Thursday, April 23, 2009

Susan Boyle and the Voice That Shattered Myth

I've been as caught up with the "Susan Boyle Phenomenon" like everyone else. When I first saw the "Britain's Got Talent" tape of Susan's audition, I couldn't help but fall in love with this down-to-earth woman who took care of an ailing mother. I sympathized with her, knowing her appearance probably kept her from being taken seriously on more than one occasion. When Simon asked her age and she said "47," I could hear many people's thoughts, such as "What? Are you daft? 47! You're too old! Get off the stage! You have some chutzpah thinking you can compete!"

And then Susan opened her mouth and shattered all the myths.

As a woman who is Susan's age, I know those myths all too well. In the United States, we worship youth and beauty, often assuming the two are exclusive to one another. We have a difficult time seeing beauty in many forms until we meet someone like Susan Boyle. For so long, the entertainment industry has brought before us young people who have been starved into looking like wire hangers and "glammed up." There has been a commoditizing of the human creative spirit, and I for one have loathed it. When people over 30 are told they are "too old" to make it in the arts industry, something is wrong.

All of us have a unique blend of talents that make us remarkable. We have been given a life to shape these talents and contribute them to the world. Not everyone, of course, has a voice like Susan. But she doesn't have other talents that many other people do have. What I love about the Susan Boyle story is that it smashed the misconception that one must look like a model in order to sing well. Susan reminded us that beauty comes in many different packages.

This is a breath of fresh air especially for women. Many women feel the pressure to "be perfect." We're told to lose weight, dye our hair, put on make-up, and at its most extreme - undergo plastic surgery in order to be acceptable to society. It reached its bizarre climax with the show "The Swan," where several women contestants who were thought of as "ugly" were sent to receive cosmetic surgery. I truly felt sorry for the husband of the winner. He had fallen in love with the girl of his dreams and now had to adjust to living with a Barbie Doll.

I think women are the ones cheering for the success of Susan more than anyone else. She is proof positive that although one may not be a "glamour girl," she can be a "classic beauty" in more ways than one.


Shirley said...

When I saw this on TV, the camera panned to the audience on one of the Barbie doll types, who literally had a sneer on her face. Then Susan started to sing, and Barbie doll's jaw dropped. It was priceless.

owenswain said...

"I think women are the ones cheering for the success of Susan more than anyone else." I don't think so, but then I am a man. I don't think so any more than I think it was mainly men cheering for Mr. Potts two years ago. I don't think it's a gender thing, at least I hope not. Everything else you said I agree with fully. :)

Rachel said...

The myths you write about aren't only bothersome to people who don't fit the young and pretty mold. I have a theory that everyone gets tired of seeing the same old thing always hyped up in the media.

I think one reason "young and pretty" is what's always shown on TV is that "interesting, strong, intelligent, individual, character" is a lot harder to write! You have to be one to write one.

Anonymous said...

Great post

Anonymous said...

I often think how funny it is that "looks" are so important in an industry that is supposed to be about sound. It is sad that there is already so much backlash against Boyle "oh look, she's colored her hair!" Let the poor woman do as she likes!

This reminds me of everyone flipping out about Jessica Simpson's weight. So long as music stars are healthy and able to perform, why should appearance matter so very much?

And ageism in general has gotten simply disgusting.

Mary Rose said...

Owen, I admit I have a bias toward women since I've worked with women in the ministry for so many years. The obsession with youth and beauty has been a common topic of discussion. :-)

Rachel, fascinating comment! I think you're right on the money. I know whenever I see a character in a movie or TV show and they're not the glamorous face usually pushed onto the public, I breath a sigh of relief. It is so refreshing to see someone with a different look. Personally, I find people who are too "perfect" in looks to be visually boring. Give me a good, distinctive nose! (Ha! Being half-Italian, I have a pretty good nose of my own.)

Too true about writing for the "interesting, strong character" type. ;-)

Shirley, Mrs. Jackie Parkes, MJ, and "nowealthbutlife," thank you for your comments. I am happy for Susan Boyle and wish her the best. I'm hoping the public doesn't end up nit-picking the woman to death. Just let her do her thing. :-)

Janny said...

When I was in music school, I aspired to be a voice major and have a singing career. Classical singing, mind you, not even pop or rock where a certain "look" or such would have been at least a plausible requirement for the culture involved. I would have been aiming at musical theater, opera, oratorio, and teaching. Yet when I declared those intentions to several schools in question, I got these weird looks back: pity, condescension, bewilderment...and finally, a gentle reproof:

"Well, unfortunately, you're actually too old to do that now."

I was 27.

In a field where your best work isn't even physically possible until you're well into your 30s and even 40s--women's voices don't even completely mature before then--somehow, I had mysteriously already become "too old" to "waste my time" studying music. I had been around the block a few times, had a head on my shoulders, and loved music as much as life itself...but none of that mattered. Why?

Because, they claimed, it took so long to establish one in the music business that you HAD to start young or it was a "waste of time."

To which I would say, "I love it. I will work rings around any kid you've got on campus. I will bring joy to myself and to others with this gift. How is that a waste of time?"

The bottom line was, of course, that it WOULDN'T be a waste of time; it'd simply be more challenging for a teacher to have a mature student on his or her hands, one who wouldn't blindly hand over respect and adulation, than it would be to grab a breathless 18-year-old and impress the heck out of her with little more than smoke and mirrors.

But very, VERY few of the teachers I encountered in music school wanted any PART of that. Which said to me that, in the end, it wasn't THEIR time I would be wasting. It was mine--if I expected anything close to a fair shake from them.

If living well is the best revenge, I suppose I'm doing okay; I'm not a professional opera singer, by any means, but I'm still singing classical repertoire, as well as standard church cantoring, in my mid-50s--which, from the sound of some of the students I heard around me, wasn't going to be in THEIR futures. They'd be blown out vocally and/or burned out professionally long before this.

So I guess the gift truly wasn't, and isn't, being wasted after all. It's just sad to consider what might have been...and was cut down before it even got out of the gate.