Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Susan Boyle and the power of the moral imagination

Every once in a while great cultural moment happens. Iconic displays of the human imagination seem always to be unpredictable. But when they happen they reveal something about ourselves to ourselves. The Elian Gonzales affair was such a moment. Simply by arriving on the shores of Florida, alone, his mother and others lost at sea as they desperately fled Cuba in a fragile sea craft, Elian provided nothing more than his own presence into which people from many persuasions could invest their opinions about the Cuban question. A child who had essentially nothing to do with it other than his own person, became the focus of an intense public furor. [See Marshall Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides]

Such a moment has just happened again, only this time it is a little different. A few days ago a 47 year old woman appeared on a talent show in Britain. Someone described her as fumpy. She wore her best dress, something worn earlier to a nephew’s wedding. She had fixed her hair herself. And she came on stage to sing. The hosts and the audience were kind enough, but pervading the whole scenario was a palpable doubt, even condescension, about this woman. She was a pathetic figure, vulnerable. This was an aggressive audience, expressive; they were ready to drive a performer off the stage. The hosts, the talent judges, were clearly dubious. One of the judges asked this woman her name and where she was from. She was Susan Boyle from a small town -- well, a collection of villages, she said. Then he asked what her ambition was. She wanted to be singer. Who would she like to be like?, he asked. Like Elaine Paige. It was easy to regard this woman as tragically unaware of her own limitations, with aspirations that surpassed her ability. And she was now on stage, on TV. Before a huge audience. Here was a disaster in the making. This would be difficult to watch.

She chose to sing Fantine’s song, “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables, when Fantine was left alone, unemployed and destitute.

Her first note changed everything. The audience was electrified. As she sang they began to cheer. One of the judges, Amanda Holden [whom I earlier called "a gorgeous blond"; decide for yourself -- certainly not "frumpy" like the woman on stage], folded her hands and held them up to her face, as if hoping desperately, praying, for this woman not to stumble. Everyone seemed to be rooting for her. Some people wept. This is what she sang:

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he'll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

When she was finished the judges were ecstatic. One of them said that at first everyone had been laughing at her but no one was laughing now. Amanda Holden said it was a wonderful moment for her because she knew that everyone there had been against Susan. Susan Boyle was showered with praise.

That was on April 11. On April 15, 2009, when you google “Susan Boyle singer” it gives you 132,000 sites. The clip of her performance, seven minutes, has been watched over 3 ½ million times.

Here is an event that so embodied something profoundly, even personally, gripping for thousands of people that the seven minute clip on UTube is being watched over and over again, by the same people. Susan Boyle’s moment on stage objectifies something buried in the psyche, something in the human moral imagination. The discussion of how and what that could be will be going on for weeks.

Here is one instance:
On popwatch [] Lisa Schwarzbaum writes that she is still crying. She plays the YouTube clip over and over again. And she asks herself what every anthropologist should ask: why are you listening again and again? And why are you crying? She proposes an answer, at least for herself: “In our pop-minded culture so slavishly obsessed with packaging -- the right face, the right clothes, the right attitudes, the right Facebook posts -- the unpackaged artistic power of the unstyled, un-hip, un-kissed Ms. Boyle let me feel, for the duration of one blazing showstopping ballad, the meaning of human grace. She pierced my defenses. She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective . . .”

Buried within the human psyche are feelings, yearnings, anxieties too deep for words, usually. Only sometimes do we see it in ourselves. Always it is something outside ourselves that touches us, somehow, where we feel most deeply. At such moments we remember that we are humans -- not mere living creatures, but human beings, profoundly and deeply shaped by a moral sensibility so powerful that it breaks through our inhibitions; it can burst out, explode into public view, to our own astonishment. And sometimes that objective form -- a person, an event, an object, a song -- embodies deeply felt sensibilities for a lot of us at once, so that we discover how much we share in our private worlds, worlds otherwise inaccessible to anyone one else. It becomes a social event, so we can all rejoice, and weep, together.


Bill Bittner said...

