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The Susan Boyle ‘phenomenon’ – what’s new?

Posted by Lee on April 19, 2009

Nothing  –  numerous psychologists know enough about human behaviour to manipulate and engage people.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last 8 days, you’ll know about, and have viewed the clip from last weekend’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ episode. This online video is now arguably the most watched online video clip ever – recent estimates state that the incredibly talented Susan Boyle has had nearly 50 million views in a week – this is based upon the number of people who have viewed the clip on YouTube and other online video sharing sites.

Nearly everything that could be written about her and her surprising talent has been written, and in nearly every case this has been qualified by the view that her ‘less than fortunate’ looks meant that everybody (especially the judges of ‘Britain’s got talent’) assumed she wouldn’t be able to sing. How weird is that? I’ve never yet seen any research that proves a direct correlation between looks and singing ability!

Anyway, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to understand why Susan Boyle has become an overnight sensation – in terms of human nature and our society, it’s a classic tale.

The Herd Mentality

In Western society we like to think that we”re individuals, but the truth is that we’re all ‘individuals together’. The Herd Mentality is alive and well. Most people are too polite to express snap judgments on others, particularly if that judgment is based purely on a person’s ‘looks’. However, put a lot of people together in a crowd / live audience situation and it all changes.

A herd looks for a leader, and in this case the perceived ‘leaders’ were the judges of the show. Before Susan sang, the judges condescending sneers and one liners, all there for the crowd to see and hear  gave the live audience permission to mock her – and mock her they did.

However, as soon as she started singing, and the judges were filmed looking amazed, stunned and enraptured, the live audience noticed and immediately changed, from sneering and barracking, to a frenzy of amazement and adoration.

Beauty is skin deep

Another sad reflection of modern society is that we are obsessed with our looks – body culture, slimming, cosmetic surgery  – you name it and we are obsessing about it. We are encouraged to look to and strive for superficial good looks and visible beauty. Susan Boyle, like a large majority of the real world,  doesn’t score highly in that regard, therefore she couldn’t possiibly be able to sing like an angel, could she?

I’ve got a few questions about the set-up and performance that the world saw and is now enraptured with:

1. Why did the judges appear to be so shocked and surprised by Ms Boyle’s talent? They would already have heard her in rehearsals.

2. With all of the expertise and talent in the make-up and wardrobe departments, couldn’t they have spent some time making her just a wee bit more ‘presentable’ for her performance? They don’t seem to have had any problems with other competitors.

3. If Susan Boyle had been a stunningly attractive young woman, how would have everyone reacted to her performance? My guess is that she wouldn’t have been the ‘phenomenon’ that our own Susan Boyle has become. Why is that? Because it would not have been a surprise, because we are all now living in a society where good looks = talent, therefore a good looking talented singer is just the norm, nothing exceptional.

So, the reality is that this was a master stroke of marketing for the ‘<insert your country> Has Talent’ global franchise, especially as the producers also had an innate understanding of one of human nature’s more redeeming features. Even though we are cynical and through the media are hand fed the superficial as important, underneath it all we still love the underdog, the plucky battler – and Susan Boyle epitomises all those things, from her ‘unfortunate’ looks, the ‘fact’ she’s ‘never been kissed’, had spent all those years nursing her mother, and is unemployed – but in spite of all that, she can still sing like an angel.

As I said, there’s nothing new about the Susan Boyle ‘phenomenon’. Hans Christian Anderson would have been proud. In the 1840’s he wrote ‘The Ugly Duckling’.duckling_by_therunekeeper

It told the story of a cygnet ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness. To his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all. With “Thumbelina” and other tales, “The Ugly Duckling” demonstrates Andersen’s identification with, and his sympathies for, the ‘outsider’ searching for his or her place in society.


One Response to “The Susan Boyle ‘phenomenon’ – what’s new?”

  1. Lee said

    It’s my understanding that the judges do not see the contestants before the show. The producers hold the preliminary auditions and the judges only see the performers selected by the producers. I think their surprise was real.

    And why shouldn’t the audience be surprised by that voice coming from such an unexpected personage? With very few exceptions the singers most of us see on TV or videos are very attractive people. Even if their looks are fairly ordinary they have the best of wigs and makeup and costumes to enhance their looks.

    Susan Boyle is not only very ordinary looking, she is nearly 50 years of age. Nobody expects a middle-aged singing star with a voice like that to suddenly appear.

    Finally, her behavior on stage before starting to sing was just a bit, well, kooky. All in all I think the surprise of the judges and audience was completely legit.

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