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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Did we get punked by Simon Cowell on this Susan Boyle thing?

I don’t watch American Idol or similar shows — because I hate the Gong Show-style exercises in humilation they seem designed to be, and even at their best, it’s still just a bunch of bland pop singers — but it’s been impossible to avoid hearing about Susan Boyle, the Scottish woman who apparently startled Simon Cowell and his cojudges on Britain’s Got Talent because she is “old” (she’s younger than Cowell!) and not conventionally Hollywood-gorgeous but still managed to sing in a way that isn’t awful.

In case you have managed to miss hearing about Boyle, check out this clip at YouTube. (Embedding appears to have been disabled for all the Boyle clips, or I’d have posted one here.)

If you’re the least bit cynical about “reality” shows, something seems off right from the get-go. Numerian at the Agonist echoes my sentiments perfectly:

As that tape began, I wondered why Simon Cowell and the other judges were rolling their eyes and giving each other questioning looks before Susan Boyle even began singing. They don’t do impolite smirking with other contestants, even the fat, homely ones. Yes, indeed, Susan Boyle was older, frumpy, ungainly – a typical British housewife from a Monty Python set, even if she made it clear she was a spinster (and a virgin at that, which was such an odd thing to admit on national television that I began to wonder if she wasn’t deliberately presenting this image of innocence and purity).

Besides, you don’t just show up off the street to appear on a prominent national broadcast without someone involved with the program hearing you sing, if only on a demo tape or CD. The judges could have easily looked at the tape, or at least been given the word from the producers: “Here’s a potential Paul Potts. Play up your doubts at the start, and then once you hear her show your amazement and delight.”

The judges volunteer to be the mean, condescending bad guys against Everywoman who has a previously unknown, wonderful talent. It’s an age old story line that goes back at least to Hans Christian Andersen and his ugly duckling. It’s the type of story most people respond to instinctively, and it works especially well in this case because we have all been trained to hate Simon Cowell for his acerbic and usually gratuitous insults. He probably doesn’t mind being saddled with this public persona, because he has become quite wealthy as producer of these talent contests.

But it’s clear from the clip of the show that it isn’t just the judges who are mean-spirited, but the audience as well. As Tanya Gold at the Guardian fumes over the audience’s reaction to Boyle:

Why are we so shocked when “ugly” women can do things, rather than sitting at home weeping and wishing they were somebody else? Men are allowed to be ugly and talented. Alan Sugar looks like a burst bag of flour. Gordon Ramsay has a dried-up riverbed for a face. Justin Lee Collins looks like Cousin It from The Addams Family. Graham Norton is a baboon in mascara. I could go on. But a woman has to have the bright, empty beauty of a toy – or get off the screen. We don’t want to look at you. Except on the news, where you can weep because some awful personal tragedy has befallen you.

I know what you will say. You will say that Paul Potts, the fat opera singer with the equally squashed face who won Britain’s Got Talent in 2007, had just as hard a time at his first audition. I looked it up on YouTube. He did not. “I wasn’t expecting that,” said Simon to Paul. “Neither was I,” said Amanda. “You have an incredible voice,” said Piers. And that was it. No laughter, or invitations to paranoia, or mocking wolf-whistles, or smirking, or derision.

Susan will probably win Britain’s Got Talent. She will be the little munter that could sing, served up for the British public every Saturday night. Look! It’s “ugly”! It sings! And I know that we think that this will make us better people. But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poisoned redemption. Because Britain’s Got Malice. Sing, Susan, sing – to an ugly crowd that doesn’t deserve you.

So, did the judges pretend to be dismissive and derisive in order to encourage the real derision of the audience? Did we get punked by Simon Cowell on this Susan Boyle thing? And if so, what was the purpose of that? To hold us in contempt?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • you know, that is an interesting question…. i saw the YouTube file because someone else showed it to me; and i have to say that SB’s voice made the hair on my arms stand up… but afterwards, i did ask: aren’t these people vetted in some way? were the two mechanicals (or whatever they were) who were offstage waiting for her not employess of whatever this horror-fest reality show is? (i also make it a point to never, ever watch these public humiliations — i’ve been an actor and i couldn’t bear to watch other people’s pain like that). also, do people really, honestly expect only “pretty” people to have talents or accomplishments? are the people who watch these shows so conditioned by corporate definitions of beauty and talent that they couldn’t wait for a moment or two to see what this woman would be like, instead of instantly assuming she’d be a croaking toad? or were they anticipating with glee the public humiliation of someone who was “plain and ordinary” and then gave a standing ovation just because they were embarrassed by their own reaction? makes me even more determined not to watch these “bread and circuses” excuses for entertainment.