Thank you for the great article.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head

Pauline said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful article immensely. Thank you.
Isn't it wonderful that some obscure, ordinary (former) nobody appearing for a few moments on a trivial light entertainment show can bring millions of people together and remind them of both the difficult bits of being human - Susan's learning difficulties, the ridicule she's endured, the sacrifices she's made, the thwarted dreams and stifled ambitions..... as well as the great bits - talent, tenacity, determination, courage and grace.
There's a moment in that video clip at 3:10 when Susan the ordinary, vulnerable, frumpy unkissed spinster suddenly transforms into a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice.
Seeing that happen before our eyes and in such a short space of time is astonishing, moving and truly insiprational.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful article... well said. I had the same reaction as you and Lisa Schwarzbaum articulated much better than I. Such an uplifting piece at a time when we could all do with something to smile about from the inside out. Very touching. I had the same reaction to Paul Potts.

Lynne said...

Thanks for this blog; I just found it, but I'll be back often. Yes, Dr. Canfield, I completely agree with your elegant assessment of why Susan Boyle moves us, and I want to add something more: for me, it wasn't just the unexpected and "corrective" beauty of Susan's voice, though yes, it was deeply honest and true, both in its vocal technique and its nuanced emotional expression. What makes me burst into tears every time I watch that video is her matter-of-fact, unassailable belief in her right to be there. The woman has a courageously self-contained presence that simply makes her mousy hair and lack of chic irrelevant. I imagine that she presents herself the same way in the grocery store, on the bus, and in the church foyer-- completely without apology or explanation for being exactly who she is. I want that kind of confidence, which is the essence of true humility-- knowing who I am and offering myself to the world, not because of any praise I might receive, but just because I'm here and that's what I need to do. Susan Boyle has made the world a better place just by insisting that we take her seriously.

boredom & pride said...

i think what has been provoking is that this talent has made us all believe that we have the ability in us to amaze people - when did people stop thinking that?

so much of life is made-up these days that something honest & soulful catches us out - on any street, anywhere, we want hope, and she obliged us, all.

paris hilton beware, Ms Boyle rocks

becxjo said...

Thank you very much professor for your insight. That was great.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article, and for helping us to understand this phenomenon at the meta level. It truly amazed me that the whole audience seemed to recognize the greatness of what was happening, that a woman whom society would carelessly cast off could be the one with the greatest beauty.

To me it was a redemptive moment, when truth pierced the burdensome lies we live with -- especially the lie that one's worth is equal to what others conferred upon you, rather than based on who you truly are. I am grateful that Susan Boyle has given us a chance to talk about these deep sensibilities we share as human beings.

Anonymous said...

I think Susan Boyle defines the meaning "Diamond in the rough" or "Rough diamond" - beneath a rough diamond's plain dull surface lies a sparkle so bright and so beautiful it leaves you breathless. I am humbled and I am priveleged that a woman I will never meet has reminded me to look deeper than superficial surfaces.Brava! Brava Susan Boyle!
And thank you for explaining how I feel so clearly!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your wonderful article and what an amazing blog. I'm glad I found it as I searched to see if others were responding to Susan Boyle the way I have been. I agree with the previous comment that as we watched and listened with saw a beautiful flower bloom...and it was all of us who were so inspired by this lovely woman.

aboutthejourney said...

Thanks for your post Bob. This is indeed an interesting phenomenon - particularly in terms of how fast information can travel and what is available to view.

With regard to the event itself, perhaps I am only being cynical, but rather than feeling inspired I feel manipulated, and skeptical about the authenticity of the reactions of the judges.

To me it seems that the media is trying to capitalize the successful Paul Potts experience. I am also concerned for Ms. Doyle, because I think she is being exploited and manipulated. However, it's likely that the benefit to her will outweigh the downside.

I'm also concerned because it seems that people seem desperate for the positive and reaffirming and they find it here, rather than closer to home.

I do think it's remarkable though that a person can get up and sing (in my opinion not especially remarkably) with such confidence and composure in front of so many people. I don't presume to know Ms. Doyle, but she certainly seems to have moxy.

Hope I'm not too much of a wet blanket, Cheers....

Anonymous said...

Susan Boyle is NOT mentally disabled. She suffered from oxygen deprivation at birth, and experienced some trouble because of it - but that doesn't necessarily result in 'mental disability', implying for one thing subpar intelligence. If you've read about her life story, it's clear she is well able, and in fact more so than many of us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting analysis. I agree with the comment of Lisa Schwarzbaum that it reset our concept of beauty. There is something more as well: the scene of someone who is being mocked suddenly being recognized and lauded as a glorious and talented being. That is something that resonates for many of's as if we secretly fear that we are flawed and worthy of derision while desperately longing to receive recognition and ovations for our particular talents.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful article.

