Monday, April 27, 2009

Susan Boyle

I wanted to show this to my students so we can have a discussion of the evils of lookism and their relations to questions of distributive justice -- but I cry every time I see it. Silly me. (Sniff.) So I didn't. Too embarrassing.

Like anything that is this emotionally deep and powerful, this event was symbolic. For me, it was a symbol of all who triumph over adversity, who start with nothing and achieve greatness, who face doubt and derision, create something beautiful -- and win!

But not everyone was swept away. A certain Mary Schmich asks, in this article in The Chicago Tribune: What if Susan couldn't sing?
If Susan Boyle couldn't sing, Simon Cowell wouldn't have stopped smirking; the spectators would have kept on snickering; and America's newest heroine would have gone back to her Scottish village to resume the life of an unmarried, unemployed, ungainly, middle-age woman who lives alone with a cat. In other words, without what we define as talent, Susan Boyle would be an object of mockery and pity.
Wow. Way to rain on my parade, lady. Thanks a lot.

Actually, at first I just could not understand what she was trying to say. And I was stunned by the fact that the hundreds of comments on the Trib web site were overwhelmingly approving. "That's exactly what I was thinking!" "So true!" What the Hell are these people talking about?

I think she is probably reacting to things people have said about Boyle's triumph. Speaking to the Washington Post, Boyle herself said:
Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances. [...] There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example.
When these immensely symbolic things happen, immediately begins the revolutionary struggle over control of the symbols. Arm for the next fight! Seize the means of the production of meaning!

Schmich doesn't want Boyle to have her don't-judge-by-appearances symbolism. Schmich is convinced, she tells us in her article, that people avoid sitting next to her sister on the bus because her sister looks, well, rather like Susan Boyle. If she had an extraordinary talent like Susan's, they would treat her like a queen; but she doesn't, so they treat her like dirt. The people in the audience were mean and unjust before they had the epiphanic realization, "oh wow, the ugly woman can sing!" and they are still mean and unjust.

Why do I find this attitude so obnoxious? There is, after all, more than a grain of truth to it. I suppose I feel that it threatens my triumph-over-adversity symbolism. But there must be more to it than that.

There is a habit of mind that I call moralism: that of weighing and evaluating things only in terms of moral categories and rules, especially ones that ground blame and guilt. Moralism, Nietzsche taught us, leads straight to nihilism, the radical denial of value.

Yes you can look at things this way, just as you can, like little Manfred Steiner, look at a beauty queen and see what she will eventually look like after being dead and in the grave for three months. No one can say the the facts you are responding to are not facts. But do you really want to go there? What good does it do you, or anyone else?

Poor Manfred Steiner was cursed with a clairvoyant power of seeing the worms and corruption toward which we are all creeping. But we have a choice. I know it sounds melodramatic and hysterical to put it this way, but I think it is profoundly true: It is a choice between life and death.


Ann said...

Very interesting post, Lester. I like Susan Boyle's rendition of the Les Mis song better than Elaine Paige's, to be honest. A couple of thoughts occurred to me; I don't watch these TV talent shows, but I had always assumed a lot of their appeal IS the snarky remarks of the judges on the 'talent'. Maybe that itself says something brutish about the audience and how they want to be 'entertained', however no contestant was forced to compete in these events, they freely chose to compete I assume.

Also, we live in a deeply visual age; any voice/opera teacher will tell you now that part of what you must do is be visually appealing on stage, not just sing beautifully. It sucks - but the ugly truth is big houses are sometimes choosing to mike lesser voices on svelte singers rather than have big-voiced big-bodied singers fill, e.g., Wagnerian roles. I know of one such case - a young soprano with perhaps a truly great voice was passed over for lesser singers, because of the desired look on stage. Directors have a lot of say now, apparently more than conductors and more than the no-longer-living composers.

I wish Susan Boyle lots of success. I actually don't see why people think she is so bad-looking, anyway. She has a witty, energetic personality; anyone who goes into show biz can get a makeover; I think her thick eyebrows dominate her face a bit by western standards of beauty, but she could reshape those, change her hair a bit, if she so chose. It just depends on what she wants to do. BTW, there is a youtube of her singing 'Cry Me A River' from 1999 I think - WOW! (If you ever have a chance to hear Barbara Quintiliani perform in an opera or concert performance, I think you will agree she has an astoundingly beautiful instrument.)

Lester Hunt said...

That is so true about the looks of singers today. And it affects every sort of music. It's hard to imagine Roy Orbison or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin becoming huge stars in this environment. They weren't pretty and didn't try to be.

When I was little there was a singer named Kate Smith. She had her own show where basically she just sang for half an hour. She was shaped more or less like a fuel storage tank. But people liked to hear her sing. If someone identical to Boyle had won Ted Mack's Amateur Hour in 1952, her appearance would have aroused no comment.

It's a brave new world.

pappy d said...

Susan Boyle is a marvelous talent. Now that she's famous, I hope she can find a boyfriend who meets her standards.

Anonymous said...

Considering the British experience of Prince Charles spurning Princess Di for Camilla I think it only proves the short term memory of the British press.

Many men are happily married to women like Susan. Many psychologists will attest that looks do not equate to sexual performance and satisfaction. Susan even admitted that her singleness was attributable to the care of her mother.

Jacob K said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to the more intellectual angle of this story. I had written it off as another sensational tv promotion.

One reply I would offer to Schmich and the like-minded would be to ask them to consider: what if no one cared about Boyle’s appearance? Though she might have received some fanfare, I would think that her achievement would be significantly diminished. It seems to me, that the very fact that Boyle had to overcome such resistance serves as an essential part of what makes her great. I'm not suggesting that lookism is in itself a good thing. Nevertheless, perhaps it did not undermine Boyle in the way one would think.

I suspect that many who believe that her adversities were entirely undermining probably want to abstract the act from its personal context; to convince us all to be good consequentialists and see that the value of the performance should depend solely on the qualities of her voice. In this case, Boyle is a dime a dozen. Or they might think, in the opposite direction, that an act would be more meaningful or of greater value if the adversities that the agent had to overcome were removed. Then we should pity Boyle and lament with her at how generally difficult it is to do ‘great things.’ Last man, here we come!