  • Lisa

    It was a complete set-up

  • mortadella

    I’m not convinced it was a set up.

    Even if the judges had heard Susan’s audition tape, that wouldn’t keep Simon from giving her a hard time. At this point, he rakes in the bucks at least partially because he’s known as a tool.

    I don’t think the audience was goaded into making questionable sounds at the sight of Susan…I think those people were just being themselves. I guess some of the folks in the audience just came to the show to be entertained, but really, is their a reality show fanbase anywhere that doesn’t harbor just a little venom?
    If Simon’s a tool, then the people who keep coming back to watch the show are at least partially amused by public humilations. It’s ugly, but gosh, just serf the blogosphere….pissing on people, basking in their humilation, has become the new masterbation of our times.

    It’s kinda sad we can’t just be happy for this woman without being cynical, but after all, everyone is making such a big deal that she’s not a looker. Not only that, she’s a single non-looker approaching 50.
    So, if you’re not Hollywood beautiful, under 30 and married, you should apply for your freak card?
    Jesus.

    Then again,maybe the warmth aimed at Susan is a reaction against such ridiculous attituides.

  • Ryan

    Even if it was all staged and the judges knew about it and the audience were planted… the more important question is WAS SUSAN BOYLE in on the whole thing? If she wasn’t, then her joy is sincere and hell she made ME cry. So if her emotions were real, then what’s the big ballyhoo? At least this was all staged for her benefit and not for her humiliation.

  • mortadella

    Yeah Ryan, good point.

  • Ok, I’ll chime in as the uncool person who watches Idol. Simon Cowell is not unnecessarily mean, just brutally honest. A lot of the people that come in on those additions need that. They need to learn that they are not a special and unique snowflake that can be a singer without really working at it or having talent because they just really want it, and their mom says they’re great. I know I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. If I wanted to suddenly try out for American Idol, I would hope my friends would try to stop me instead of encourage me.

    So, Susan. Yeah, I think their reactions were genuine. They do roll their eyes at other contestants, when they look crazy, not ugly. And I think that’s where people are losing the thread on this. It wasn’t amazing that she could sing despite being ugly. It was that she could sing despite looking like a nutter. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman, but from the eyebrows, to the “I’m 47 and I’ve never been kissed”, she seemed out of her mind. And 99 times out of 100, people that come in looking like that have a voice and an act to match.

    As far as whether anyone knew ahead of time that she could sing? Of course they did. They have thousands and thousands of people trying out for these shows. They don’t all go before 3 judges. They go before producers and stuff for initial judging, then eventually get weeded down to a manageable amount to go before the three judges, and that gets further edited down to the handful on TV. But I don’t think the three judges knew, and the reason for that is simple. The easiest way to guarantee a genuine-looking reaction from them was to let them have a genuine reaction.

  • Saladinho

    I finally broke down a couple of days ago and checked out a clip, just to see what the big deal was. It felt staged to me, too. But not in any deeply psychological way. Much in the way people were supposed to be surprised at Clay Aiken during his first audition on American Idol, the producers of this type of show like to create the underdog for audiences to have a rooting interest in.

    She has a nice voice, and she’s probably savvy enough to realize that playing the frumpy, gee whiz character would help her make more of an impression.

    Not sure how much the judges knew (although Simon Cowell probably did)about her before hand, though. It could be that the show’s producers set things up with out the judges participation, so that they can get a more “real” reaction.

  • misterb

    If you watch the original clip, you’ll see that Simon says, after Susan has sung, “I knew it all along” (to paraphrase). With his “tool” persona, I originally assumed he was just being his usual conceited self, but in light of this post, maybe he really meant, “I was in on the gimmick”.