It drew my attention, standing out from the literal thousands of other articles detailing Susan Boyle's performance, because I noticed your reference to people watching her YouTube clip repeatedly--over and over again--and still finding themselves just as moved as the first time they watched it.

I am one of those people and I find that fact almost as shocking as Susan's unexpected performance.

I find myself, rarely given to sentiment, flooded with emotion each time I see it, literal tears creeping into my eyes, here in the dark of my study where my emotions can remain my own. I really do not want to have to answer if I am asked why I'm still watching, and crying, over this seven minute long piece of digital media. I am not sure of the answer, or that I would wish to give it to someone who knows me personally, but the question itself has been playing through my mind for two days now.

Why does this video move me so? Why am I more interested in watching it then in finishing my book, or watching something on television? The question is important to me if only to help me understand a bit better the underlying motivations that drive me.

I think I have, perhaps, found an approximation of an answer, at least for me, and the answer is this: Susan Boyle, in four notes, silenced her doubters and forced them to recognize the worthiness of her ability, even though they had already prejudged her, based upon her appearance, and written her off as a spectacle worthy of ridicule.

I notice that the moments I enjoy most, during the audition, are those moments where we are shown the faces of the judges and the audience and we can see how powerfully they are moved, even though they had just been mocking the woman only seconds before. The beauty of Susan's voice is a magic of its own, woven throughout her performance, and ready evidence of her talent, but it is the combination of that talent and reaction it caused that makes the video so compelling, at least to me.

The combination is, simply, inspiring.

Do most of us, perhaps, share a deep desire to prove our worthiness to the doubters among us and have them change their minds about us so completely that their scorn transforms instantly to appreciation? That desire is as close as I have come, at the moment, to a motive for my behavior.

Or I can simplify it and quite honestly say that I am just craving that inspiration.

If everyone had perceived Susan to be an eagle, what surprise would there have been in her taking flight? It would have been beautiful, but would it have been as inspiring? Few of us are eagles, whether in the eyes of others or just ourselves, but we all hold firmly to the wistful dream that we, too, can fly.


Anonymous said...

"mentally disabled woman"??? try some tact, "professor." she is a WOMAN with a learning disability. try to people first vocabulary.

Matt Nolan said...

"Always it is something outside ourselves that touches us, somehow, where we feel most deeply"

Exactly - brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Thank you from Italy.

Pam Nash said...

Wonderful article. I am in the UK and watched the show on TV on Saturday night - when she came on stage and spoke I could barely watch, so desperate was I that she not be treated cruelly. Of course, when she sang, the judges' and audience's reaction changed totally.

It is a sad indictment of our society that she had to sing wonderfully to be regarded as a useful member of society.

Anonymous said...

thank you very much for this great article!

Yuri Shabashov

Unknown said...

There is a little of Susan Boyle in us all, and if there isn't... there should be. God bless her, and us all!

Anonymous said...

she was teriffic! i`ve seen the clip. gawd that was amazing! hands down Susan Boyle! way to go! Ü

Anonymous said...

You need to correct your post. Susan Boyle is not mentally disabled. -js

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your article, but I have to ask - where has the information come from that she is mentally disabled?

Is that a documented fact or just another assumption? Was it in fact even necessary to put it in - was it to make her sound even more "pathetic"? I don't believe it was necessary.

Thank you to the annonymous identity who wrote

"Susan Boyle is NOT mentally disabled. She suffered from oxygen deprivation at birth, and experienced some trouble because of it - but that doesn't necessarily result in 'mental disability', implying for one thing subpar intelligence. If you've read about her life story, it's clear she is well able, and in fact more so than many of us."Each year, I have the opportunity to hear hundreds of amateur performing artists of all ages. It takes a very special quality to send shivers down the spine and bring tears to the eyes like Susan's performance. Her quality is pure and unadulterated and each time I have listened, I have the tears and the goose bumps.

Judge Amanda hit the nail on the head when she said everyone was cynical at first and it was the hugest wake up call.

