In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past ten days, you might not have heard that the big news hasn’t had anything to do with pirates off of the horn of Africa, or bankers on Wall Street, or politicos in Washington or most certainly professors in a university anywhere. It’s come out of Scotland. And it’s about maiden lady from the village of Blackburn. She sings. Jaw-dropping, startling well.
Last January, the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent” had their second stage of auditions before a live audience in Glasgow and in front of the series judges Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, and Piers Morgan (there had been a prior screening of potential contestants in front of producers before). On April 11, the performances were broadcast in the UK and apparently people all over the world haven’t stopped watching it since. Or at least part of itSusan Boyle’s part.
Susan Boyle came on stage being the unassuming no-nonsense forty-seven year old Scot that she apparently is. Her hair is thin and mouse colored, her dress beige and her figure, well, she’s a forty-seven year old no-nonsense Scot, it’s that kind of figure. Immediately the judges roll their eyes and close-ups of audience members show them snickering. When she tells Simon Cowell that she wants to be a professional singer the skepticism of the judges and the crowd is almost palpable.
And then she sings . Within three seconds (count it, it’s three seconds), Miss Boyle has stunned her audience. Singing “I’ve Dreamed a Dream” from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s Les Misérables Miss Boyle brings cheers from the audience as they stand to applaud her performance as she is in mid song. And the performance just gets better as she goes on. At the conclusion, Piers Morgan tells her, “Without doubt that was the biggest surprise I’ve had in three years of this show. When you stood there with that cheeky grin . . . everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now. That was stunning. I’m reeling from shock.” Amanda Holden says, “It was a complete privilege listening to that . . . ” and all three judges give her a big “yes” sending her on to the semi-finals of the competition.
Almost immediately Miss Boyle’s performance started making the rounds on YouTube. As of this writing (Sunday night, April 19), her performance has received over fourty seven million views. By the time you read this it will probably hit fifty million. One of those sites has posted over 160,000 comments:
“I cried when you started singing. I hope you will be more . . . oh I ‘m crying again now;” “Amazing, beautiful, spell-binding, inspirational, a tearjerker and it truly engenders hope;” “Extraordinaire, fabuleux l’une des plus belle voix qu’il m’a étè permis d’entendre, je ne me lasse pas de regarder encore et encore cette video;” “fantastica, non ci sono parole. una voce meravigliosa che in canta. la migliore che abbia mai ascoltato. Tocca il cuore arriva in fondo una meraviglia . . . non mi stanco di ascoltarla . . . ” and on and on it goes, in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, et al.
The producers of the “Today” show quickly got Miss Boyle booked (she was interviewed last Friday ), there’s talk of an “Oprah” appearance and the Sunday Times had a major article on her. Google “Susan Boyle” and you now get over five million hits (although that also includes Susan Boyle MD of Duluth Georgia and Susan Boyle the real estate agent of Long Beach, California). But can she really be this good, or is this all simply the latest example of the absurdity of information via the internet?
Yes. She really is that good. Although she’s singing a shortened version of the song (each contestant’s act can only last a minute) compare Boyle’s performance with those by Ruthie Henshall and Patti LuPone (who created the role in London) and you see that the Scot sings circles around them. And this isn’t apparently a flash in the pan. The Daily Record quickly unearthed a performance of ” Cry Me A River ” Miss Boyle cut ten years ago to include in CD produced for a local charity. It’s a stunning performance. This lady can deliver a song as well as Judy Garland, Marni Nixon, Barbara Cook, and Ella Fitzgerald. That’s pretty heady company.
There’s so much to talk about here: the lesson of not judging a book by its cover, our infatuation with the sleekness of youth, how quickly news now spreads via the world wide web, don’t give up on your dreams, even the cynical suspicion that this is all a set up . But I’d like to talk not about Miss Boyle at all (I hope I’ll have occasion to talk about her singing a lot in the future), but instead I’d like to talk about the judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, and Piers Morganand not in the way that you perhaps think.
Watch the video again of Miss Boyle’s performance, but this time watch the judges. There comes a time when about two thirds through the song they are transformed.
The boredom, cynicism, professionalism, even their age, all seem to be washed away.
Just for a flash, Simon Cowell breaks into one of the most genuinely radiant smiles I’ve ever seen. And for the few moments of that song’s end I don’t know when I’ve seen three more beautiful people than these judges listening to Miss Boyle sing.
By that I don’t mean that they are just good looking, which of course they are, but I mean that they look deeply beautiful.
Here and elsewhere , I’ve complained a lot about the notion that art, and in particular music, can change people in any significant way. I don’t think it can. But that’s not to say that art can’t change people a little, on occasion, very briefly. Seeing the faces of Cowell, Holden, and Piers as they listen to Miss Boyles is to see people almost beatified. This event, the music, the words, the woman, the judges’ recognition of their own shame at misjudging her (and all those other ladies in their pasts who they similarly dismissed), sensing shame of the audience and hearing their cheersthrough all of this the beauty of Boyle’s singing hovers like a benediction over them. For a moment, only a moment, we glimpse them as they most fully are: generous, happy, blessed, the way God sees them in His love. And they are deeply, magnificently, beautiful.
You might think that is completely over the top. Perhaps. But watch and see of you don’t see the same thing I do. Of course the beauty doesn’t last. It never does. And this is another part of the business of art: the pain of art, the fact that our greatest art is as much a barb as it is a balm, but that’s another topic. For now it’s enough to marvel at Ms. Boyle’s performance and wish her luck as she approaches the finals. And to perhaps watch as we’re given a glimpse of what we’re supposed to be.