Susan Boyle, Redux

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Here’s the latest viral clip from Britain’s Got Talent, currently approaching 8 million views after just over a week on youtube, a number which is exploding now that the American audience has discovered it. Perhaps you’ve seen it but if not, watch and pay attention to your reaction.

On the surface of course this is a feel-good story with the trite and true moral of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” as homely shy teen wins over a skeptical audience with the power of his booming voice. But of course we’ve seen this before, Susan Boyle became a worldwide phenom. So why is it working again?
Because the producers know you, and they know exactly how to make you think what they want you to think.

They know your prejudices, they know what you want to believe about yourself, and most of all they know you’ve seen this before. That’s why they know it will work again.

When you watched the video, did you immediately think something along the lines of, “Christ, what a fatass” followed almost immediately by a self-satisfied, media aware recognition that “I’ll bet he’s going to blow them away?” They knew you would. They knew that you are savvy enough NOT to judge a book by its cover because they know you’ve seen this before. And they know just how damn satisfied you’ll feel when you’re right.

Think for a second: do you suppose that Simon Cowell, mastermind of multiple singing and variety competition shows, doesn’t understand that the next person on stage could blow the audience away? Do you really think the studio audience doesn’t understand this?

Simon Cowell is the executive producer of BGT. He calls the shots. Which means he knows in advance exactly who is walking out on to that stage. He knows exactly what he’s going to see and he knows exactly the part to play—as the “audience” who is incredulous that some fat boy has managed to drag himself on to the stage. “As if it couldn’t get any worse.”

They want you to believe that both Simon and the studio audience have pre-judged the performers when in fact they know it is anything but. Do you think the audience doesn’t know there are cameras on them? Take a look at the piece again, and ask yourself if the reaction shots you’re seeing really came from that moment. I’ll pull rank for a moment and tell you that as a professional television editor, I can guarantee you they did not. There was a team of producers and editors scouring footage to make the audience seem unimpressed.

They want you to know in advance that this guy is going to blow the audience away, and they want you to feel smart when you’re right. And furthermore, they want you to feel like you’re the person that you say you are–a person too kind to judge a fat book by its fat cover. Even though secretly all you saw was fat and instantly felt all the judgments that come with it.

They’ve made it easy to play the part of the person you pretend to be. All that’s left for you to do is share it on facebook.

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17 Responses to Susan Boyle, Redux

  1. CubaLibre says:

    I immediately thought, simultaneously: “Christ, he is fat and disgusting” and “he is going to have an amazing voice.” Both of these statements remain true no matter the behind-the-curtain puppeteering of Cowell et al. The fact that the show transparently sets the scene in the manner you describe is irrelevant to the objectively correct judgment that the dude is fat and that that’s unhealthy and therefore undesirable.

    • qubitman says:

      My experience was more about how she was hot and he was shy, and clearly in love with a woman who would never fuck him, regardless of size, though that does drive the point home. This is also set up. Poor kid doesn’t believe in himself. If you’re watching it, it’s for you.

  2. operator says:

    Not worth its own post but perhaps, as a professional television editor, you can shed some light on this mystery.

    What’s wrong with this picture, and how could anyone think that they could get away with it ..?

    How has the big fat target demographic taken over this poor young woman’s internal monologue? To what end?

  3. Red says:

    If Simon, the rest of the judges, and the audience are all “acting,” or playing the part they know they’re supposed to, as you said, then oughtn’t we take another step down the rabbit hole and come to the conclusion that the two singers were acting as well? As a professional television editor, can you shed any light on the actual “realness” of these reality T.V. show contestants?

    • Napsterbater says:

      Think about it. They all have huge budgets and do auditions in every major city. The contestants are as real as they can be. There’s no real standard to judge on here. Most of them are well-trained at their art, at least the ones that make it to the main cast.

      If you look at a show like So You Think You Can Dance, all of the finalists have been dancing since they were teenagers. They’re real because it wouldn’t make any sense to have a “fake” contestant.

  4. cliche says:

    According to an acquaintance of mine, who made it to “bootcamp” in the Australian version of X-Factor, because her appearance was somewhat ‘alternative’, the producers tried to gently persuade her into performing a song with heavy screaming (they said something akin to “sing how you look”).
    She refused, and wasn’t chosen to advance.

  5. r_s_g says:

    That guy is a classically trained tenor with a serious operatic voice, and there is about a 0% chance he doesn’t know that by age 17. Put him in a tailored suit, get him a decent haircut, and he’d just be a fat guy with a decent voice instead of a sob story. I’m betting the show basically “urged” him to dress down and appear frumpy. Pavarotti would look pathetic in a Hendrix t-shirt too.

    • Minerva says:

      Agree. Just like Susan’s “talent” did not just pop out of somewhere. The difference is that imo Susan’s original self and later transformation is a lot more credible than anyone that followed afterwards.

  6. Guy Fox says:

    Good reading, but there are many fields of activity that rely on all participants collectively and consciously believing a lie and agreeing not to acknowledge that fact explicitly. Example 1: Everyone who’s taken the Eucharist knows that the wafer and the wine don’t really turn into flesh and blood, but the ritual depends on everybody pretending that they do. Example 2: Kids at Disneyland know that the Mickey walking around isn’t the same guy from Steamboat Willie, but they react as if he were, and so do their parents, who know just as well. Example 3: In most families where some adult is fiddling inappropriately with some kid(s), other family member(s) know, but the whole institution of the family depends on everyone pretending it’s not happening. As soon as that spell is broken, the whole thing falls apart.

    This branch of the Matrix is probably very old and very deep.

  7. Gabe Ruth says:

    Do you think Jeremy Lin was an example of the this kind of thing? There was a Knicks commercial that was just a clip of him dribbling the ball and directing traffic, and he was guarded by Matt Barnes. Mr. Barnes is a sick defender, and there is no way Lin should have been able to score a career high 38 with Barnes guarding him. But in the clip he’s playing off him, acting jumpy, on his toes, like he’s worried about getting beaten off the dribble. That was the first time I really believed the NBA is as authentic as professional wrestling.

    Mr. Fox, no one pretends they’re chewing flesh and drinking blood when they receive the Eucharist. They may be pretending to believe that an object’s substantial properties can change without its accidental properties also changing, but that is a metaphysical claim that the senses can’t falsify.

  8. Nachlasse says:

    No, I think there’s something that’s missing. We all knew the fat guy was going to be amazing, the video production only enhanced the satisfaction of his amazingness. But at the same time we knew the fat guy was great, we knew too that the pretty girl would be mediocre.

    I think all these shows recently have implanted the idea that the fatter/hideous/odder you are, the more crazy your talent is, but if you’re normal looking, your talent is only normal. I guess it’s boring having a winner looking like a normal person, so media accentuates the effect of the greatness of these people with its production tricks.

    And not just singing, Linsanity too. Could it be that with this new media narrative of the odd being the great, it hyped Lin up so much that it made his game better? I’m not sure, but I guess it’s possible.

    • Guy Fox says:

      Oh, you mean the story about the unlikely orphan/geek/nameless cowboy who, initially denying his/her own specialness, eventually rises to greatness, evidenced by getting the girl/the sword out of the stone/firing the photon torpedo in the exhaust vent/moving faster than agents/becoming captain of the football team?

      That’s the plot of pretty much every 80s movie, and much else besides.

      Brings us back to the persistence of cliches: everybody knows they’re tired and hackneyed (by definition), but for some reason we can’t stop repeating them. Must be something to it.

      • Nachlasse says:

        Haha, yes, but the monomyth has only recently been used in reality tv. 2007 led to the rise of Paul Potts, 2009 Susan Boyle. and Its not just Britain got talent, China’s got talent is filled with stories like these too, but it too is only relatively recent.

        However American Idol, X factor seems to not follow this formula. Perhaps it’s simply the demographics of voters on the different shows.

  9. Eipa says:

    I didn’t feel a thing… I much more enjoyed watching tv before i knew tlp

  10. Old Mike says:

    Here’s one more where the performer is actually good at something you might actually want to listen to.

  11. pkieffer says:

    When I first saw this I wondered what effect the belittling of the female partner’s talent has on the viewer. Part of the appeal here is the rise of the underdog, though not in the traditional sense of someone who is measurably/statistically worse at something rising to defeat someone who is measurably/statistically better, but rather a man who is clearly lacking confidence proving (to himself, we like to imagine) that he is worthy of it. But then we have the pretty, talented partner, who is evaluated as mediocre by comparison, and it is clear that although she seemed to enter the performance with great confidence, she no doubt left the stage with much less. I have to wonder if our satisfaction at his triumph is tempered by her relative failure? And then even more so when he sticks by her side, proving that he is selfless and loyal in addition to talented. And maybe even casting her as opportunistic? To what degree is she offered as the antagonist in this hero quest?

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