Tuesday, December 22, 2009

SUSAN BOYLE, SHOW US YOUR SOUL (IF YOU'VE GOT ANY)!

Everybody loves a kid with a big singing voice (see LeAnn Rimes, Charlotte Church and Billy Gilman). But Michael Jackson and Brenda Lee aside, God help the pop-star tyke who has the misfortune of hitting puberty. That's usually around when fans lose interest (see LeAnn Rimes, Charlotte Church and Billy Gilman).

Puberty is a long way behind Susan Boyle, 48, but in a sense, she's still working the age angle. People rationalize her stunning success as a triumph of true talent over ageism and a shallow obsession with physical appearance. Her fans pat themselves on the back because they think they're so highly evolved: They love her in spite of the fact that she is, frankly, homely and middle aged. Even the notoriously hard-to-impress Simon Cowell is enthralled. But I've seen Randy Jackson dismiss prettier and better singers as being mad pitchy, dawg.

Carly Smithson, who couldn't catch a break -- nor a compliment from Simon -- during American Idol's seventh season, can sing circles around Susan. I suspect the judges dismissed her because, with her tattoo-covered arms, she wasn't pop-princess material. But if she had been downright unsexy, marketable as an anomaly, a spinster-virgin pop idol like Susan, they would have been singing her praises to next Sunday.

Think about it: Susan Boyle's success is exactly what her fans purport it not to be -- a reflection of a shallow obession with physical appearance. Only in a strange twist of fate, in this reversal of fortune, the beautiful people are being rejected for one time only. Susan is beloved largely because she's a non-looker who's pushing 50 (but doesn't look a day over 55), the ultimate underdog. And she can sing.

On the charts, Rihanna's Rated R couldn't compete with Susan's I Dreamed A Dream. Neither could Alicia Keys's The Element Of Freedom. Nor Adam Lambert's For Your Entertainment. (Next to face the Susan juggernaut: Mary J. Blige's Stronger With Each Tear. Good luck with that, Mary. I pray Susan is out of the way when Sade makes her return Feburary 8 with Soldier Of Love.)

Worldwide I Dreamed A Dream sales since its November 23 release: more than five million. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas -- for Susan and her record labels, Syco Music (in the UK) and Columbia Records (in the U.S.), which is fitting because Dream easily could double as holiday music.

But would everyone love Susan if she were young and beautiful? If she sang the same songs (including "Amazing Grace" and "Silent Night" -- ugh!) in the same way, emphasizing technical proficiency over actual emotion, but looked like Natalie Portman (to name the most beautiful woman I can think of at the moment), would she be selling gazillions of records every week? Would she even have made it from Britain's Got Talent to YouTube, where her stardom was born?

Today while I was listening to the best of Anne Murray (pictured above, in the 1970s), I finally pinpointed Susan's problem. It was while singing along to Anne's version of "Daydream Believer" (a John Stewart composition first made popular by the Monkees in a 1967 No. 1 version and returned to the Top 20 by Anne in 1980). Anne's voice, with its trademark touch of sadness, melts like butter over a deceptively upbeat melody.

Susan covers the song on I Dreamed A Dream, and it's the musical equivalent of two miligrams of klonopin. The slow, plodding arrangement coupled with Susan's too-careful phrasing makes for a positively soporific listening experience. I've yet to make it all the way through. It's the problem with her entire album. She can't even outsing Madonna, who is hardly a world-class vocalist, on her version of Madonna's "You'll See." In fact, she seems to be impersonating Madonna, but Madonna has one thing Susan lacks (besides sex and sex appeal): vocal personality. And romantic experience, which Susan allegedly doesn't have, helps when it comes to convincingly delivering love songs.

John Lennon once praised Anne Murray's rendition of the Beatles' "You Won't See Me" as his favorite cover of a Beatles song, and I must concur. Despite the massive songwriting royalties he'll soon be collecting, I don't expect Mick Jagger will publicly be bestowing similar priase on Susan's simple, anodyne take on the Rolling Stones' lyrically complex "Wild Horses."

"That you give me no
That you give me no
That you give me no
That you give me no
Soul... "

So sang Andy Bell on Erasure's 1980s hit "A Little Respect." In Susan Boyle's case, my sentiment exactly.

Anne Murray "Daydream Believer"


Susan Boyle "Daydream Believer"
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