Saturday, April 18, 2009

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE

Color me confused. I don't get all the commotion over Susan Boyle and the Britain's Got Talent performance heard around the world. Sure, I agree with Simon Cowell and company: The lady's got talent. Yes, she offered a spot-on rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" from the musical Les Miserables. Do I think she will be the next Elaine Paige, as she aspires to be?

A resounding hell, no!

Here is my problem with the hoopla over Ms. Boyle: Why is anyone surprised that she can sing in the first place? Because she's 47 (but doesn't look a day over 57)? Because she's not paper thin, model gorgeous and styled within an inch of her life? But how many of the great singers of the last 40 or so years are: Barbra Streisand? Liza Minnelli? Celine Dion? (Okay, she does make paper look a little zaftig.) Elaine Paige? Have any of them ever been heralded because of their stunning beauty. Or their up-to-the-second musical taste?

I was talking to an Argentine friend who is 20. He was going on and on about the talented Ms. Boyle. For him, it's not so much that she looks like any fĂștbol mom on the No. 152 colectivo. It's her age. In his mind, old people (yes, to him, 46, the age of his mother, is practically Pleistocene) cannot sing.

Whoa! With the exception of Celine Dion, who is 41, all of the aforementioned talents are over 60. So is Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and Linda Ronstadt. Annie Lennox is 54. Whitney Houston is 45. Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and many of country music's most talented female singers are in their 40s and 50s. Mercedes Sosa, Argentina's iconic folk singer, is in her 70s, and her legend is based firmly on talent, not looks.

That everyone was so expecting Susan to embarrass herself says something disturbing about our culture. In this American Idol age, we expect talent and good looks to go hand in hand (or at least talent and great styling). It's a huge turnaround from the early '90s, when groups like Black Box and C+C Music Factory ruled the charts, and gorgeous models were used in their videos to lip sync to the vocals of plus-size diva Martha Wash. For years after the Milli Vanilli scandal, any attractive singer with a big voice would more than likely face lip-sync accusations at some point. Why? Because, you know, aside from Whitney, pretty, thin people didn't have huge voices.

But how our great expectations have shifted. If Susan Boyle looked more like a traditional pop star, would the judges -- or any of us -- have expected her to fail miserably? Would they -- or any of us -- have been so surprised or impressed by her great but by no means earth-shattering performance? Before you accuse me of being deaf, dumb and blind, consider this: If she were 20 years younger, how would she fare on Idol? If she were facing off week to week with Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey and Lil Rounds, Simon, Paula, Randy and Kara would probably be damning her performances with faint praise (as they so often do with superior but hard-to-market Idol contestants Allison Iraheta and Anoop Desai) due to her limited Billboard Hot 100 potential.

And if she were beautiful, too, she still wouldn't have a chance, as Idol prefers its women non-theateningly attractive like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Syesha Mercado could sing circles around Susan Boyle, but she made it to No. 3 last season on Idol with minimal fanfare from the judges or the press. Not even her stunning version of Mariah Carey's "Vanishing" could get Simon to muster up more than a "very good" critique. And before you bring up the likeability factor, let me say that, yes, Syesha was sorely lacking in the personality department (and would her extreme self-possession have been considered less of a beauty-pageanty liability had she not been so drop-dead gorgeous?), but as Simon and Randy are so fond of saying, "Idol is a singing contest," so while likeability is bound to effect America's decision, it shouldn't factor into the judges' critiques.

But I digress. Everyone keeps asking, "Why didn't Susan Boyle make it big before?" Because of her looks, of course (not to mention the lack of an Idol-style platform like Britain's Got Talent). And the grand irony is that is exactly why she'll make it now.
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