Susan Boyle and Anvil: Are They Real Underdogs?

With over 100,000,000 online views of her video, who isn’t moved by the story of Susan Boyle? Suddenly, it seems that after her performance last month on Britain’s Got Talent, this 48-year-old, ‘plain looking’ church volunteer Scot was an instant celebrity when she wowed everyone with her soaring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Boyle does indeed have talent but how much of a coup was this really? As blogger polyannacowgirl noted: “Is it really that noteworthy that an unattractive woman can sing, and has the confidence and desire to share her voice? People are behaving as if a dog performed open-heart surgery, and I find that pretty alarming.”

In the context of the show, it is kind of surprising, on the surface. BGT is produced by Simon Cowell’s company SYCO (without the P). Cowell you know from another little franchise he has called American Idol. On a show like Idol, someone like Boyle would be a laughable novelty like William Hung. You might remember WH as he was also made famous by a Cowell franchise (Idol) and has more in common with Boyle than you think. Hung was someone who should have been screened out because he ain’t no singer (to put it mildly). Instead, he was put on the show as a cute distraction- the guy was lovable but he had a crappy voice. Because of that, he became an instant celebrity and got a record contract, releasing three albums. Cowell knew how to milk the novelty of the guy well.

And he knew how to milk Boyle too. She didn’t look like the pin-up’s that Cowell’s company usually favors on its shows so again he had a novelty on his hands. The fact that she could sing really well made her seem like even more of a novelty. Cowell didn’t exactly make her feel at home at first about her appearance but knowing what he already did about her voice, this was obviously a set-up. When this unlikely diva sang and made a splash with the audience, it was a home run not just for her but for Cowell. He found not just Eliza Doolittle but Hung in a dress and with a real larynx. It was the perfect set-up.

By now, the whole phenomenon around Boyle’s been trod over and dissected that it could fill several books. Writers keep trying to figure out what’s been so special about her quick rise to fame and why it’s reached so many people.

Part of Boyle’s success is that it feeds the belief that if SHE can make, anyone can have a chance. Well yes, you have a chance, as long as you have a hugely successful TV producer boosting you and setting you up, then yes you have a chance too. In other words, you really don’t have much of a chance of being a sudden star when it comes down to it but seeing it happen to someone else is intoxicating and gratifying. (actually, if you can make a ridiculously goofy YouTube video, you really can become an instant star)

I thought about this not-so-level playing field and an underdog becoming a star when I saw the movie Anvil- The Story of Anvil. This highly acclaimed documentary about a failed Canadian heavy metal outfit from the 80’s who rolled with a bunch of soon-to-be successful bands but never really succeeded is another heart-warming story.

Sacha Gervasi captures the drudgery of the band’s lives now, working day jobs and playing small clubs. But they’re also rallying for a comeback, trying to get enough money to work with their old producer again (who’s worked with Black Sabbath and Judas Priest). When they get the money, they try to shop it to labels but get the cold shoulder. While going through this frustrating process, the band squabbles and eventually comes together again in a bunch of heartfelt confessionals.

Fine film that it is, it’s obvious that some of the scenes are staged and milked for dramatic impact (i.e. the call from the producer, some of the arguments), not to mention the obvious Spinal Tap tie-in’s (the speaker that goes to 11, the band member who’s got the same name as ST’s original director, the title of the film itself). In the end, it makes a case for the band if not in terms of their music then at least in terms in of their screen persona- as influential a band as they’re thought to be, we usually only hear bits of their music in the film (which might be why it’s struck a nerve with non-metal fans too). Gervasi makes his case that Anvil should be taken seriously and deserves their comeback and the film itself is now being used to make the point more effectively than the band itself ever did. You leave the film wanting to have the band finally get its due and by seeing the film, you’ve become part of their resurgence (plus the word-of-mouth that’s helping the band and film along now).

Like Boyle, Anvil does have talent but we wouldn’t be talking about them now if it wasn’t for a smart, canny backer that they have on their side, pushing them to get recognition (Gervasi in Anvil’s case). And similarly, their attempted comeback is also a moving story that plenty of people can feel good about and get behind.

I just wish that more talented unknowns had boosters like Cowell and Gervasi to get them the recognition that they deserve. Til then, we can feel good about Boyle and Anvil but don’t think that it was only luck and talent that got them to where they are now.