Note: Great minds think alike! Just by coincidence, both Toni and I blogged about the very same subject — the Susan Boyle phenomenon. And we both posted our entries into the Murderati queue on Saturday. So no, you’re not reading a repeat entry, just a different spin on a woman who’s captured everyone’s attention.
by Tess Gerritsen
The whole world is agog about a new musical star, an unknown singer who stunned the audience at an audition for the UK equivalent of “American Idol”. In case you’ve been sans TV and computer for the past week, the singer’s name is Susan Boyle and she’s a 47-year-old Scotswoman who’s “never been married, never even been kissed.” Up till recently, she devoted her life to caring for her aged mum, who has since died. Now Susan shares her home with a cat, goes to church every Sunday, and lives the quiet life of a spinster in her Scottish village. By now, you’re getting a mental image of this woman, right? A bit dowdy, perhaps overweight, and certainly no glamor puss.
And you’d be right, because that’s exactly what Susan looks like.
Yet Susan had dreams of singing before a large audience, so she plucked up the courage to perform for a packed auditorium and a panel of judges, one of them the oftentimes smirkingly cruel Simon Cowell. As Susan walked onstage in her matronly dress, you could hear the audience giggling, could see the the male judges roll their eyes in disdain. (The female judge, I have to say, looked genuinely respectful the whole time. Good for her.) But everyone else was expecting this chubby woman with the double chin and a head of frizzy gray hair to completely embarrass herself. In fact, the audience seemed to lean forward in anticipation of the spectacle, some of them wincing at the cruelty of it all, others poised to start jeering.
Then Susan opened her mouth and began to sing. And suddenly, everything changed. If you haven’t seen the video yet, here it is:
I have watched this video about five times, and every single time I get a lump in my throat. My reaction isn’t unique; if you check the comments for the video, you’ll find many other people saying the same thing. The video has already been viewed 25 million times and counting — and Susan’s been invited onto Larry King and Oprah, and everyone is clamoring for a CD.
What makes this performance so powerful, to the point of inspiring tears in viewers? Yes, Susan’s voice is impressive. And her choice of music “I Dreamed a Dream” was especially poignant, given her own lonely circumstances of having grown up as a bullied and homely girl. But I think the real reason this performance has touched so many of us was the simple fact that we did not expect that voice to come out of such an ordinary looking woman. We’ve been conditioned to expect singers to be young and slim and sexy. If they’re gray-haired and dowdy, well, how good can they possibly be? We expect our idols to look like idols, to be flawless in every way. Which is why, when an idol’s photos turn up in National Enquirer revealing protruding guts and cellulite, they become such juicy targets for ridicule.
But Susan — ah, Susan! When she walked onstage, it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that she could ever be a winner. She was considered a hopeless underdog from the word go — and that’s why the world now adores her. Most of us know what it’s like to feel like the underdog, so Susan’s triumph became our triumph as well.
Our almost universal identification with underdogs can be turned to powerful use in a novelist’s hands. As a reader, I find it hard to care much about characters who start off having everything going for them. A hero who’s gorgeous, a crack shot, a martial arts expert, and a snazzy dresser may look good onscreen, but in the end, James Bond is just James Bond. Iconic, yes, and someone we’d like to emulate. But he’s not really human. He’s not us. He has no journey to make to become a hero, because he’s already arrived.
I think back to the stories I loved best, and most of them are about seemingly ordinary schmoes who are forced to discover their hidden strengths and talents. Consider poor little Harry Potter, orphaned and despised by his relatives. Or Luke Skywalker, a simple farm boy on Tatooine. Or that hobbit homebody Frodo Baggins, who never wanted to go on any adventures to begin with. These are three of the most compelling characters ever created, and they all started off seemingly ordinary. But like Susan Boyle, they walked (or were forced) onstage, plucked up their courage to perform … and revealed that they were in truth extraordinary beings.
I think back, as well, to a film that most of you probably don’t remember. It was “Target,” starring Gene Hackman as just a regular guy with a wife and a rebellious teenage son. The son thinks his dad’s a total loser, content to be stuck in a nowhere town. Hackman looks the part, too –a little bald, a little chubby, a boringly law-abiding hardware salesman who always drives under the speed limit, much to his son’s disdain. This guy is not any son’s idea of a hero.
Then Hackman’s wife gets kidnapped while in Paris, and father and son go searching for her. Within moments of their arrival in France, the son is shocked when Hackman starts transforming into someone he doesn’t know. Suddenly dad can speak fluent French! Dad pistol whips an attacker! Dad gets behind the wheel and turns into a race-car driver! The great fun of this movie is watching the shocked son reevaluate what he knew — or thought he knew — about his own father. Gene Hackman is, in fact, a former CIA agent who must now call on his past skills to save his family. Before the son’s amazed eyes, this ordinary dad proves to be an extraordinary man.
By the end of the film, I had a giant crush on Gene Hackman. Because heroes are always sexy — no matter what they look like.
And if you doubt that, go check out the comments on the Youtube video. Men around the world are now clamoring to meet Susan Boyle, and give her what she’s missed all her life:
Her very first kiss.