Susan Boyle's dream was to sing in front of a large audience and that was the first of her dreams to be fulfilled. Getting the positive comments and the applause with standing ovations would have been a big bonus for her - and well deserved. I wish her all the best.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, shame on you, Professor. You describe the female judge as 'gorgeous' and a 'babe' - identifying and objectifying her purely by her looks. In fact you, Professor, were doing exactly what everyone was doing to Susan. A columnist on The Guardian has pointed out that Paul Potts, a similarly unglamorous figure with a fantastic voice who was on the same show (and went on to win it) two years ago - but his reaction from the judges and the audience was more neutral. We judge women by their looks far more than men, and you, Prof, are no different. Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

Elegantly written, incisive article. Thanks from Australia!

Anonymous said...

This example, as with Paul Potts, strongly signifies the healing power of music. In each case, the illness was prejudice and scorn.

May God bless them both.

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, Dr Robert Canfield, go to the bottom of the class. You need to learn how we talk about other people in the 21st century. Susan is 'mentally disabled'? The female judge a 'gorgeous blond' (sic - blonde) and 'the babe'? This should be required reading for you. Don't judge women by their looks. You included.

Anonymous said...

Susan Boyle is one of the bravest people I have ever seen.

To get up in front of millions of people, knowing how they would treat her at first, shows a strength of character I wish we could have in our "leaders."

And she even told off Cowell a bit. She has brass ovaries.

If only American Idol would look for people like her, I'd watch it.

Theatrical producers would never give her the role of Fantine or Eponine in LES MISERABLES, but she could walk into the role of Madame Thenardier tomorrow and blow the cast off the stage.

Anonymous said...

What a horrible judgmental self important and condescending article! She is not mentally disabled, there is no need to call the female judge 'babe' and you need to first look into your own really do!

Anonymous said...

I also was so moved by Susan and have watched the video numerous times and cry. There's something universal going on here that's created an overwhelming feeling across the planet and hopefully only good comes from it. But I also want to give credit to the song. I think I cry every time I hear it, no matter who is singing it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for helping me understand why I cried

Argider said...

It gives hope that we all have magnificent song to sing. Perhaps not with our voice but, with words, our hands or our love for another.

Anonymous said...

Sir, A very insightful article,but demeaned by your observations about the female judge being "gorgeous" and "a babe". So have you explored why you needed to use those descriptives, especially in an article on this subject? Was that a conscious choice or just penned without consideration? Perhaps that should be your next blog post?

Anonymous said...

I've seen it probably a dozen times, never sure exactly why I'm watching it. Goose bumps almost every time. Anyway I have one correction- she didn't sing the entire song, but rather she skipped the first verse. Thanks for the enjoyable article

Anonymous said...

You article is ALMOST great, I really enjoyed your analysis in the last paragraph. However, throwing the words "gorgeous" and "babe" when talking about the judge is completely tasteless and uncalled for especially in an article like this.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your thought provoking analysis of the Boyle effect. I cried when I watched it, but mostly I cried because I knew that I was guilty of judging people by their appearance. I see your description of the female judge as an admission of your guilt too - your acceptance that you prefer an attractive woman. Hardly an earthshattering admission.

We like looking at beautiful things. We value things according to how beautiful they are, and people are similarly judged. How physically attractive we are accounts for a great degree of the sexual attention we attract.

I see the Boyle effect not as saying that appearance shouldn't matter (because it clearly does), but as a reminder not to write people off because we do not instinctively find them attractive. They may not be beautiful, but they may still be talented. Better, however, to be beautiful AND talented. The message is not so much in affirmation (of less attractive people) but in negation - appearance is not everything.

Anonymous said...

"Oh dear, shame on you, Professor. You describe the female judge as 'gorgeous' and a 'babe' - identifying and objectifying her purely by her looks. In fact you, Professor, were doing exactly what everyone was doing to Susan."

Exactly. Your article is hypocritical & completely superficial.

It's unbelievable how many people here don't have their eyes & ears truly open to themselves, or others.

Anonymous said...

What makes me cry is that Susan had these laughing eyes before she went on stage, then people pulled faces and for a moment the laugh in her eyes disappeared, but luckily it didn't drag her down enough and she got an encouraging smile from one of the judges, she started singing in a way that reflected her soul that could be seen in her eyes and face before. Now what makes me cry is that people, were honest about their initial misjudgement of her and had the guts to admit it so openly and give Susan what she deserved. So often in life people don't do this and would play what she did down just to protect their own misjudgement.