  • JoshB

    I was pondering whether to post, but Shrimpula said what I would have almost verbatim.

    Pay special note to this, because it’s 100% true:

    They do roll their eyes at other contestants, when they look crazy, not ugly. And I think that’s where people are losing the thread on this. It wasn’t amazing that she could sing despite being ugly. It was that she could sing despite looking like a nutter. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman, but from the eyebrows, to the “I’m 47 and I’ve never been kissed”, she seemed out of her mind. And 99 times out of 100, people that come in looking like that have a voice and an act to match.

  • does being open, guiless and unsophisticated necessarily make one “a nutter”? i’m not defending or stating a case either way, but i’m not certain that a person who hasn’t been polished to a hard gemstone in appearance and isn’t trained and coached what to say in front of cameras and judges is, ipso facto, out of their minds, or even slightly eccentric.

    when cowell said he “knew it”, i thought he meant that the staff (or whoever) wouldn’t have sent this simple seeming, unsophisticated, non-product out onto the stage if they hadn’t thought she would “surprise” the judges and audience.

    again, i state — horrible ideas for shows. why not just throw them to the lions and be done with it?

  • JoshB

    Being open, guileless and unsophisticated by themselves do not make one a nutter. However, when you add “willing and eager to go in front of a large studio audience or on national television” to that particular brew then the chances for bizarre and/or embarrassing go up substantially.

    For example, it would take a Hannibal Lecter style dolly and some elephant tranquilizers to get me on that stage.

  • It was definitely contrived — the behind-the-stage guys knew what was up the whole time, based on their comments. But it seems like a big risk to bring the judges in on it as well. I took their reactions as genuine, and the audience was just reacting to her weirdness. It didn’t seem like anyone was reacting to “ugliness” until afterward, when they were willing to admit it because they were so “wrong” about it. All in all, very condescending, but it doesn’t change the unexpected marvelousness of her performance.

  • Jean

    Not a set-up. The contestants are first screened by preliminary judges (Just like for American Idol)-no way can the final judges see all those who audition (100,000+ for AI, alone). The preliminary judges then decide who will go in front of the final judges (1,200 are seen by the final judges on AI). They decide what will make “Good TV”. Of course horrid acts get to audition for the final judges; knowing damn well they will never, ever get to the finals. It makes for very ‘funny TV’. I do believe Simon, Amanda and Piers did NOT know that Susan was as good as she was/is. That’s the beauty of taping/televising these auditions-showing the ‘shock’ on the final judges faces. Clay Aiken got the same first reaction from Randy and Simon (Paula was out sick that day) when he first presented himself to them. The preliminary judges knew Clay was incredible (and I bet they KNEW then that he was going to go on to WIN AI -yes, Clay did WIN-and by millions of more votes than Ruben-go find the videos of two producers who admitted that Clay received 80 percent of the vote every single week he was on the show)and I am sure they couldn’t wait to see the reactions from the final judges. Just like the prelims on BGT. Susan, you go girl!!!

  • Victor Plenty

    We got punked on the talent-contest thing. We’ll never know whether the Susan Boyle chapter was staged in advance. Even if there’s some big public scandal claiming to expose the deception, it’s just as likely for THAT part of the story to be the fake publicity stunt.

    It’s possible Susan Boyle is completely for real. The overall scam is designed to take advantage of people like her, however real or fake they might be. It’s an industrial cookie cutter assembly line for the manufacture of superficially heart warming stories. It gives us villains who think they’re talented and tells us to feel smart for knowing they’re not. It gives us underdogs and tells us to feel uplifted when they get the recognition they deserve, however briefly.

    Every moment is crass emotional manipulation distilled down to the virulently addictive potency of crack cocaine.

    But I’d better stop here, before I say something harsh.

  • JoshB

    But I’d better stop here, before I say something harsh.

    You just keep patting yourself on the back. Yes, you are emotionally, intellectually, and morally superior. Probably extremely handsome too.

  • Victor Plenty

    Bullshit, JoshB. I’ve been manipulated right along with everyone else. I’m no better than the most ardent fan of American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent. My tastes are often different, but not better.

