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Susan Boyle’s voice lifts her beyond stereotype


Susan Boyle has become an Internet sensation with nearly 100 million views of her April 11 performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom and Linda Green*

April 24, 2009

It’s hard to find a moment of grace on a reality television show.

That may be why Susan Boyle stunned judges and a live television audience on IVT’s “Britain’s Got Talent” with her vocal performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical, “Les Misérables.”

Since then, the YouTube clip of that April 11 performance has become so popular it seems impossible to count how many viewings it has received, but the total is upward of 40 million hits. Her next appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” is May 23.


The Rev. Safiyah Fosua says she was delighted by the attention paid to Susan Boyle following her appearance on IVT’s “Britain’s Got Talent.” A UMNS file photograph by Jeanette Pinkston, GBOD.
      

The most obvious moral to the Susan Boyle story, according to Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at United Methodist-related Syracuse (N.Y.) University, is the one handed down by parents, teachers and pastors: Don’t judge people by their looks.

The not-so-nice lesson is that her song is served up in a way that might have made Barnum, the circus promoter, proud. “I was in the airport last Wednesday and you would swear that this was the only thing happening in the world at the time,” Thompson recalled. “There was a freak show kind of thing to it. There is more of the idea of ‘isn’t it funny and amusing to see people who aren’t beautiful with a beautiful voice.’”

That idea is reinforced by pop culture. “Our young people are bombarded by the messages of society that suggest that the only thing that matters is what they look like,” said the Rev. Claire Smith, director of youTheology and Youth Ministries Specialist-in-Residence at United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology. “They feel pressured to conform to all of these images and in some ways, the story bears that out. She was judged by what she looks like.”

Rather than conforming to society’s image of her, Boyle used the gifts she was blessed with. “She still ended up giving a better performance and having more accolades than the people who came out looking how everyone expected them to look,” Smith added. “But that is because of what she had within her.”

A singer’s dreams

The 47-year-old Boyle is from Blackburn, a village in the West Lothian region of Scotland, where she has led a quiet life, tending to her aging parents before their deaths and volunteering at her local Catholic church. But she has been singing since she was 12, with dreams of becoming a professional singer. Her confidence in her singing is apparent on the YouTube clip. “I’m going to make that audience rock,” she said before taking the stage.


Dean McIntyre
     

Michael Wakelin, the former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, wasn’t totally surprised by the sudden interest in Boyle, pointing to the “strong strand in the British psyche” which supports the underdog.

“Add to that a dislike for the judges who were so scornful before she sang, a genuine innocent with genuine talent and all the ingredients were there for a tear-jerking media moment,” said Wakelin, a Methodist lay minister who lives in the Manchester area. “My slight concern is that if she had looked more 'presentable' would her actual talent deserve such coverage?”

And yet, he added, the performance offers up “a moment when we are invited to take another look, where our fixed judgements are challenged and we are forced to redefine our sense of beauty and grace away from packaging -- to simple reality.”

The rapid movement from surprise to delight to outright adrenaline rush for the crowd was an incredible thing to watch, said Marcia McFee, co-music director of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference.


The Rev. Darryl Stephens
     

“We must be willing to recognize that holy delight, God-given and soul-moving talent, is to be found in many places, not just the places we have been conditioned to look for it. And if we don't offer ourselves the chance to see beauty in what we think are unlikely places, we will miss out on much of the wonder of what God has created,” she said. “We are called to ‘see’ with renewed vision. And the more we open up to the unexpected, the more we discover.

Safiyah Fosua, director of preaching ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, was delighted by the attention to Boyle.

“The thing that strikes me most pleasantly is that the Western world is finally starting to get over our preoccupation with stereotypes,” added Fosua, who is associate editor of the Africana Worship Book Series. “It is so refreshing that we are able to recognize beauty when and where we find it and we are able to recognize God-given talent where we find it.”

Appearance, not ability

To Dean McIntyre, director of music resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, the real issue is not the quality of her singing, but the expectations placed on a person because of appearance or background.

“It is the incongruity of what the ear hears with what the eye sees,” he said about Boyle’s performance on the show. “She is a good singer and is possibly going to go on to bigger and better things.”


Jorge Lockward believes the power of music lies in its prayerful quality and ability to connect people. A UMNS file photograph by Russ and Mary Olsson, GBGM.
  

Society is often confused about what beauty represents, according to the Rev. Darryl Stephens, a United Methodist ethicist who recently joined the staff of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

“In society, we tend to assume that beauty is a virtue,” he explained. “I think that’s where we get misled and surprised.” People also tend to link beauty to other attributes, like talent and friendliness, he said. “We’re surprised if someone who doesn’t fit our notion of beauty is talented.”

Boyle, who recorded a song for a benefit CD a decade ago and has taken singing lessons, is not a novice, Stephens pointed out. “It requires practice to be good at something. Susan has been working for 35 years trying to become excellent, to develop herself in that way.”

The viewing of Boyle’s performance by millions over the Internet led to what Émile Durkheim, a late 19th century French sociologist called “an experience of collective effervescence,” he said, an experience “we can all have together that transcends our individual experience of the moment.”

The power to connect

Jorge Lockward, program coordinator of the Global Praise program at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, believes the power of music lies in its prayerful quality and ability to connect people.

In his opinion, the way Boyle sang “I Dreamed a Dream” and the story behind her quest is authentic. “You feel that she’s believing it,” Lockward explained. “You could feel the audience living the song with her as she was singing it.”


The Rev. Cynthia Wilson says God is using ordinary people like Susan Boyle “to carry messages of hope and healing.”
A UMNS file photograph by Mike DuBose.
  

Cynthia Wilson, a well-known United Methodist musician and singer, believes someone like Boyle causes a dilemma for the entertainment industry.

“What do you do with a Susan Boyle who does not need all of the bells and whistles in order for the message to be heard through music and the healing to take place through music?” asked Wilson, who is a student at Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

“The healing that I am talking about is through the one person in the world now who is considered the honorary guru--Simon Cowell. We watched him melt because of the gift of song. Those who have not been clothed in humility are now being moved to a place where they are having to rethink their own grandiosity.

“God is using ordinary people in order to carry messages of hope and healing,” she added. “And those who have been making key decisions across the world about people’s lives are now being called to task by plain old regular ordinary people like Susan Boyle.”

*Bloom and Green are United Methodist News Service news writers based in New York and Nashville, respectively.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

Video

YouTube: Susan Boyle

Audio

Susan Boyle’s impact: A UMNS audio report

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Resources

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