YouTube, Susan Boyle, and a slap at snark
The YouTube Symphony Orchestra gathered last night at Carnegie Hall to play an original Tan Dun piece composed specifically for the global competition that brought the group together. It's lovely. But I'm willing to bet that instead you were listening to a heretofore obscure singer absolutely flatten a roomful of doubters with a show tune.
Like a lot of us, I've been watching the Susan Boyle video repeatedly this week, trying to get at what it means for the Internet to have taken to heart, as the Britain's Got Talent audience took to heart, a middle-aged Scotswoman with ungroomed eyebrows and a frumpy Best Dress and a voice that seems to have broken something that needed breaking in hearts around the world.
And I think I'm onto it. It's not only her voice, though were it only her voice that would be enough -- a gorgeous, full, confident instrument that did with the difficult "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables what most of us couldn't do with "Happy Birthday." It's not only that we in the audience saw a star-is-born event that's better and funnier and sadder than anything we've seen in the movies. It's not only the sense that if this woman could step out from an exceedingly ordinary life and be extraordinary, and not only silence her detractors but make them love her, we might too (though that's close to the point). It's not the canny song choice, pairing a song about a woman whose life is a shambles with... well, a 47-year-old unemployed spinster who lives alone with her cat.
It's seeing those damned critics shut down, especially the judging panel -- reduced to irrelevance in the face of majestic talent. I think that the video of Miss Boyle has taken off (and how, with 19.5 million plays and counting over 21 duplicate videos on YouTube since Saturday) because it feels wonderful for anyone who's ever felt uncool and unattractive to see something sincere and beautiful knock the snark right out of The Beautiful People Who Run Stuff. When I replay the video, I'm listening to Miss Boyle, but I'm watching these three plasticky judges go from condescension to surprise to bated-breath joy in under five minutes. Even Simon Cowell, that bitchy gym-ratty thing, can't manage to do much more than grin by the end. And it feels good to see -- to watch the judging stooges having a genuine experience, and to have it ourselves, and to feel that the homely-but-talented people we are all inside are being, for a few moments, less oppressed by figures of beauty.
They're maddening, judges like those. Like most bloggers, Cowell's capable of original work -- not only are these shows his creation, but he's got a record label of his own. But his bread and butter is tart, terse, ego-deflating commentary on someone else's work. That makes him -- wait for it, friends -- a blogger who happens to use the airwaves as his WordPress.
And like bloggers or certain types of journalists when under attack, the other two judges on the panel last week retreated into an I'm-just-reporting-the-facts attitude -- ooh, the audience was against you at first! -- when their prejudices ran aground of the facts. The nasty audience behavior was real, but the judges on the show's panel could also barely contain their disdain when she stepped up. And it feels so nice to see the condescending hipster-blogger "No" wilt in the face of a big, inescapable "Yes" in the key of G. Online, that rejection of cynicism seems to have struck a nerve with literally tens of thousands of commenters on YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere.
Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly, with whose opinions I so rarely agree as to make the event probably worth a story all by itself, writes that for her, Miss Boyle's performance "reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang to my eyes how desperately I need that corrective..." Sure, and let me take the thought a step farther. The performance, and the reactions we see to it on the video, reframe how we consume beauty in our yeah-impress-me-now-double-that popular culture, and that's due in no small part to the profusion of No rather than Yes. Which, in turn, is something bad we did to ourselves with the Net.
The Internet has provided both marvelous opportunities for creative folk to bring their art to the people, and unprecedented power for random buttheads to tear those folk down. What are SMS-driven shows like Britain's Got Talent and American Idol but a way to machine down the old, weird world of creativity -- which, if you take a look at images of artists and performers of decades past, has a tendency to manifest itself in some of the planet's weirder-looking humans -- into focus-groupped, retail-ready packages?
And since as creativity goes, so goes the culture, how many of the millions who have watched Miss Boyle are yearning in their own lives for a bolt of truth to cut through the noise and snark and misunderstandings and disdain and he-says-she-says talking-head bloviation we seem to be soaking in these days? (I'll give you a hint; along with "Susan Boyle," the most referenced topic of conversation today on Twitter was, depending on which side of the political spectrum you're on, either "tea party" or "teabagging." Ugly, divisive times. It's entirely possible we'd all be better off singing to each other rather than attempting to discuss politics at this point. I digress.)
There are two gentlemen to the side of the stage during Miss Boyle's performance -- emcees, I guess -- and alone of everyone there who was not a 47-year-old Scottish contestant in a beige dress, they're the only ones who seem to be in her corner from the start. They're necessary to the clip after the fist viewing, because we know what we're sending Miss Boyle out to face and, even though we know she'll prevail, we like her too much to set her adrift among those sharks entirely alone. We know what that's like. We're online in the sea of snark every day, refusing to be broken, to our detriment.