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Steamed for Susan Boyle

May 6, 2009

Having read all about her in newspapers and magazines and listened to friends and acquaintances enthuse about her voice, I finally got around to checking out Susan Boyle's singing abilities for myself on YouTube. The middle-aged, small-town British singing sensation caused global excitement with her take on "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables a few weeks ago on the UK TV talent show, Britain's Got Talent.

Having watched the video footage, all I can say is that I feel slightly queasy -- nay, indignant -- about the audience's reception to Boyle.

People were clearly alarmed by the singer's frumpy appearance and embarrassing hip-wiggle before she opened her mouth to sing. The studio cameras panned around to show the cruel, cynical looks on their faces. As soon as Boyle launched into her show-tune, however, the crowds instantly started screaming and didn't stop till she was done.

The fact is: No one actually heard her sing. They were so busy dealing with their shock. This reaction was made clear by the judges' comments after Boyle's performance. "Without a doubt that was the biggest surprise I've ever had," said one. "I'm reeling from shock," said another. "It was an extraordinary shock" said a third.

And to this day, I still don't think people have really heard Boyle sing. They're so wrapped up in the Susan Boyle "package" -- her underdog story, her frumpy appearance, her undiscovered talent -- that they're not really listening to the quality of her voice at all.

I tried to make out what I could of Boyle's singing from underneath all the screams of surprise. She has a lovely, rich, strong voice to be sure. But take away the "package" that surrounds that voice, and it's not as exceptional as many think. It's a good voice. But it's not great. I certainly don't think it's unique in any way. In a "blind" listening test where listeners could hear several similarly stagey women vocalists singing the same song from Les Miz, I wonder whether people would be able to pick out Boyle's voice from the pack?

So I'm kinda steamed for Susan Boyle. I wish people would stop obsessing over her background and appearance and start listening for once. They might be disappointed to hear that Boyle's not the Vocal Talent of the Decade. But they could still get some measure of enjoyment from her mellifluous tones anyway.

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