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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