January 21st, 2009 is not a date that Susan Boyle is ever likely to forget. “I will never forget it,” she clarifies in her unmistakeably Celtic brogue. It was the day that the shy, devout 48-year-old stepped onto the stage of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow for an audition on Britain’s Got Talent. Or to put it another way, the day her world turned 360 degrees on its head. In front of the three-strong panel of judges charged with divining which of this year’s British hopefuls really did have talent, the singing voice of Susan Boyle turned out to be a watershed moment neither she nor anyone involved in the show could possibly have foreseen. It is now both her and the show’s defining moment.
In her own haphazard fashion, during three-and-a-half minutes of television airtime, later aired to slack-jawed intakes of breath in May of this year, Susan Boyle fashioned a new kind of fame. She elicited a moment of pure, molten zeitgeist. She broke every rule of the talent show book and tore up a considerable number of the pages of popular music marketing into the bargain. She symbolized an astonishing variety of the little-people’s revenge, quite by accident. Ms. Boyle describes her own astonishing 2009 in refreshingly frank and simple terms. “All I did was to apply for a talent show. I was lucky enough to be chosen. That’s it in a nutshell.” But something deeper was going on in the collective public consciousness. If the two watchwords of the 21st century have been “reality” and “celebrity,” Susan Boyle had accidentally located a brand new point on the graph where they both intersected. One of Britain’s forgotten characters had rarely, if ever, been so memorable.
After her one audition for Britain’s Got Talent, in which she confounded the judges, the audience and then anyone with access to YouTube’s expectations by dazzling her way through a version of the song, “I Dreamed A Dream,” from the musical Les Miserables, a tornado of opinionated column inches, speculation, rumination and conjecture around Susan Boyle grew feverishly. 300 million YouTube hits and counting. She became the subject of op-ed newspaper columns, a front cover sensation in her own right. This unlikely candidate for the melting pot of the new star machine in 21st century Britain caused computer crashes, miles of newsprint and the sophisticated approval of Hollywood’s well-heeled and super-groomed A-list. Though the content differed wildly, everyone proffering their thoughts on the self-confessed “wee wifey” seemed agreed on one point. That in 2009, to be free of an opinion on Susan Boyle was to be free of opinion itself.
For one brief moment, vanity itself collapsed. As that ancient old maxim, “never judge a book by its cover,” clanked around the globe with speedy viral intensity, it was as if the world was about to offer its first unspoken apology for prizing beauty above all else. Perhaps it would temporarily forget its grotesquely accentuated new heights of judgment. Or perhaps Susan Boyle was just a fleeting icon by which a microscope was shone on our more fickle presumptions. Whatever history gifts the Susan Boyle story in the long term, it is now her time to prove that there is more to this incredible woman than being the symbol for a moment of international reflection. She will do it in the exact same way she entered our consciousness in the first place. With the raw combination of strength and fragility, beauty and solitude that is her singing voice.
In some ways, Ms. Boyle’s story is just the same as any woman with a voice in any choir up and down the UK. In her home town of Blackburn, she had been schooled in singing in churches and choral societies. She says now that, as a shy young woman with some learning difficulties, being hidden in the blanket of a collective singing arrangement offered her comfort. So in one other, crucial way, her story is entirely her own. The most unlikely chorister in the sea of voices stepped out of line and put her head above the parapet to be noticed. For Susan Boyle, though she would never deign to say so much herself, this was an act of personal heroism, the like of which she had never contemplated before.
The speed with which reaction to her performance picked up gravitas proved an incendiary media hotbed. But it was most surprising for the woman at the center of it. “It started off with the [Scottish newspaper] Daily Record visiting my door. And it ended up with TV stations from all over the world camping out on my street waiting for interviews and stories. I’d peak behind the curtains in the house, saying ‘what in God’s name is going on here?’ Then the phone calls started. My number was still in the book at that particular time, so anybody could get it and the phone was ringing 24 hours a day. It was constant. People were ringing me who I couldn’t understand because of their accents. All sorts of nationalities. Lots of Americans. It was absolutely unbelievable if I’m being honest.” She is self-deprecating about why she should have caused such a furor. “A woman who went on with mad hair, bushy eyebrows and the frock I was wearing had to be noticed. Come on!”
Such is the quick nature of today’s star system, in September, just four months after her TV debut, Susan Boyle made her live TV comeback. She performed a rarefied take on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” re-orchestrated to gently clasp the exact timbre of her natural talent, on the show’s US cousin, America’s Got Talent. An unprompted standing ovation followed. Outside of the unruly cyclone of her fame, there is something within the voice of Susan Boyle that is absolutely perfect for our times. At a moment when Dame Vera Lynn and Barbra Streisand are topping the album charts, there is something peculiarly modern about her improbably status as holding the international record for most pre-ordered album of all time. As the dust settles on the sheer wattage of conversation that she has prompted, it is time – as they say – to face the music.
Ms. Boyle’s debut album was put together during the summer of this year. She first entered a recording studio in July in Edinburgh, to test how her vocals would respond to tape. The results shocked both her and veteran producer Steve Mac. Decamping to London, she fashioned the record over two months, picking songs that resonated with her, that pricked something within that she felt ready to unleash through music. “It was important that I could feel everything I was singing,” she says, cutting straight to the core of why music can be such a useful release, an escape valve from the everyday.
A disarming mix of the sacred (“My faith is my backbone,” she says) and the secular, there is not a moment on it that is not moving. It is pitched exactly within the framework of the year she has enjoyed and, at well-documented times, endured. It is a collection of covers and original material that cuts a swathe into the interior life of the woman who is arguably the most intriguing, not to mention instantly recognizable character yet to be produced by the reality talent medium, the decade’s defining TV genre.
When she hurts, it hurts. Her rousing rendition of Madonna’s “You’ll See” is a riposte to the children that picked on her in the playground. The new composition “Who I Was Born To Be” is an astonishing testament to self-belief against some startling odds. Yet when she dreams, we dream too. Because of her uncanny knack of picking a song so perfect for her tale at that very first audition, Ms. Boyle has become synonymous with the word “dream.” Her flawless album rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” may come as no surprise, but it still manages to pick every individual hair from the back of your neck and yank them to attention. A country ballad version of “Daydream Believer” delicately seals the deal of her being synonymous with the concept of dreaming.
For this is Susan Boyle’s tale. The fearlessness to dream about something other than the lot life has handed you. The chance to escape. The pivotal role of music as a conduit to go to another place, sometimes lodged at the outer recesses of your imagination, and to allow that new place to blossom. Yes, this is Susan Boyle’s tale. It is why it connected with so many unsuspecting people across the world. In another nutshell? If she can dare to dream, so can you.
Susan’s debut album,I Dreamed A Dream, was the most pre-ordered album worldwide of all time at Amazon before its global release on November 23rd.
BIOGRAPHY BY: Paul Flynn – leading writer on popular culture for prestigious magazines including i-D, Love and Grazia