Print the Legend

by J.D. Rhoades

I know what you’re probably going to start thinking very soon as you read this: “Dear God, not another Susan Boyle post.” Well, yes, it is,  but hear me out anyway, because the twists the story’s taken lately have gotten me thinking about fact vs. fiction and where the line between the two starts to blur.

Boyle, the plain-Jane chanteuse who went on “Britain’s Got Talent” and silenced the snickering crowd and skeptical judges with her big rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, became an overnight sensation, thanks to YouTube.  Umpty-million website hits, interviews everywhere, etc.

So it’s inevitable, I suppose,  that there’d be a backlash. Most of the kvetching appears to be based on the assumption that the judges, especially producer Simon Cowell, actually did know all along what they had in Boyle and that the whole “oh, my she certainly surprised us” act was a sham. “[T]he notion that Cowell was unaware of Boyle’s existence, let alone discordant looks and talent level, before she ever took the stage, is flatly ridiculous,” sniffed The New York Post’s Maureen Callahan.  Movieline’s Kyle Buchanan was even more scathing, accusing the show’s producers of “trotting Susan out and editing her as though she is an innocent naif who just walked on stage and hasn’t already survived at least ten audition rounds in front of the show’s creator/producers, one of whom is the head judge, Simon Cowell.”

Cowell denies knowing what was going to happen beforehand. But he’s reputed to be a bit of a control freak, and he is the show’s producer. And let’s face it, whatever else you may think of Cowell, he’s a master showman. So yeah, it’s believable that he knew how the audience was going to perceive Boyle, he knew she’d blow them away, and the whole “ugly duckling” thing was set up from the get-go. But as I read those snarky pieces, what came most to my mind is, “so what?” I mean, whether it was staged or not, it’s a great story. Maybe I don’t mind so much because I write fiction.  But I’m reminded of the words of Maxwell Scott at the end of the great Jimmy Stewart film   THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE:  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

When I was in college, there was this guy who hung around a lot with my roommates and I.  Let’s call him Henry. Henry was…well, “liar” is such a harsh word to describe what Henry did. Let’s just call him a fabulist. Henry had an amazing wealth of stories about the experiences he’d had: he’d test-driven high-end imported sports cars for a living; he’d played drums at a recording session for guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen (the record was hung up in litigation, alas, and would probably never be released); he was learning to fly helicopters and had a job waiting for him as soon as he got his rotary-wing license, spotting for the tuna fleet. I mean, it was amazing the stuff that would come out of his mouth. One time when he wasn’t around, we discussed it and decided that for Henry to have gone everywhere he said he’d gone and done everything he said he’d done, he would have had to be between 150 and 200 years old.

Here’s the thing, though: no one believed a word of it, but no one called “bullshit”. Partially because Henry never lied maliciously or for any kind of personal gain other than, I suppose, a certain amount of self-aggrandizement. But it was also because the guy was a natural born storyteller. He was funny, charismatic, and entertaining as hell. It was all bullshit, but who cared? It was fun to listen to a guy who never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But you tell me. Do I have this all wrong? Are you offended by the prospect that the whole ugly duckling schtick was just that–schtick? Or does it matter, because either way, it’s a great story? Does it make a difference that we’re talking about a silly reality TV show, that is to say, would you be more upset if this was something of life or death import?

19 thoughts on “Print the Legend

  1. Jude Hardin

    I just assume everything on TV is fake or contrived. Sometimes it’s entertaining, and other times annoying. The Susan Boyle thing…of course Cowell and the others knew what was going to happen onstage. I don’t think they could have anticipated the worldwide emotional response, though.

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  2. Louise Ure

    I have one of those Henry’s in my life, JD. Whatever logo t-shirt he has on becomes part of his narrative. "Yeah, I used to play with Mettalica," "My Porsche is in the shop." It’s sad, because it’s so obvious. And that’s where Liars Anonymous came from.

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  3. Brett Battes

    I’m with you, J.D. SO WHAT? It’s still a great story. And no matter what anyone says about who knew what or what’s true or not about her life…she has a FANTASTIC VOICE! The story just makes it all the more enjoyable.

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  4. Pari

    JD,
    I had the same reaction. My response to Susan Boyle was that she wasn’t a pretty package and had that transcendent voice. The audience certainly wasn’t in on the joke — even if the producers were (and I don’t care if they were) — and the beautiful thing was the regular folks’ transformation from mockery to admiration. That was more powerful than anything the judges could possibly say.

    As to "reality" shows — Like Jude, I’ve become such a skeptic and even lump in the news at this point. The whole "swine flu" extravaganza with its extraordinary innumeracy is just appalling.

