, and no longer dismissed her as “Little” when her name is Lillian.
Jenkins, of MIT, says translating the Susan Boyle formula to “American Idol” is not that simple - and let’s face it, it’s still the most popular show on television, even if we’re stuck on snark.
He says Boyle plays right into a British myth of the working class hero bursting into stardom, territory well worn by “The Full Monty,” the calendar girls and “Billy Elliott,” among others.
“USA Today said (the Boyle clip) looked like a Disney movie waiting to happen, but it doesn’t. It looks like a British movie waiting to happen.”
Mittell sees this summer’s “America’s Got Talent” as the show to be most affected by the Boyle story. “If I were in the production suite for ‘America’s Got Talent,’ at this point, I’m scouring churches looking for singers. I’m scouring community theater. I’m scouring the small-town world where there may be an equivalent to Susan Boyle. She will have to transcend region and race; the narrative of black inner-city church mother will not play the same way, nor will the Nebraska housewife.”