posted by meowser
As some of you know, I sing sometimes. Here’s why I don’t do it in public very much these days: I’m a wuss. Being snickered at and visually picked over by people half my age or less is generally not how I choose to spend my spare time. I sing at home, I sing in the car, I sing in the shower. I could probably get the entirety of my four-octave range back if I really practiced. I haven’t ruled out taking music more seriously one day and finally tapping into the potential I have as a singer and a drummer (I got high praise from drum teachers for my natural ability during my initial lessons a few years ago). But at the moment, it’s kind of asleep for me, although I write down song scraps whenever I think of them and occasionally fashion a new song out of them.
But unlike Susan Boyle, who I assume you’ve all heard about as the great Cinderella story from Britain’s Got Talent, I haven’t yet reached the point where I just can’t stand it any more and I have to let it out where people can see. That’s what I saw when I first looked at her, someone who just finally snapped, someone who said, “Fuck it, I don’t have all the time in the world left. I don’t care if they laugh, let them. Give me that damn microphone already.”
Her voice really is extraordinary. Not only didn’t she drop a note, she made every single one felt. Even most professional singers aren’t that good. And carrying off a difficult, rangy musical-theatre ballad like “I Dreamed a Dream” means that Susan Boyle has been practicing her ass off, probably for decades. (I don’t know if I could sing that song myself without serious training, even in a lower key. It’s tough.) She didn’t just wake up one day and decide to do this on a lark. She’s been growing this talent, in her shower, in her car, in her anywhere that people couldn’t destroy her desire to sing by making fun of her weight and her hair and her age and her awkwardness, for years and years. It was only a matter of her getting to the point where she just had to have that microphone or it would kill her.
What really flattens me is the fact that as soon as Boyle opens her mouth — I mean, on the very first line — the audience just goes NUTS. The very same people who’d been poking each other and gigglesnorting before the music started up, they just start screaming and applauding in waves. It’s like they wanted to be wrong about her. It’s like they were relieved that their prejudices were total BS. Maybe some of them were thinking, “I guess this means I can do it too, and who cares if my boobs are too small or my nose is too big or my teeth are too crooked or my skin tone isn’t luscious or what-the-hell ever, I WANT THAT MICROPHONE TOO.” This wasn’t just a performance, it was an opening of the floodgates, the “physically imperfect” among us (if only if in their own minds) deciding that it was fucked up beyond belief that we would tell a woman she shouldn’t be heard unless she looked like a model and had the world’s most finely tuned self-marketing skills.
But why should anyone have been that shocked? Don’t we all know people who are WOW talents, who nobody’s ever heard of but us and maybe a handful of others? Do people really assume that if someone hasn’t been on television, they couldn’t possibly be worth knowing about? In this day and age? Look, every city in America (let alone gods knows how many other countries) is just teeming with talent. Just oozing with it. The average person is far more talented than they were when I was a kid. When I was little, every other mom didn’t have a three-octave vocal range, every other dad couldn’t play a killer guitar solo, everybody didn’t have a cousin or two with a screenplay that could blow every movie in Hollywood clear off the screen, everyone’s aunt wasn’t making an award-worthy documentary in film school or printing up a chapbook of brilliant poems. Now — oh, man. We couldn’t possibly fit every stunningly gifted person in the world on television, even with 200 channels, and that’s not even getting to the people who haven’t begun to develop their nascent talents yet.
It was interesting to hear BGT judge Amanda Holden say after Susan’s performance that it was a “wake-up call.” You wonder, though, what the take-home lesson will be. “Anyone can have WOW talent no matter what they look like” is a good start, but for me it goes beyond that. I wonder if they’re ever going to get around to asking, “How much vocal richness are we missing out on by insisting all our female singers be super young and super thin and super waspy-cute?” It’s not just that someone like Susan can have a great voice in spite of her age and build and looks and the vicious social snubbing she’s experienced all her life; it’s that those things made her the singer she is. Physically, certain sounds can only come from certain bodies — not that thin young women can’t be great singers, but their tone is different, and how Susan has lived is the source of her soul.
When did audiences become totally unwilling to accept sounds made by anyone who wasn’t young young young and hot hot hot? It hasn’t always been that way. Perhaps part of it is that the gene pool has created more “pretty” people than ever and that is what we are used to seeing (check out what “stunningly beautiful” women on television or in movies or magazines looked like in the 1960s and 1970s, and then look now); perhaps Photoshop and plastic surgery have made us ever intolerant of “flaws” or even obvious markers of ethnicity; perhaps the youth culture that started up in the 1960s has made “never trust anyone over 30” such a credo that even most people over 30 buy into it. Or something else, I don’t know.
But I keep thinking about the sounds from nearly a century ago that are at the roots of much of today’s contemporary music — folk, blues (which morphed into rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, then rap, and a kajillion other things) and hillbilly (which morphed into country/western, then just plain country). Even a lot of vaudeville performers weren’t dishy young things. Now granted, most of the people who performed and recorded that stuff had the shit exploited out of them and usually weren’t compensated fairly, but they weren’t expected to be young young young and hot hot hot, either. (And even “hot hot hot” didn’t necessarily equal “no visible flesh” then, either.) In fact, if you wanted credibility in any of those music forms you couldn’t look like you had it all that easy (which people would instinctively assume if you were very young and very pretty), or no one would believe you.
Now everything’s turned on its head. You need youth, looks, thinness, and money, and lots of it, or people will openly mock you when you take that microphone in your hands. Even if your band has that scruffy boho look, your instruments and equipment have cost plenty and so has your rehearsal space and your computers and everything else you’re using to make your noise and get it out there. It’s almost impossible to be a poor, homely middle-aged singer or musician with no “fashion sense” (read: $$$$ that also has to look like you didn’t spend $$$$) now. It doesn’t occur to people how much is being missed by insisting on young young young and pretty pretty pretty, always always always. We’re missing not just the voices, but the songs, the stories from people who have really lived, not just from some cute telegenic white guy whose idea of “suffering” is not being able to get the blonde AND the redhead to sleep with him simultaneously.
And that’s just in music. Think about all the other art forms that applies to.
Are we really ready to throw all that in the trash as a society? Can Susan Boyle do that much? Or will Susan herself get sucked into the Great Prettifying Machine, being operated on and dieted down and endlessly primped to the point where she’s indistinguishable from dozens of other middle-aged celebrities, like so many others before her? That wouldn’t take away any of her considerable gifts as a vocalist, of course, but it would make an awful lot of people miss the point of her success — again, dammit, again. Let’s hope it doesn’t get lost. My own microphone can only gather dust for so long.