    Is it serious? Yes.

    Does it merit the kind of panicked/"sexy" coverage it’s getting? Probably not. The regular influenza — and pneumonia and other communicable diseases — kill far more people annually than this one has at this point . . .

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  5. toni mcgee causey

    Like you, I suspect Cowell knew, but it didn’t detract me from the story unfolding–and the audience’s response. I’m not sure that the other two judges had heard her. I believe that they are aware that anyone who gets through to that level has something going for them, but one of the blips of dialog somewhere (can’t remember which link it was now) was how they’d seen quite a few people prior to her who were terrible. So it begs the question–do the producers set up people to *think* they’re going to be moving up, but in reality, they’re there to act as a foil for the ones who are really good? (Probably.)

    All that said, it’s TV. It’s entertainment. I expect there to be editing and wild fabrication.

    What bothers me much much more is when the news does this–particularly when it’s a slow news day and so they build up any potential storm as the next-great-destroyer-hurricane, or they incite panic over health issues, or they completely fabricate "news" by editing a speakers’ comments to distort what was really said, and then condemn the person for the way he/she appears in the edited version. That, I think, is wholly indefensible.

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  6. Margaret

    Love Susan Boyle. Love the way she entranced me and the audience. Who cares if it was a set-up, because it did what it was supposed to do–slapped us on the face, woke us up from the stereotype she presented. And wow, what a reaction. Though jaded about many things in life, she helped ground us in the reality that one should NEVER judge a book by its cover.

    And storyteller liars: How about Coach on this season’s Survivor?

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  7. J.D. Rhoades

    Jude: I think they expected she’d be a hit. It looks like they already had a lot of component part of a "rags to riches" tale in place: immediate makeover, wardrobe, contracts, etc. But again, that’s the way those stories go.

    Louise: is your Liar Guy at least entertaining?

    James: never read AMLP, I did consider doing my next fiction book as an fauxtobiography.

    Pari, Toni: I’m with you on the way actual news stories are amped up or trimmed to fit some narrative, like the pandemic that isn’t (yet). I got angry when I saw the reporter asking over and over "could this be bio-terrorism?"When the CDC guy said there wasn’t a shred of evidence that is was, she insisted "so that means you can’t rule it out, right?" Idiots.

    Margaret: never seen Survivor. Tell me more?

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  8. Gayle Carline

    Whether the producers knew what Susan Boyle could do is irrelevant – the audience clearly didn’t, and she still has a beautiful voice.
    My ex-late-FIL used to tell tales of being in WWII. He was EVERYWHERE, fighting for his country. The truth was, he was stationed in VA for the whole time, as a clerk. When I asked my ex-hubby why no one ever called him on his lies, ex would say, "Cut him some slack. When I get old, I’ll probably tell stories about being in Vietnam." (Ex was stationed in Alaska, never got to Nam.)
    Fast forward to our divorce – his NEW wife calls me one day, hysterical. Ex had tried to strangle her in her sleep. Later, he apologized, saying he was having post-traumatic stress from his tour in Vietnam.
    I’m guessing she didn’t find his creative storytelling very funny.

    Gayle
    http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

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  9. Kristy

    I’m with you, Dusty (imagine that!). I don’t care at all.

    You must watch Coach on Survivor. He’s hilarious. I don’t even know how to describe it. The last "dropped into the Amazon by military copter to kayak down the river, then abducted, tied up, and beaten by short natives before escaping" was PRICELESS.

    I’d love it if after the show ends it comes out that everything he said was true 😀

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  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Interesting reaction, because I had almost exactly the same one and put this comment on Tess’s post last week:

    "Sadly, the way our tabloid newspapers are over here, she’ll have a brief period of being fêted, and then they’ll all be out to drag her down, so I would add to your ‘everybody loves an underdog… ‘ message with ‘…until they’re no longer the underdog, and then we love to see them fall’. Sad but true."

    Yes, I disbelieve almost everything I see on so-called ‘reality’ TV. We have quite a few of the home-finding/renovation type programmes over here, and I know for a fact that they have showed the view from the kitchen window of one house, attached to the interior of another, as well as sending in their designers to completely dress house interiors just before the presenter makes his ‘surprise’ visit at the end of the show.

    And we have WAY too much news, so they fill it with inconsequential rubbish most of the time.

