By Jeanne McManus
Friday, April 17, 2009
One of the engines that drive a cynical world in general and reality TV in particular is sparked by the friction between self-perception and fact. There's nothing quite like a stage and the hot spotlights of shows such as "American Idol" to make it clear to Everyman that his own measure of self-worth has just collided with a wall of three judges, and the results are messy blood sport for the viewing public.
Onto such a stage last weekend -- for the show "Britain's Got Talent" -- came Susan Boyle, and the setup was ripe. The solid-looking Scot in clumpy shoes and a dress the color of weak tea strode forward with the purposefulness of a woman who was going to dig a furrow for spring potatoes.
She had a streak of playfulness and shyness and a broad swath of uncowering dignity. And pride. She wanted to measure her talents against those of Elaine Paige, a British legend.
The eye-rolling public and the three jaded judges were waiting for her to squawk like a duck.
When I first saw the You Tube version of her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream," I kept looking for evidence of fraud in spite of the standing ovations of the live audience. From the first line of the first stanza, the confident yet angelic voice did not seem to match the workaday face and dark brows of the woman who was singing. It's a song about the loss of innocence and optimism. I hate the song. I hate "Les Misérables," the musical from which it comes. But I could not take my eyes off Susan Boyle, and I could not stop listening to her poised, pure notes, her perfect enunciation, her self-assured emotion. So I kept playing the song, and replaying it. I am usually front-row center in any audience of cynics, and I'm still not sick of it.
Sure, it would be nice if Boyle goes on to win the finals of this competition -- and even to meet the queen. But to me that's not the point. In a world that is sometimes rife with bloated résumés, stage mothers, fawning friends, self-adulation, narcissism and bedroom shelves holding too many meaningless trophies from middle school, here is a woman who took an accurate measure of her worth and put it to the test in the white-hot crucible of reality TV.
There's nothing wrong with pride. It's false pride that is the problem.
For now, the 47-year-old single woman has returned to Blackburn, her small village in Scotland, where I pray she can be preserved and defended from stylists, colorists, manicurists, eyebrow waxers, record producers, morning talk shows and other makeover mavens who will seek to dye her roots, define her waistline and steal her purity.
Which brings me to another point: Susan Boyle says she has never been kissed.
Men of Blackburn: What are you waiting for?
Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor, is an occasional contributor to the op-ed page.