“Ten years?” Eleanor said, with considerable shock.
“Yep, it was 2009,” Gwen confirmed. She tilted her computer screen towards her friends, showing them clearly the Wikipedia article with the date inscribed on the top.
“Wow,” Eleanor said. “It feels way more recent than that.”
“I’d say it feels longer,” Dania replied. “I mean, when was the last time you thought about Susan Boyle, really?”
“At least 2012, I know that,” Gwen said. “When the Les Miz movie came out. I’m still fairly certain that the film adaptation only happened because a producer said, ‘make a movie out of that song that Susan Boyle sang.'”
Dania considered this. “The timing would work out.”
“I’m sure I thought about her more recently,” Eleanor said. “I still have her first CD on my phone, I was definitely a fan in high school.”
“I never listened to anything else besides the actual performance,” Dania said. “I assume that ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is on the album?”
“Did you never listen to her other music?”
“Why would I?” Dania asked. “She was a good singer, but I thought the whole point of her being famous was the fact that she didn’t look like a singer. Take that away, and she just sounds like…any other singer.”
“Perhaps,” Gwen countered. “I would posit that there is something enthralling about her voice being so naturally strong. You can tell on the CD that she’s untrained –– or significantly less trained than other singers –– yet the quality is still there.”
“Even if the CD itself is pretty overproduced,” Eleanor said.
“Is it overproduced?” Gwen asked. “I remember liking it enough.”
“There’s a lot of synthetic orchestra on the album,” Eleanor warned. “They almost drown her out on some songs. Here, I can play it.”
As Eleanor pulled up the album on her own laptop, Dania tried her best to recollect the public electricity that Boyle’s surprise turn on Britain’s Got Talent had wrought in 2009. Although she eventually lost the competition, she had certainly become one of the year’s most recognizable stars. And yet, that success hadn’t seemed to last very long. After her debut, Boyle continued to release albums up to the present day, but none had matched the meteoric power of the performance that put her on the national stage in the first place.
“So here’s a song with way too much choir in the background,” Eleanor introduced, before playing Boyle’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” for the room. What began as a subtle, contemplative performance over sustained strings slowly evolved into an overpowering choral maelstrom, with Boyle vocals tumbling somewhere in the center.
“That’s…arguably too much backing for a hymn,” Gwen conceded.
“That’s admittedly the worst case on the album,” Eleanor said. “Most of it isn’t quite that overwrought. Although there is definitely a Spanish guitar player who is just trying to make a name for himself on this album, and he steals all the focus.”
Eleanor flipped around to various songs on the album, searching for this elusive guitar lick. During the search, the trio caught glimpses of Boyle’s elegant vocal power on each song, always against a backdrop of computerized strings and what was likely a live piano.
“She sounds almost like a breathy Bernadette Peters,” Gwen commented. “Does that make sense?”
“She sounds like every other amateur vocalist,” Dania countered. “She just has a ton of money and backing thrown at her because she’s surprisingly not pretty.”
Gwen scowled. “I don’t think that’s wholly the reason, Dania.”
“Is it not true?” she asked, agitated. “When was the last time you watched the video of her audition? Everything the judges say about her is ‘wow, you were so ugly, I didn’t think you could sing, but nope!‘”
“Yes, but just because she surpassed expectations doesn’t mean she would have risen to almost win Britain’s Got Talent.”
“Public opinion certainly helped,” Dania said. “Regardless of quality, she continued to be a popular celebrity for a long time after the competition. I’m only saying, I don’t know how much of that was on the strength of her singing alone.”
“Here we go,” Eleanor returned, playing a clip from “You’ll See” –– the album’s most bombastic track, and certainly populated with enough Spanish guitar to be considered overkill.
“That’s a lot of synth violin,” Gwen admitted.
“It’s not a very well-produced CD,” Eleanor said. “Or, at least, it feels rushed. Like they knew that their window to make her a star was only about a year long, so they had to get a CD out quickly.”
“I still think she’s a fine singer,” Gwen said. “Of course she lacks polish, but that’s the point. It was her first album, she was not as trained.”
“Yeah, but you could put literally anyone in the position of having a studio behind them, and it would probably sound as good as Susan Boyle,” Dania said. “I don’t see what made her so special.”
“The name recognition doesn’t hurt,” Eleanor offered. “I mean, I understand what you’re saying, Dania. If it hadn’t been for the Britain’s Got Talent judges vastly underestimating her, she probably would have been considered no better than anyone else.”
