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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


screen grab of susan boyle on youtubeFor a week or so now, it seems like everyone has been talking about Susan Boyle. She’s a 40-something year old woman from lowland Scotland, who went on Britain’s Got Talent – the latest Simon Cowell vehicle – and ‘wowed’ everyone with her unexpectedly amazing voice.

I’d not actually seen or heard her sing, or speak, or anything until yesterday, when a friend who was deeply moved by her performance sent me a link to her singing on YouTube.

Her voice is fine – she’s not the greatest singer ever, but singing over someone else’s arrangement of a show tune, she made a more than fair fist of it, in the way you’d expect someone singing in a semi-pro or touring production of the show to do. Nothing original, no twists, no surprises, just good ole fashioned show tune singing of the Elaine Paige/Barbara Dixon variety. Nothing wrong with that at all.

What was deeply wrong was the way the ‘surprise’ was set up – see, she’s a middle aged frumpy looking lady, she’s not supposed to have a voice. All the beautiful people are the singers, aren’t they? After all, the same genes that control looks control singing talent. Frumpy people are only there to laugh at.

But no! The surprise was, she turned out to be ‘incredible’ ‘amazing’ ‘breath-taking’… yada yada. I’m not taking anything away from her. If I walked into a bar and she was singing with a piano, I’d clap, probably comment on how good the singer was, but thus far, all we’ve seen her do is karaoke. She’s singing to backing tracks on TV.

So what does that say? Steve Dixon, @rotassator on twitter, posted a link to this quote the other day –

If everything is “good,” then nothing really can be. Relativism is great, to a point, and then it just gets in the way of honest judgment; the result is a celebration of ubiquitous mediocrity.
— Timothy Samara, Design Elements—A Graphic Style Manual

I’m not suggesting that Susan Boyle is mediocre. But I’m also not willing to be hoodwinked into thinking she’s better than she is just because a bunch of TV talent show hosts were shocked that the usual haul of utterly banal wannabe models were upstaged by an older woman, with no tv presentation skills, who could sing well to a backing track.

Her sudden fame is the product of a TV production company desperate for ratings, and willing to use Susan’s desire to be a professional singer to make it look like she’s sensational. They’re lying to Susan that her dreams will be fulfilled on the daytime TV circuit, peddling an album of show-tunes, and they’re lying to us by telling us that having a good singing voice is the pinnacle of what music has to offer, and the ultimate reward for having a decent voice is to move Piers “no credentials as a music A&R man” Morgan close to tears.

Singing cover tunes isn’t bad; it’s not qualitatively worse than singing your own music, if that’s what motivates you. But you’re telling your story through someone else’s words, and being given the room to grow and learn how to tell your own story, to write your own music, to arrange the songs yourself, to make your own decisions about what’s good and bad is a journey that should be encouraged. Encouraged for its own sake, for the artist to dig deep into themselves, to continuously re-evaluate, to be allowed to spend a lifetime making a deeper connection between how we see things and how we put music to that perception.

And that doesn’t happen through the fairy-tales of TV talent shows. I wish Susan Boyle all the best. I hope she makes enough money out of what she’s doing to spend time learning more about music, learning more about the world through the process of playing music. I hope she gets to write some songs – I’d love to hear what she’d come up with. But I hate to think of her being marketed as ‘the frumpy lady with the big voice’, like some kind of sentimental freak show.

It’s easy for music education to play to these myths, to sell people music lessons on the premise that they’ll fulfill their superstar dreams. But that’s selling music short. It’s not about what you play it’s about why. I’m as happy teaching kids to play along with Green Day tracks as I am teaching people to write and arrange their own music. It’s all about developing a love for music, and a love for self expression through music. Being inspired by famous musicians is great. Playing solely because you want to be like them is tragic.

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9 Responses to “Britain’s Got Talent.. and A Fetish For Celebrity.”

  1. Colin Consterdine Says:

    I think the point you make is a fair one but I don’t believe that you’ve commented on the key issue with regard to the Susan Boyle ‘phenomenon’.

    This is all about emotional connection. She has moved millions of people. criticising the production company that has ‘manufactured’ this response is like criticising Steven Spielberg, Pixar or Disney for ‘forcing’ an emotional response from us.

    Susan Boyle’s ‘success’ is in playing a central role in an emotional experience shared by millions. Music is only part of it, theres also hope, desire, gender, age and a shared sense of possiblility.

    The Susan Boyle ‘phenomenon’ has changed the paradigm, for her and for us. It’s both simple and complex and is a beautiful scene in lifes rich tapestry. I feel a song coming on …

  2. The Dancing Monk Says:

    There another way of looking at this. Much was made of the “surprise” of both the judges and the audience. The initial audience reaction was shown to be one of scepticism, snide derision etc yet with in a few bars of Susan’s singing people were on their feet applauding.

    As you say Susan has a good voice but it was only remarkable in the context of the show. Go to any music college, cathedral, church or college and you’ll find choirs with singers equally talented – as indeed Susan illustrates as that is her background.

    Maybe it is remarkable that the audience were apparently so unused to that standard of vocal control & strength that it was considered to be a step above the usual miked up singers they get on these shows.

    But what is truly remarkable is that the panel of judges thought her voice was unusual. I can only assume they either never listen to trained singers or worse, they heard the audience reaction and quickly decided they could exploit Susan for the quick buck.

