Have you heard this week’s most exciting, most internationally-significant piece of news?
I’ll give you a clue. It’s nothing to do with Libya.
Yes, that’s right. West Lothian’s favourite diva, Susan Boyle, has gone on a bad TV show and premiered a new song. That rocked your world, didn’t it? It certainly rocked mine, I saw the performance on youtube. And then considered turning to drugs to help me forget.
It’s not a new song, of course. It’s the English-language version of a song called “Du Måste Finnas” (You Must Exist), and it’s from “Kristina från Duvemåla”, a Swedish musical written by the male half of ABBA that premiered in Malmö in 1995. It’s already been recorded in Swedish and English by Helen Sjöholm, the musical’s star, and in English by Alice Ripley, who rips it to shreds (to be fair, she seems to do that to everything these days). As big, declamatory pop-opera anthems go, it’s rather good – provided the singer is up to it. The notes are not particularly difficult, but it’s one of those songs that needs a singer who can really sock the final refrain over the footlights.
Ms. Boyle, bless her, is not up to the task.
Actually, she’s worse than that. It’s an embarrassing, amateurish performance, particularly given that it’s a couple of years now since Ms. Boyle’s astonishing rise to fame on “Britain’s Got Talent”. You’d think that in that time people might have worked with her to help her develop a little more polish, but apparently not. Her phrasing is sloppy, she doesn’t keep to the beat, her voice just sort of peters out at the song’s climax, and she shows absolutely no connection at all with the song’s lyrics. The closest we’re given to anything resembling an interpretation are the parts where she flaps her arms around as if she’s trying to hail a taxi. The song, in context, shows a devout woman who has just miscarried railing at God for making her endure an unending stream of misfortune. Boyle sings it as if she’s trying to return a sweater without the receipt.
And that’s a shame, because her discovery via reality TV was an arresting, heart-warming news story, and her voice is quite well suited for the sort of middle-of-the-road Elaine Paige/Marti Webb strata of easy listening her recordings inhabit. The voice itself is… pleasant, and has potential, but she doesn’t have the sort of training you’d need to be able to belt with the power Paige had in her heyday, or that Sjöholm unleashes when she pelts into the final refrain. Go to any decent amateur operatic society/community theatre, and you’ll find at least one singer with a stronger voice and more polish.
It’s dangerous. TV is seductive, and Boyle’s story made compelling television – but television has created a trap for her. She’s not without talent, but what sold, originally, was the gawky, never-been-kissed woman with Van der Graaf generator hair and a frumpy skirt confounding expectations by giving a passably pleasant performance rather than the flaming, humiliating train wreck everybody expected when she walked onstage. Two years on, though, she’s still peddling the same gawky, unpolished schtick, except she’s doing it in a better frock and with a nicer hairdo. And I don’t think it’s doing her any favours.
The thing about that first surprising performance is that it didn’t just show us a sweet, nervous lady with a nice voice. There was something quite interesting going on as Boyle sang, although she showed, as she did this week, limited skill as an interpreter of lyrics. You got the sense, watching her, that here was a woman who was quite literally singing for her life, singing her heart out, and it was oddly moving. More than that, she faced an audience and a judging panel (two of whom are almost certainly in thrall to the forces of doom) who smelled blood when she walked onstage, and she brought them to their feet through sheer force of personality. That’s not an easy thing to do; the fact that Ms. Boyle did it suggests that, with proper training, she could become a far better, far more polished performer than she is at the moment, in the process building for herself a far more durable and credible career than I suspect she’ll have if she continues on the track she’s on right now. She has huge hits, her albums sell in massive quantities, but she’s a sideshow, and there’s a limit to how far you can peddle a sideshow before the audience gets bored.
Although they’re not bored at the moment, and that in itself is depressing as hell. Boyle’s deeply mediocre performance of “You Have To Be There” was met with cheers and a large ovation from the studio audience at “America’s Got Talent” – and this wasn’t an audition, and there was no element of surprise. Ms. Boyle gave a bad performance, and the audience ate it up because she’d been wheeled out as the star attraction. You applaud the star, so the audience applauded, and never mind that the star’s actual performance had all the star wattage of three-day-old coleslaw. That’s the reality Reality TV gives us: what used to take years of training and hard work now takes three minutes on ITV and a few million youtube hits. Who cares if the final product – don’t say it out loud – isn’t any good?