“But they did, is the point,” Dania added. “In addition to her singing, she also had the talent of consistently setting the bar very low.”
“That wasn’t her fault, though, it was the judges.”
“Can we just watch the audition again, please?” Dania said. “I’m pretty sure it was a lot more problematic than we remember.”
“I can find it,” Eleanor said.
A quick search turned up the viral clip. Boyle, a vision in a cream dress and a frumpy mop of hair, with her audition number pinned across her chest, fending off the judges’ questioning with aplomb.
“That’s a big town,” Simon Cowell noted, when Boyle named her hometown of Blackburn, West Lothian.
“It’s a sort of collection of…it’s a collection of...” Boyle stopped to recollect the words, and a few audience members could be heard chuckling at her forgetfulness. “…villages,” Boyle finished, with a grin.
“And how old are you, Susan?” Cowell asked.
“I am forty-seven.”
Cowell’s eyes rolled.
“Yetch,” Eleanor said.
The judges continued their questioning (“Who would you like to be as successful as?” “Elaine Paige”) before allowing Boyle to introduce her song, “I Dreamed A Dream.”
The performance was exactly as they remembered it. Boyle, receiving an aggressive ovation almost immediately, belting her heart out to a karaoke track of the showtune. The two color commentators, hidden in the wings, eventually stopping their banter to simply watch Boyle in action. And, of course, the cryptically dead eyes of Amanda Holden, who seemed to be struggling to critique a performance she hadn’t seen coming.
“Again, I don’t think she’s a bad singer at all,” Dania repeated. “Just not a particularly notable one. Like, if some bombshell had come onstage and sung with that voice, I’m not sure she would have won the Audience Vote.”
“But I see that as sort of the draw of Susan Boyle,” Eleanor said. “Like, here’s this woman, who wanted to be a singer, who wasn’t as well trained, but managed to amass a support network of people who lifted her up and gave her the career she always wanted. Yes, it could have been anyone, but that’s the point: it could have been anyone. Anyone with that level of support can become a star, regardless of background.”
“Regardless of appearance, you mean,” Dania corrected.
“You make it all about her appearance,” Gwen said.
“They make it all about her appearance!” Dania said. “Listen to them.”
On Eleanor’s screen, Boyle had finished singing, and been called back to center stage.
“When you stood there, with that cheeky grin,” said Piers Morgan, “and said you wanted to be like Elaine Paige, everyone was laughing at you.”
“Oof,” Eleanor groaned. “That’s rough.”
“Yeah, well, Piers Morgan is a mutt.”
“I am so thrilled, because I know that everybody was against you,” said Holden. “I honestly think that we all were being very cynical, and that’s the biggest wake-up call ever.”
“But, like, did everyone think she was going to suck?” Eleanor asked. “I’m sure there were some people rooting for her, guaranteed.”
“Yeah, that’s the issue, right?” Dania said. “Susan Boyle can be this fantastic dream come true, where a normal person gets to be a star. But it happened because her judges were jerks, and she called them on their biases.”
“That’s entirely fair,” Gwen said. “But with that said, where does that leave this?”
Gwen pressed play on her own computer, and Boyle’s “Wild Horses” played. The album’s opener, it was a hauntingly tender ballad, showcasing the best of Boyle’s liquid consonants and lush vibrato. But as it played, Gwen still considered: would I be applying those adjectives if it were a random singer on the street?
“I think it’s like Amanda Holden said; Susan Boyle was a wake-up call,” Eleanor suggested. “It’s the quote from Ratatouille, right? ‘Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.’ Susan Boyle has a strong voice, and regardless of the circumstances around her discovery, it’s heartwarming that so many people were able to see the artistry in it.”
“She has a stable recording career now, right?” Gwen said. “I know she had a new album or two.”
“She’s up to six, according to Wikipedia,” Eleanor said. “The rest are likely better mixed than the first one, since they had more time.”
“This is still the thing that most people will remember her for, though,” Dania said, indicating the video of the famous audition.
“Oh, certainly,” Eleanor said. “And I don’t think that will ever truly change. But at least she’s been given a life beyond the singing competition. That rarely ever happens to an artist.”
“Taylor Hicks,” Gwen said. “ABBA.”
“But for someone like Susan Boyle?” Eleanor asked.
She looked back at the video –– Boyle’s genuine joy at receiving three “yes” votes from the panel of judges.
“I don’t think so.”
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