Diane Shiffer said...

I am just in love with this woman myself.. and can't seem to get enough of her. Like so many others, I've watched the vid over and over again.. my girls have watched it over and over again. I've blogged about her, and pulled aside friends and mere acquaintances to ask them if they've seen her and direct them to her vid if they haven't. I've got my own ideas about why we are so entranced, although not quite so profound or scholarly as your own. I greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Susan Boyle's performance has nuclear power as it was real and came from inside. It was beautiful. More important is the instant reaction from almost every human being on this planet. Susan managed within 3 seconds to synchronize everybody. When she delivered her last note, the hole planet was left with the same emotion. The same emotion that MSM has tried to destroy for decades

damagnan said...

First, thanks for a very insightful read.
The cynic in me sees very little to be positive about in this tiny excerpt of life. It is vile that we should be surprised at the adage-worn, "beauty within."
This illustrative event, perhaps, should be less a bright-eyed awakening and more of a stern lashing with a still-green switch. How many are the things that we've left by the wayside because they are too much like Susan?

Society is a child, in every imaginable way...except that children eventually learn from mistakes and grow up.

Ronnie Bray said...

Thank you for expressing in language that which we all feel in our hearts.

Susan's breakthrough is Chaplinesque, a noveau every-woman/man hero whose inner strengths and abilities lead inexorably to success in the face of, what is at times, an uncaring, often hostile, all-powerful, and judgemental world.

The spirit of the 'Little Tramp' against the world and succeeding against the odds is alive and well in Susan Boyle.

snoekie said...

This is the best voice that I have heard in many a year.

Susan looked so unprepossessing I was afraid of what she would sound like but was won over after the first notes. What a voice, what a talent. I was in tears by the end, at the sheer raw talent.

I truly hope that any training will not remove any of the beauty of that voice.

I also listened to her version of 'I cried a river', the bst I have heard since Ella's version and every bit as good.

Long may she sing to us and thrill us with that hugely mature, but young, voice and she will be a smash hit.

Anonymous said...

I have shown the video of Susan Boyle to all my Middle School Students grades 6, 7, and 8 each time in every class there is a preliminary mocking of Susan Boyle then a profound silence. In a discussion we find transformations, the judges, Susan, the audience and ourselves; as a teacher I admit I cannot stop crying every time I watch the video. I have watched it more than 12 times. (Yes I am a straight male not afraid to cry for joy, for beauty and in wonder.)

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say I have watched the video clip at least a dozen times and I cry every single time. I cried just reading the good Doctor's commentary about the clip! AND IT HAS BEEN A WONDERFUL FEELING TO CRY OVER AND OVER!

Life itself feels different from having watched this vulnerable, fragile woman take the world into her hand, into her bosom and tell us that it's going to be ok, that hope will spring eternal, that dreams can be dreamed, if for no other reason that to simply celebrate the human spirit, the life spirit. It is a most intensely allegorical tale and the only comparison I can draw is the children's story of "The Selfish Giant" that used to play on Sunday morning radio when I was a child and which can still "pierce my defenses", as Lisa Schwarzbaum so poetically puts it.

Charles said...

Thank you for the article. I have watched the video many times and have realized that there is something very profound that is happening here, but I cannot grasp the meaning of it in its entirety. The experience is greater than experiencing a great vocal performance (I have seen those before) or even someone winning against the odds. She has tapped into something universal, eliciting the best from within us. In her special way, she has reminded us that inner beauty is the true beauty. Her success becomes our success and her inspired performance gives us inspiration to live our lives with confidence and grace. We have all been richly blessed by an unlikely source.

Tric said...

Like many I too was moved to tears by her performance and still am on so many levels. Thanks for your elegant slant on this phenomenal experience!

Dee said...

Great Article.. Nicely summed up!

Shelby said...

Great article! I remember a similar occasion with "We Are the World" -- a feeling of joining together, of WE being greater than any one of US.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%. It is a very humbling experience to view the video. Reminds me of how judgmental and superficial we can be and then just how wonderful things truly are, when we are not.

coolingstar9 said...

Nice post.
From the video clip, I had learnt something that human beings are behave so badly for seeing the weak one.
But ordinary people are inspired by true, kind Susan boyle.