Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Praise of Susan Boyle

For the past week I've been bombarded by references, Facebook badges, Tweets, news stories and raving blog entries about Susan Boyle, a contestant on the British equivalent of American Idol. Her not-so-attractive mug appeared everywhere I surfed on the Web. I avoided watching her clip, certain she was the reincarnation of William Hung. Sure, it's fun to laugh at people who suck. But we're in desperate times and need to see people triumph over the odds rather than succumb to their misfortunes. So on Sunday night, after finishing up some work and itching for some quick entertainment, I found a clip of Boyle's audition to figure out the fuss.

The video I embedded is the longer version containing the introduction to her audition. The clip sets up a storyline that I speculated: an unemployed, working class woman from a village searching for her 15 minutes of fame. I and everyone else who laid eyes on Boyle expected her to be a lousy singer, driven by delusional aspirations of stardom. Notice the expressions among the audience members and the judges in the packed auditorium. Simon Cowell visibly exhales his eyes when he sees Boyle, and bulges his eyes when she tells him she's 47 (skip to 1:28). People in the audience look around uncomfortably and whisper to their friends. The co-hosts mimic her when she shakes her hips. There stands a women, all alone, blanketed in the spotlight, facing a crowd sharpening their knives to shred her ego to bits.

And then she sings.

In a split second her voice pulls everyone watching her-- in the auditorium, at home, on the computer-- onto the same level. All the labels about her status, her appearance, and her future are gone. Comparisons are meaningless. Within seconds the audience rises to its feet and every face is plastered with a guilty smile. Some sigh in relief. Simon, who plays the role of cynic but deep inside is a softie, beams with wonder and amazement.

Why am I writing about Susan Boyle? She's a reminder of how cynical I have become, and how universally refreshing it is to see someone so human and so brave. And there's something therapeutic about singing.

A few years ago while visiting my parents in Massachusetts, I came home to find my mom standing in front of the TV singing karaoke (I think she was singing Billy Joel). During a pause between verses she turned to me, in mid-hip shake, and declared into the microphone in Mandarin, "Chang ge zi bai bing!", which means "Singing cures a hundred illnesses!" Amen to that.


  1. 'Chang ge zi bai bing!' I totally remember you telling that story! Too classic, and too true. 'Tiao wu zhi bai bing' I'd say as well.

    Also check out the Youtube video of Paul Potts, the fellow who won last year's Britain's Got Talent...similarly surprising and uplifting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k08yxu57NA&feature=related

  2. Try Mercedes Sosa singing Todo Cambio

    She is a world famous singer, and I had never heard of her: