This is a guest post from LitPopCult.com by Richard Abowitz
Susan Boyle is a good singer who everyone has heard of only because she undermined a total conviction among the public that artistic gifts rest with the young and attractive. She did not actually win the television talent show she was on; but the well edited footage of her debut from bumpkin to Diva made her a fixture of new media stardom. Boyle’s story makes us feel good about ourselves for recognizing her talents despite her exterior packaging. But there is something wrong about the Boyle adulation. Boyle is not a great or even particularly good interpretive singer. We admire her because she has a powerful voice and looks nothing like Beyonce. But she can not sing as well as Beyonce either.
Boyle’s fame comes from our seeing a thick body, a middle aged body, on stage holding her own, so that we pat ourselves on the back at our awe. And, she can sing, only, her singing is about 10% of what Julie Andrews could produce. Boyle is a novelty hit. She looks nothing like how our visual age signals us to expect our performers to appear. Certainly good looks and youth are an advantage in many aspects of life, if not all, but show business can be particularly brutal. There will never be another Susan Boyle in the media because she has filled the niche. But there are so many of her in the real world and there always have been. There is an unlimited number of above average singers with average looks. Boyle was a triumph less as a singer than as fantastic television editing: from her eating a sandwich to shots of condescending audience members having the smirks wiped off their faces.
Now, that the world has embraced Boyle, our belief in the meritocracy of talent is restored, we can go back to our regularly scheduled joys listening to a Britney Spears production where the star hardly sings at all.
And, yet, what happens when the talent is more than Susan Boyle has to offer? What happens when a singer is world class yet out of step with the world, and the times and the customs? Television scripted Susan Boyle a happy ending and the media helped her have a hit disc.
Here are two examples of talent far greater than Boyle. These are great artists who spent a lifetime in obscurity while in view. If you want to save the money on buying Susan Boyle’s disc you can instead pick up work by Ted Hawkins or Marion Williams.
Hawkins recorded a couple discs during his career. But he was primarily a street singer with a box open in Venice Beach where he took requests and hoped for change. Being a street performer who takes requests, by the way, is how Garth Brooks told an audience at Wynn he got his start. Brooks is what happens when commercial drive, a little luck and lot of hard work and discipline come together. I am not clear how many of those ingredients were missing from Hawkins. But he mostly stayed on the streets of Venice Beach being heard by passers-by who had no idea probably of the world class artist before them. Finally, his major label debut came out in 1994, and the adulation arrived. Months later Hawkins was dead in 1995 at 58. Here is some rare footage of him:
Marion Williams is one of the greatest singers to ever life. I think few who have really listened to her could dispute that. It is a pity so little of her music is available. And, it is rare for her to have accompaniment able to keep up with her voice. Her career was gospel music, sung mostly at churches, where passing the hat around was the way she paid the bills. Throughout her career her finances were never secure. She had a kidney condition and a performance at a church was how she could pay for her dialysis. Life was day to day, despite being one of the world’s most awe inspiring voices. Williams luck finally changed in 1993 when she got the genius award, a MacArthur Foundation grant, that for the first time allowed her to be able to sing and not worry about money. She died in 1994.
Here is vintage footage of Willams. Pay particular attention to the note she hurls out about a minute into this. And, that is before she shows off her ability to get as gritty as any blues singer. She may have peers, but there is no singing with talents greater than her:
And, so yes, feel good about Susan Boyle’s success. But ask yourself if she looked like LeAnn Rimes would her voice impress you so much? At any given time so much of our best art gets ignored and always will. That is inevitable.
But perhaps, instead of seeing Susan Boyle as a novelty take a hint from her modicum of talent. Singing does not have a look or an age. And, if you were surprised by Boyle, a simply adequate singer, take a chance on someone like Ted Hawkins or Marion Williams and dozens of others who lack the look, but have the real glow of exquisite talent.