We live in a world in which the ephemeral is real and the real is, for many, hopefully only ephemeral.
How else to explain the religious obsession with celebrity which governs everything in our lives from the way we see others to the way we see ourselves?
The world which celebrity promises those who embrace its life affirming narrative is a world absent of pain, poverty, boredom, and sadness. It is a fairytale lived in three dimensional splendour, replete with the adulation of millions, more money than you could ever spend, along with untold glamour and excitement. More importantly it offers the only freedom worthy of the name – the freedom to be the person you always dreamed of being, rather than the person you are.
Susan Boyle was one of the anointed few to be allowed entry to this fairytale. This unfashionable, unglamorous, poor woman from an unfashionable, unglamorous, and poor town in Scotland was plucked from obscurity, stuck centre stage, and celebrated by millions of adoring fans around the world. Dubbed the ‘hairy angel’, here was the archetypal ugly duckling with the voice of a swan.
But then something happened, something unscripted and completely out of kilter with the expectations of a world weaned on the promise and the dream of everlasting happiness through fame and fortune. Susan Boyle let the world down. Instead of playing the part of the ‘hairy angel’ with the sonorous voice and thus fulfilling the myth by which we escape the drudgery of our daily lives, to be sure a prime time TV version of the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ or ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, she committed the crime of pulling back the curtain on the myth to reveal its ugly truth – human despair.
In the week leading up to Saturday night’s final of Britain’s Got Talent, her performance eagerly awaited and anticipated, she either would not or could not fill the role which destiny, in the shape of Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, and Amanda Holden, had decreed was hers. In response celebrity turned on her like a cruel owner turning on its dog for daring to refuse to sit as instructed.
Stories began to leak out about Susan ‘cracking up under the pressure,’ throwing tantrums at the TV, at police officers, at passers-by; there was talk of her being removed from the show; of having been being whisked away to a private hotel and there surrounded by an army of psychiatrists in advance of her big night and the chance of a ticket to the life of happiness she’d been led to believe in her obscurity would be hers if only she got the opportunity to let the world hear that voice one more time.
Watching her walk centre-stage on Saturday was like watching an aircraft coming into land with no undercarriage. Would she land safely? Or would she crash and burn? The seconds of her initial introduction, the moment when flawed, damaged humanity meets the contrived and practised confidence of the judges and the hosts with their cosmetic smiles and plastic charm, passed agonisingly. That Susan had been groomed to say the right things, to suppress her feelings and her emotions, was self evident.
The resulting conflict within was reflected in the way she stuttered and stumbled her way through the supercilious small talk before being invited to perform, small talk designed to extract from each act, like a witness in the dock at a murder trial, more evidence of the transformational experience of the short taste of fame they’ve been privileged to have been given. Her face alternating between the grimace of the pain she was enduring and the smile she’d practised over and over for the approval of her handlers beforehand, we knew then that Susan’s dream had already turned into a nightmare.
But no such deviation is allowed when it comes to the perpetuation of myth as reality, and the distancing of the judges from their discovery was palpable even then.
Already a slave to the demands of the clutch of TV executives, music producers, managers, and promoters who’d already begun to divide up the rewards they were expecting from her talent, now on stage she was also a slave to the expectations unleashed by her audition among the millions who demanded to see the dream realised.
Watching her sing her second rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Miserables was like watching a woman cry for help. The plaintive but restrained pitch of voice, stilted body language, and forced smile was at odds with the unrestrained joy with which she sung the same song in the performance which introduced her to the world.
Once it had ended, and she was passed over to the judges, gone was the celebratory praise they’d lavished on her previously. In its place were carefully crafted words of sympathy in deference to the disappointment she’d proved to the hopes she’d unleashed, combined with defiance aimed at those who’d dared criticise her voice, and by definition the judges responsible for daring to give her the acclaim and a shot at the dream which is normally reserved for the kind people we’ve been conditioned to believe really do deserve to be in front of the camera.
Susan Boyle just didn’t fit the criteria of the superstar – not in the way she looked, spoke, or behaved. From the first derisory laughter which met her initial appearance onstage, to the close up of her reaction to her defeat which marked the end of the dream on Saturday, hers is the story of a society in which, we are told, desperation and despair can only be escaped through being picked out from commonplace humanity and elevated to the status of larger than life.
But such a status requires the willingness of the masses who remain condemned to lives of normality to suspend disbelief and thereby enjoy the vicarious thrill of seeing their own dashed hopes and dreams embodied in another for however long the performance lasts.
In the end this 48-year old woman from West Lothian proved that she was too human to fulfil the obligation placed on her to sell and perpetuate the myth. It is why she was so deftly cast aside by those who promised her the promise. It is why she is now receiving treatment in a medical clinic, preparatory to being delivered back to the reality whence she came.
As Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.’