  3. Steve Says:

    Colin – it is emotional, but it’s heavily manipulated emotions in a way that the cinema examples you give aren’t. If you heard a Susan Boyle track on the radio, had no idea who she was, you’d have probably turned off, because good voice or not, it’s a show-tune with a really uninspiring arrangement. Works great in the context of a show, not so hot as listening material.

    But here we get the set up with Simon and Piers openly laughing at her before she sings, then her singing, all the shots of their amazed faces, and a load of hyperbolic ‘surprise’ afterwards that sets her up as this incredible phenomenon.

    As Dancing Monk comments, there are LOADS of people up and down the country with voices like that. We don’t go seeking them out because the talent isn’t remarkable, and the performance was a carbon copy of what the top singers in that kind of field can do with a whole lot more originality.

    So why does this story connect? because it’s a fairy tale, and everyone loves a happy ending. It’s just sad that it’s nonsense…

  4. Howlin' Hobbit Says:

    Bit of a miss there, Steve.

    First: the surprise was more based on the stock in trade of these sort of shows, which is having some incredibly delusional people on who can’t carry a tune if it was gift-wrapped for them, rather than just her looks. Though much has been made of that aspect and I’m certain it contributed to the audience’s perception that this is what they were about to witness.

    Second: this is not some ‘just ok’ voice here. And backing tracks or live orchestra makes no difference. She tackled a *very* daunting tune and nailed it. Great control, seemingly effortless phrasing, and more than a tad of honest emotion behind the material she chose.

    Lastly: while I’m all for writing/performing one’s own material (just finishing up a new tune myself) it is not the be all and end all of musical expression. Nor is it the only musical dream worth pursuing. She’s pursuing her dream and can certainly use the TV talent show as a springboard.

    I, too, would be upset if she was just trotted around like a dog and pony show until the novelty wore off. But I think she’s a bit bolder than that and will be quite happy simply making a living from singing. I don’t think she needs all the other trappings of the so-called ‘superstar dreams’ to consider herself a success.

  5. Steve Says:


    as to your 1st point, I guess we both see what we see, so that’s not really arguable. If she’d come out looking like Charlotte Church and sung like that, I don’t think she’d have got the reaction she did…

    2nd – she’s got a ‘good’ voice. But that kind of copied-control isn’t that rare. It’s nice to listen to, but it’s not that remarkable. I guess there’s an element to which this is down to taste, but I’ve worked in regional panto with singers who handled material like that with the same kind of skill, got lots of applause, but aren’t on prime-time TV making P Morgan cry.

    You notice I made the same point about singing covers – “it’s not qualitatively worse than singing your own music”

    Is her dream *just* a dream? Does she have any idea what she’s getting into? What are the eager viewers willing her on into? She may have a whale of a time. She may also be destroyed by it. Disillusionment seems almost inevitable.

    If she can land herself a classy cabaret gig, or – if she’s into it – get some acting classes and go into musical theatre, then that’s GREAT! She’ll have earned it by singing well and doing what she’s good at.

    I don’t begrudge her anything. I just think that she deserves better… which goes back to my previous post…

  6. Mike Arthur Says:

    Great post Steve, summed it up really nicely.

    What I just find so odd is why shows like Britain’s Got Talent don’t attract the really talented amateur musicians. My only guess is that they either want someone conventional (e.g. good looking/trendy) doing something “wacky” or someone unconventional (e.g. not conventionally attractive or older) doing something very traditional.

    It’s the same every year, you had that dude doing Opera who was awkward last year or the year before. It’s just Cowell finding a way of cashing in on people who aren’t as good looking as you have to be to win X-Factor.

  7. Steve Says:

    As an update – it’s been widely reported in the press today that Susan has had a ‘makeover’, which has upset the show’s producers… This wasn’t her being forced into it, this was a woman doing what anyone would do faced with the world’s press – getting their hair done and getting dressed up. She hasn’t got plastic surgery and bought a porsche…

    …but it still lead to this quote:

    “Amanda Holden, one of three judges on the reality show that catapulted Boyle to international fame, has said the Scottish songbird should stick to her look if she hopes to maintain mass appeal.

    “She needs to stay exactly as she is because that’s the reason we love her. She just looks like anybody who could live on your street,” Holden said in an interview with the Daily Mail.”

    ..So firstly, her decisions are now to be made in order to ‘maintain mass appeal’, and secondly Holden, made-up, hair done and BOTOXED (!!) is telling another woman who wants to look her best on TV that she shouldn’t because it won’t look ‘real’…

    This has nothing to do with ‘real’ – the Susan Boyle mythology is that she’s some kind of one-dimensional singing Forrest Gump, and the producers want to keep her that way. She’s said balls to that and got her hair done. When Susan’s life and desire to sing are out of step with the producers need for show content and a puppet celeb, sparks are going to fly.

    Instead of allowing her to do what she wants (“allowing“?? What on earth am I talking about, she’s an adult!!) they’re apparently concerned or furious or some such nonsense, about her decision to look her best and feel comfortable.

    As I said on twitter earlier:

    “the emperor is naked, and working as a producer on Britain’s Got Talent…”

  8. RichardH Says:

    Richard Thompson sez it right

    “Leona Lewis – crap – great voice, but she can’t sing a song”

  9. The traps. « Ten Northern Music Says:

    […] I read two great blog posts by Steve Lawson, bassist and music thinker.  The first one was about the now famous Susan Boyle.  The second one describes the relationship between playing […]

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