Talent, Beauty, and Fame

Category : Blog Archive Apr 16th, 2009

As a few people have e-mailed me about the viral video of Susan Boyle, I will offer my humble commentary.

This Scottish singing sensation from Britain’s Got Talent brings up questions of why, as Tamar Abrams puts it:

When a beautiful, under 30-something sings like an angel, she can become an American Idol. When a dowdy, homely 47-year-old woman sings beautifully, it is headline news. … The problem is that recognition of her talent is directly proportionate to her lack of good looks and youth. What does it say about the civilized world that our expectations for greatness are diminished when people are unattractive and/or old?

I am currently studying media representations of opera singers, and a rags-to-riches, “plucked from obscurity” storyline is an essential part of how the “foreignness” of opera is mediated for the benefit of mainstream consumers. While Susan Boyle is not an opera singer, other operatic singers have found fame on these television talent shows and their humble roots are always emphasized. (See the two videos below.) Susan Boyle is definitely being delivered to us in the same manner: the hyper-normal person achieving a dream through an unexpected and widely publicized “big break.” The issue does not lie in the fact that Ms. Boyle is not a sexy 20-something, it lies in the fact that people relate to her and see her as being fundamentally like them in some respect. Those familiar with the plot archetypes frequently utilized on these talent shows (and in subsequent media coverage of these shows) were not at all surprised when Ms. Boyle turned out to have a lovely voice despite her background and appearance!

Britain’s Got Talent 2007: