Friday, May 1, 2009

Dr. Feelgood Should Pull The Plug

There has been a recent spat of coverage concerning a woman named Susan Boyle, a Glaswegian who appeared across the pond on ITV's "Britain's Got Talent." With 14 million hits and climbing, you've probably seen the clip of her performance on YouTube, where she some how manages to have a singing voice despite having a bulldog-like facial structure and frizzy, unkempt hair. The whole thing has been played, both here and back in Britain, as a rousing human interest story that teaches a moral lesson about how "we shouldn't judge a book by its cover" or some such cliched bilge.

Now, I'll start off by saying the clip is pretty impressive. It's set up like a joke, the whole thing aimed at making you think Boyle is another of the over-confident losers that shows such as this thrive on. Her above-standard performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserable" is the punchline, pulling the rug out from the expectations that have been set for you. It's a perfectly orchestrated rousing moment, the kind that would be right at home as the conclusion of your common "Mr. Holland's Opus"-style bit of saccharine cinematic melodrama. It's entertaining.

But I have reservations about this whole happy-slappy-arch-humanity clusterfuck of feelgoodness. The performance is just entertaining for what it is, but people are trying to throw the veneer of meaning over the thing, as if this is some kind of triumph of the human spirit we should all be celebrating. It's not. It's a highly manipulative piece of television product, an example of "documentary reality" that plays on its audience's emotions the way a pianist plays a piano.

It's not an original observation to say that "reality" shows are the most inaptly named television genre since MTV stopped playing all those pesky music videos. These competitions are intensely organized, with the "reality" edited together from hours and hours of video to tell a narrative that bears only a blurry-eyed resemblance to the truth. The producers of "Britain's Got Talent" knew what they had when Boyle auditioned for them, long before she ever appeared in front of their audience. They edited the whole performance together, from the dialog they chose to show before she came on stage to the music they played as she came before the judges, to set a certain expectation with the audience that they would not have had with a different presentation. An honest producer could have chosen more dignified music on her entering, had the judges treat her less condescendingly, chosen dialog clips from before she came on stage that make her look less buffoonish and generally set a more reasonable expectation for what kind of abilities the woman has. But that wouldn't have been as exciting of television, so instead they essential lied and led the audience to view her a certain way before hitting them over the head with a cheap moral.

Because it's not like it's shocking news that unattractive people can sing. If Susan Boyle had come out claiming she was going to perform a intricate gymnastic performance to the song "I Touch Myself " by the Divinyls then no amount of gimmickry would have changed the audience's dubious attitude, since Boyle looks like she would be more comfortable around a pan of Scotch eggs than any form of exercise equipment (I know the feeling). But she came out to sing, and no one really things ugly people can't sing. If we got rid of all the dumpy, unattractive singers, operas would have a fuck of a time finding a decent tenor. Yet the show and the news coverage surrounding this whole mock event has been pointing fingers around saying, "See? We should all be less judgemental!" It reeks of condencension, because if the show hadn't endeavored to make her look like a loser people would have only been mildly surprised that she could perform as well as she did and none of this hoopla would be going on. It's no fucking miracle that this woman can sing and pretending like this is such a shocking development is dishonest.

The only person who comes out of this pretty well is Susan Boyle, who is finally getting the fame and attention she wanted. All she has to do is sit politely and live with news announcers and talk show hosts patting her on the head and treating her like an autistic child that just learned how not to shit all over the furniture. If you think that this is going to represent some kind of sea change and that less-than-perfect people will start appearing on television and being treated with some respect, you're wrong. As some other commentators have pointed out, this is just becoming an exception that will reinforce the rule, an excuse to fill the "ugly quota" so that everyone can make themselves feel better for a minute or two before going back to exaclty how they were before.

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