By now, you’ve probably seen Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent. At least a few scholars and critics, bless their skeptical hearts, have argued against accepting the seeming spontaneity of the clip at face value.
I’ve argued in the past for the everyday intelligence of popular audiences, most especially children, and I would do the same in this case. Meaning, while people may react to the narrative framework of reality TV as if it were “real”, I believe they’re also aware at some level of its artifice. Holding a particular piece of reality TV up as authentic is a relative rather than absolute judgment. Viewers may be conscious on some level that the editors of The Amazing Race have chosen to highlight, underscore or compress the evolving story of this season into a clash over the terms and themes of identity politics and the limits of competitiveness (a popular hook with reality shows). But if they respond to that story and to the ways that the players act within it as real or vivid, that’s both because the narrative itself is real to their own social experience (however compressed and edited it may be in the show) and because they appreciate the artfulness of the editorial compression, the craft of the staging.
So Jason Mittell is undoubtedly right that the producers at Britain’s Got Talent had some inkling of what was coming when Boyle stepped to the mike, and possibly the judges as well. Possibly even the audience, who knows. Certainly anyone who came to the clip on YouTube knew from the first moment, given the set-up, that they were not about to see another William Hung “She Bangs” clip.
Mittell asks why the clip is seen as “another triumph of the human spirit”. Here is where I think debating the clip’s authenticity or spontaneity is beside the point. With reality TV, the question is the same as it is with drama, even if the genre framing of narrative is different, even if audiences do imaginative work with what they see in some slightly different ways. The point is not to be surprised that a story is being told, but to ask what story, and why.
The story of Susan Boyle in her clip is, as Mittell notes, something of a revisitation of the earlier performance of Paul Potts on the same program. In one sense, it is a story about performance, audition and the audience themselves (with the judges including themselves expansively in the “we” of the audience) in which the audience are asked to cast themselves as Snidley Whiplash, as the villain. Like all actors playing villains, we like to chew a bit of scenery (hence the eye-rolling and derision captured on the faces of the audience). We know of ourselves that we’ve watched other competitions and laughed or mocked the ineptitude of early auditions, accepting the ways in which appearance and stereotype are sometimes used by such programs to cue us that a laughable or pathetic spectacle is going to unfold. The Susan Boyle and Paul Potts clips are offered as moral reversal and thus as rebuke of us as audience and to a very limited extent, of the programs themselves, though mostly if anyone’s held to blame, the framing holds us and our desires to blame. This is a kind of debate that always works around and within reality TV: who watches? who determines? where does the authorial responsibility come to rest?
At another level, the Susan Boyle clip is gripping because it is a powerful version of the primal moral fable of modern liberalism. One of the things I still like about Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism, given the disastrously consequential hubris of much of its argument, was Berman’s observation that one of the weaknesses of liberalism in the 21st Century is that its appeal is cold, distant, disembedded from community and passion and everyday experience. Berman’s bad answer to that dilemma was that liberalism would have to be more militant, “hot” through the violent deployment of power and struggle.
In a way, the Susan Boyle story is a reminder that liberalism actually has heartfelt, emotionally rich stories that are intimately familiar to many people in many societies. Chief among them is the insistence that individuals contain within them talents, character, particularities which are poorly described by stereotypes or collective identities and poorly managed or appreciated by social institutions and conventions. We hear that story constantly from childhood in various cliched forms, to the point that we’re scarcely aware of how embedded it is in our common sense: never judge a book by its cover, ugly duckling, I am somebody, self-made man, I did it my way. Sometimes we tell it as a story of struggle: the heroic individual seizing or wresting their particular worth away from hostile forces. Sometimes we tell it as a story of epiphany (tragic or comic): how the world or the community comes to realize its failure at appreciate an individual and thus to appreciate individuality itself.
That’s as “warm” a narrative as you could ask for, and it’s certainly one which motivates and underwrites social and political action in the world as strongly as communitarian, collective or religious visions of belonging. Of course it’s also trite and sentimental and in its stupider or uglier forms just as prone to underwriting malicious or extreme action as any illiberal narrative. But I think the positive reaction to Susan Boyle’s performance has as much to do with the continued appreciation for the idea of the heroically unique individual liberated from stereotype and social convention as anything else.