    The people with a real superiority complex are the cynical manipulators themselves. If you want to attack someone for smugly assuming they’re better than you, start with Cowell, and then follow the money trail from there.

  • JoshB

    My apologies. My evil internet troll doppelganger got the better of me.

    You might not be surprised to know that Simon is the only Idol judge whose opinion I consider worthwhile =P

  • Victor Plenty

    Not surprised, JoshB, but not because your view makes me think any less of you. Simon’s bluntness is honest in its way, he clearly knows more about the business side of music than the other judges, and I believe he sincerely wants the Idol artists to succeed, within the narrow world of corporate-controlled music production.

    My harsh opinion of this “talent contest” mini-industry comes from my wish to see a wider variety of artists who don’t fit into the top-40 business model. I am often interested in artists whose stories are more complex, who will never fit neatly into the machinery of emotional manipulation, but who are still genuine and human and valuable.

    A world where the only music is top-40 pop would be much like a world where all the food comes from McDonald’s. Consistent, reliable, safe, profitable — but lacking in vital elements.

  • *shrug* Well I watch Idol, but that doesn’t mean I want all music to be top-40 pop. My musical tastes are quite far from that, actually. I’ve never bought any of the Idol contestants’ CDs or songs on iTunes. But I enjoy them in the context of the show. And hell, I’ll take it over some top-40 pop crap, at least it’s more honest. These are people who can definitely sing, who have to go through several a capella audition rounds, then they have to perform live on stage every week. It’s not just some pretty face picked up by a record exec despite not really being able to sing, stuck in a studio, mixed to within an inch of their life, and then pushed out onto the radio. At least with the Idol contestants you know they have genuinely good voices. It’s not generally my type of music (although I did really dig David Cook last year, actually) but I can certainly respect the contestants for it.

  • Mathias

    I think people are looking way too much into this.

    Occam’s Razor everybody.

    There’s no deep social studies conspiracy going on.

    That’s giving them way too much credit.

  • Victor Plenty

    Why do you think I’m saying anything about your individual music buying habits, or whether you choose to watch Idol? That’s beside the point.

    It’s a simple fact that everybody’s talking about Idol and similar talent contests right now. In doing so, we are giving these shows influence over the direction of our culture. When we discuss what that might mean, many of us are asking questions like MaryAnn’s, asking just how “real” this form of “reality” television can claim to be.

    The danger is, if we spend too much energy trying to figure out whether Susan Boyle or any other contestant’s story is real or fake, we are distracted from the larger deception. The whole enterprise is fake to a certain degree. If we understand that, we might question whether it deserves the power we’ve given it to shape our conversations.

  • MaryAnn

    Being open, guileless and unsophisticated by themselves do not make one a nutter. However, when you add “willing and eager to go in front of a large studio audience or on national television” to that particular brew then the chances for bizarre and/or embarrassing go up substantially.

    Well, then, JoshB, doesn’t that apply to absolutely everyone who goes on shows like *Britain’s Got Talent* and *American Idol*? And yet it’s only the ones who do not conform to *very* narrow ideals of physical perfection who are treated like “nutters.”

    It’s possible Susan Boyle is completely for real. The overall scam is designed to take advantage of people like her, however real or fake they might be. It’s an industrial cookie cutter assembly line for the manufacture of superficially heart warming stories.

    Victor Plenty, you put into words precisely what I was trying to get at. Thank you.

  • Lisa

    these shows are a complete set up the producers are writing a human interest story so that you’ll watch every week like a soap opera

    they had a little boy on last week who starting singing valerie and before he got beyond bar 4 Simon stopped him and asked him what else he sang and on cue the backing track for who’s loving you cut in

    these shows are shamelessly manipulative and spiritually degrading

    also are there 3 more annoying people than Piers Amanda and Simon – I think not

    mind you that wee lad was fantastic lol

  • David R Cooke

    The old ‘I’m not mean – I’m honest’ nonsense. No. You are ****ing MEAN – and THAT’S being honest.

  • David R Cooke

    Yes – people should shut up and carry on getting high on trash. Thank you for your meaningless input.

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