New York in History and Anecdote
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Susan Boyle and the Tigers of the Night

I’ve read several Google pages’ worth of commentaries on Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish woman whose April 11 performance of a song from  Les Miserables on the U.K. version of “American Idol,” “Britain’s Got Talent,” millions of people have watched on YouTube. So far, though, I’ve yet to encounter an article, essay, or blog post that touches on the aspect of the phenomenon that I found most fascinating and moving.

No one as far has commented on the nature of the number Boyle performed—no one has pointed out that it’s a lousy song. This is perfectly understandable. To do so would have seemed nasty or mean-spirited, and the whole point of the Susan Boyle phenomenon—at first glance, certainly—was the conquest of nastiness, the silencing of the urbane, supercilious stance embodied by Simon Cowell in the television persona he has created for himself. But I think it’s important that Boyle wowed the world with a dreadful, inept piece of sentimental tripe. In fact, I’d argue it’s the key to the whole phenomenon. Because part of what was galvanizing about Boyle’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” was that she made it a good song.

In order to appreciate the consummate badness of “I Dreamed A Dream” you don’t necessarily have to have the lyrics in front of you, but it helps. Like many of the songs in Les Miserables, it’s a concatenation of hackneyed tropes and verbal clichés—“empty songs with empty lyrics” was how the parodist Gerard Alessandrini put it in his send-up of one of the show’s more unspeakable numbers (“Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”). These are songs that bank on the idea that if you make something vague enough and general enough it will appeal to everyone—which is a kind of perversion of universality. (Good songs discover a particular or idiosyncratic truth that we can generalize ourselves.)

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living,
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

Of course, there are bad songs and bad songs. If this one seemed particularly laughable in the context of the show it was because the character who sang it had appeared for the first time only seconds before and died virtually seconds later. Actually, the song is worse even than I’d remembered. Boyle left out a verse that contains the lines “He slept a summer by my side/ He filled my days with endless wonder;/ He took my childhood in his stride…” The collision of euphemism with cliché doesn’t often get more infelicitous than that.

Plenty of die-hard fans of Les Miserables would go to the barricades to defend it; but even folks who love the show, or who have a love-hate relationship with it (like me), tend to admit to the transparent awfulness of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Indeed, the song became briefly famous on the musical-theater-writing circuit, when the show first opened in New York, for a lyric so inept that no one has ever been able to make even the remotest guess at what it’s supposed to mean. It comes in the first two lines of the bridge but is hard to hear in the YouTube video, either because Boyle was tastefully downplaying that part of the song or because it dips suddenly to a place slightly below her natural register.

But the tigers come at night,
With their voices soft as thunder,
As they tear your hope apart,
As they turn your dream to shame.

No one has ever been able to figure out where the tigers come from or what they have to do with anything.

There are moments in popular culture when a work of art undergoes a transformation because something in real life creates a context where there was a vacuum before. Something like that happened around fifteen years ago with the revival of the Broadway musical Chicago. If you talk to people who saw the original 1975 production, which was coolly received by audiences and critics and didn’t last long, you hear a lot about hostility toward the audience, how the murdering showgirls who become stars called you “suckers” and threw roses out into the house at the end, claiming to be living examples of what makes America great and what it stands for. Two decades later, the same finale was greeted with amusement and delight.

What had changed? Very little about the show. But Court TV had come along, and the world had watched the fiasco of the O.J. Simpson case—with its mountebanks and cheap theatrics—lead to a lot of new-made celebrities and no conviction. Suddenly a show that reveled cynically in the hypocrisies of a society that makes stars out of lawyers and murderers had a lot of meaning to a lot of people.

A 1970s audience had plenty to be cynical about, but in the post-Watergate era the media were not the villains. With no specific target for its satire, the show was (rightly I think) interpreted to be excoriating the audience. Twenty years later, events in the real world had given the show moral heft, and an audience could join in its contempt for something outside of the theater.

Something analogous, I think, was happening last week when we all watched that video of Susan Boyle performing that silly song. In this case what created a reference point was Boyle herself. There were things we knew about her that gave the lyrics of the song a context it’s probably never had before and may never have again. Some of them she had told us herself in the little sound-bytes before her performance, but most of them were things we intuited from her manner, affect, and bearing—from the way she laughed when she laughed and clowned when she clowned and cringed when she cringed and stood her ground with what seemed like an obliviousness to how she was coming off.

When she began to sing and everyone was blown away, two factors were at work. One was the incongruity between her singing and the persona she projected. She didn’t sing the way we expected someone to sing who came off the way she did—awkward and gormless. The second thing that blew us away was the lyrics to the song. It wasn’t that she made them seem good or true or meaningful; it was that they were true (and therefore good and meaningful) when she sang them. We knew that because we knew that some of those things we’d guessed about Susan Boyle were true. So when she sang about a lonely, sad, and disappointed life, a song made mute and silent by its own anonymity became eloquent through her idiosyncrasy.

Everyone keeps going on about how satisfying it was to see her “impress” the judges on “Britain’s Got Talent.” But that’s not primarily what you see when you watch the judges in the YouTube video. You’re not watching people who are impressed so much as people who are strangely moved by something they weren’t expecting to encounter. (I’m talking about the two men, really; the woman was obviously performing.) They’re aware of the triteness and vacuity of the lyrics, but they’re thinking about them all the same.

And that, I think, more than Boyle’s triumph, is what moved us when we watched the video, the barely perceptible changes that happened in the faces of the judges—the way this one swallowed or that one found himself having to turn an involuntary sigh in to a  smile. Oh sure, it was satisfying to see Boyle “wipe”—as one of the articles I read put it—“the smirk off Simon Cowell’s face,” and thrilling to get caught up in the audience’s wild excitement. But the moments in the video that made you and me and all the journalists and bloggers who wrote about the experience weep come a little later; they offer a fleeting glimpse of what’s going on in the mind of a listener as the phony, empty lyrics become filled with a possibility of meaning—because it’s a song about someone who had envisaged something else from life and Susan Boyle had walked on stage as one who couldn’t possibly envision another life for herself.

In the end, it was a kind of relay effect: the judges were moved by something they saw in Susan Boyle, and we were moved by something we saw in them. For us, as for them, it had to do with a suggestion of the unknown aspects of another soul—unguessed passions, thoughts, and experiences; the idiosyncratic and unpredictable; the tigers that come at night from out of nowhere and don’t belong in the song.

April 20, 2009   9 Comments