    Bah, humbug … ;-]

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  11. John Dishon

    I think the important part is that so many people think this is an inspirational story. What does that say about us? The only reason anyone cares about Susan Boyle is because she is ugly. How shallow must you be to be impressed by someone who can sing because of her appearance, as if the way your face looks has anything to do with your voice. It pretty much boils down to "wow, I didn’t know ugly people could be talented".

    I would think that women would be especially sensitive to this. I mean, here is a woman who is being treated differently because of the way she looks. It’s not because she could sing, because if it was then a lot of people would make headlines like her.

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  12. Pari

    John,
    A quibble.

    I think the pleasure with Susan Boyle — first and foremost — is that she’s the lady next door; not a "package" but a person. Yes, there’ s the physical consideration, but I don’t think I’d feel differently if she were eight years old, had dozens of freckles and managed to blow our minds in the same way.

    "Ugly" wasn’t that got me; it’s that her talent is so obvious and that she’s never had a chance until now to really show it off. Perhaps that’s because she doesn’t look like the glamor-pusses we expect to see. Perhaps it’s because she was taking care of her parents for years.

    I don’t know.

    But these talent shows please the most when the talent is huge and the person seems like a regular Joe or Josephine.

    I have to say that I felt the same way about the show America’s Got Talent and those incredible violinists Nuttin’ but Stringz. It was their story, the playing in subways and on street corners, that got me . . .

    Some of us may be "shallow," I won’t deny that. But I wouldn’t attribute the entire Susan Boyle phenomenon to that.

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  13. Celine

    Yes, I find it difficult to believe that the judges didn’t have some idea what was going to happen. And that’s fine in this particular instance, because everybody loves a good Ugly Duckling story. Where I start having problems with "when the legend becomes the truth, go with the legend" is when people start behaving as though 24 is a documentary.

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m sure the judges knew. But that doesn’t diminish their real live joy in the moment – they ARE musicians, and Susan Boyle still had to walk out there and nail that song, and she did.

    And Jude is right and said it perfectly "- no one could have anticipated the worldwide emotional response."

    I hope to God Susan Boyle has a good manager now, or finds one fast. There’s no reason she can’t be a theater star, and she deserves it. I’d love to see her as Mrs. Lovett, for example.

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  15. Margaret

    Kristy nailed Coach (figuratively, not literally). He’s a self-inflated character, but I will always wonder if what he says might have a tiny bit of truth in it.

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  16. Bobbie

    When reading a novel, we find all sorts of symbolism that the author may have intended–or may not. I wrote a short story in college and was surprised when the teacher read it out loud, pointing out to the class all the symbolism I had used. I hadn’t intentionally put in a single bit of it. But I smiled, nodded, and took the credit. I think what matters with our reaction to Susan Boyle is, like Gayle said, is that it was *our* reaction. The entire act can be staged. We can be manipulated. But our reactions are still genuine. What I loved about her had nothing to do with her looks. It was her self-confidence I loved, her bravado in saying she wanted to be the next Elaine Paige. How often are would-be-authors ridiculed for saying, "I’m the next Stephen King" or Neil Gaiman or Cormac McCarthy? And how often is there really a "next" any of them? But when there is? When the talent matches the bravado? We all fall in love.

    We’re all manipulated every day in hundreds of ways we hardly even notice or acknowledge. At least with Susan Boyle, we could enjoy ourselves and fall in love a little.

    As for A Million Little Pieces. I didn’t read it either. But the difference for me there is that people bought into this man’s supposed history, not into his talent as a writer.

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  17. Bonnie

    I think the point that some of you are missing is that no matter what people knew or didn’t know at the time of the performance WE all saw, there had to have been a first time. A time when Susan Boyle was just as "ugly" and awkward and unpolished. A time when she wowed her audience, whoever they were, just as overwhelmingly as she did later. Knowing that the producers (or whoever) re-created that moment for a vast audience doesn’t make me angry. It doesn’t disillusion me. On the contrary, it gives me hope for the continued survival of that small piece in each of us that wants to believe in and root for impossible dreams.

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  18. EmilyM

    I’ll second (or third?) the recommendation to go online to cbs.com and watch the current season of Survivor, if you’re still interested in this topic at this point. When I read this post, I thought of Coach immediately for his "tall tales." Plus, he’s just the most entertaining large-personality on this show in a while.

    But also, the whole Survivor premise fits right into this theme. Because we talk about it at my work: how much of it is staged? If it’s starting to go one way or another too far, do they change something mid-season? They say they don’t, but the changes are a little too convenient a few too many times, and so we don’t believe them. But do we care? No, not really, not if it’s creating a good story for us to watch. The show is supposed to be "reality" but we’re very forgiving as long as we’re enjoying it.

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