Susan Boyle: The 10 craziest things about Boylemania

Yes she’s a good singer, but there’s no excuse for turning Susan Boyle into a theological, moral and political symbol.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

Since she strutted on to the stage of ITV1’s Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) a few weeks ago, with a frumpy dress, bird’s nest hair and eyebrows which, according to one journalist, you could ‘knit a jumper from’, Susan Boyle has become a megastar. Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Misérables has, at the time of writing, been viewed more than 40,000,000 times on YouTube: around 35,000,000 times more often than the official video of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. Well, who cares about Obama when, according to the Boston Globe, Boyle – a cat-owning virgin from West Lothian – is ‘the biggest thing in the world’?

Of course, everyone loves a good show tune. And everyone loves an underdog. But Boylemania has become about so much more than an underdog singing a good show tune. Rather, Ms Boyle has been turned into an SIE (Shared International Experience) whose angelic voice and against-the-odds international fame apparently reveal that feminism is alive and well, beauty is overrated, the recession ain’t that bad, cynicism is dying, and God still loves us. You think I’m exaggerating? Consider the 10 craziest things that have been said over this past week-and-a-half of global Boylebarminess.

1) Boyle is evidence of God’s love

In the US, where Boyle is even bigger than in Britain, leading Christians have written about ‘Susan Boyle and the Love of God’. Apparently the whooping of millions of people at the sight of Boyle getting a standing ovation is evidence of our inner Christian leanings. Says one Christian columnist: ‘The way we see Susan Boyle is very nearly the way God sees us: worthwhile, special, talented, unique, beautiful.’ Another reckons Boyle is living, singing evidence of ‘the divine spark, the God-kiss, that lives in each and every one of us’ and which is infinitely more important than having ‘perky breasts and unlined skin’. It is a divine revelation of Christianity’s desperation that it needs a quirky, increasingly viral video of a woman singing nicely – a ‘cyberfable’ as one of them approvingly calls it – to try to make a connection with a largely God-indifferent public.

2) Boyle is a modern-day Cinderella

It used to be children who required fairytales to make moral sense of the world; now adults do, too. Boyle’s story is a ‘fairytale that reiterates and acts out some of our most primitive emotions’, says an Australian writer. A very serious British writer – best known for bemoaning Britain’s moral malaise – says Boyle’s rise ‘has all the symbolic power of a fairy story’, with the ‘ugly old lady, despised by all’ standing up to ‘the jeering audience of vain young people’. And the audience’s punishment for initially ‘sneering’ at Boyle? ‘To be revealed as they truly are: heartless, thoughtless and superficial; the flotsam and jetsam of the polluted seas of celebrity, likely to sink without trace into toxic foam.’ Ouch. It says a lot about the moral discombobulation of our times that it takes a slickly edited reality TV experience to remind us about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, with Boyle as the moral heroine and the public (predictably) as the turpitudinous baying mob.

3) Boyle is a feminist icon

Like those clapped-out Christians, clapped-out feminists have also embraced Boyle – only for them she’s a reminder, not of man’s capacity to love, but of men’s capacity to be sexist pigs. A British feminist writer says Boyle reminds us that while ‘men are allowed to be ugly and talented’, women aren’t. The audience bombarded her with ‘mocking wolf-whistles’ and ‘derision’ (Did they? Really?), reminding us that actually ‘Britain’s Got Malice’ and the masses are an ‘ugly crowd that doesn’t deserve [Susan Boyle]’. Under the headline ‘Why Susan Boyle makes us cry’, a US writer said she emailed the video of Boyle singing to ‘everyone on my Women’s Issues list’, describing it as a powerful blow to ‘entrenched stereotypes of age, class and gender’. It’s official: the narcissistic, post-Spice Girls version of feminism – which requires a spunky songstress to take on the thick, spiteful, mostly male public – reigns supreme. (Ironic fact: it is largely only feminists who have openly labelled Boyle ‘ugly’, in order to prove their silly points.)

4) Boyle is taking our minds off the recession

What is the world crying out for? ‘Recession relief’, apparently. And New York magazine says Boyle is ‘the first big star of the global recession’: she has ‘galvanised’ Britain, a nation that is ‘anxious to the point of mental frailty’. Another writer says Boyle might help us to ‘“Boyle” the recession blues’ and divert our minds from ‘economic woes and the shrinking cache of cash’. It is testament to the commentariat’s distance from the concerns of everyday people, and to their cluelessness about the nature of the recession, that they believe St Susan might make things better. (A more critical writer says Boylemania shows that Western culture is well and truly ‘Boyle’d’. Where 40million children in that ‘future superpower’ – China – are currently learning classical piano, ‘the people of the West have elected to identify with what is like them [in this case an ordinary Scottish woman], rather than emulate what is above them’.)

5) Boyle should stay ‘ugly’

One of the ugliest elements of Boylemania is the campaign to ‘keep her plain’. Amanda Holden, a judge on BGT who has been preened and plucked to within an inch of her life, says: ‘I won’t let Simon Cowell take her to his dentist and I certainly won’t let her near his hairdresser.’ No, she ‘needs to stay exactly as she is because that’s the reason we love her’. One writer says she’ll ‘weep’ when Boyle has ‘her eyebrows plucked, her chin remodelled, her hair done by stylists’. This is a desperado attempt to preserve Boyle as a symbol of authenticity, a kind of frumpy version of the ‘real’ and ‘earthy’ Blues singers of old, despite the fact that she is now on a global conveyor belt of media appearances and viral fame. As a writer for Slate says: ‘I don’t know that turning Ms Boyle into some kind of statement about physical beauty is any more respectful of her autonomy than forcing her into a makeover…’

6) Boyle represents the death of cynicism

‘Will Susan Boyle kill cynicism?’ asked one major American newspaper. Mother Jones ran with the headline: ‘Susan Boyle: Curing Cynicism Since 2009.’ According to the UK Sunday Times, with just ‘one song’ she ‘broke the grip of this sneering world’. This suggests a severely limited understanding of contemporary cynicism, which is presented as a disease of the mind amongst ordinary, jeering, wolf-whistling members of the public and TV-viewing masses. In truth, what’s really cynical – institutionally cynical – is the neatly edited TV shots of BGT audience members raising their eyebrows in response to Boyle and the transformation of these shots into evidence that people are stupid and jaded and clearly in need of some fairytale-style ‘punishment’ by the more intelligent, suddenly pro-ugly media.

7) Boyle is a big fat fake

The flipside of the ‘death of cynicism’ claims is the super-cynical argument that Boyle is ‘not real’ but is the sly, conspiratorial creation of supervillain Simon Cowell. Some websites are examining footage of Boyle’s appearance on BGT to see how things were spliced together, and are even demanding the original rushes from ITV1. ‘Why Is No One Suspicious of Simon Cowell’s Latest Creation?’ asks an American writer. Another writes about the ‘weirdly mixed-in catcalls and ADR’d sceptical laughter’ during Boyle’s performance. All of which suggests two things: 1) People are spectacularly naive about reality TV – this kind of editing has always taken place; and 2) There’s no internet-spread ‘happy story’ that will not speedily be demolished by the internet’s very own shoulder-shrugging, conspiracy-minded brigade. So much for the death of cynicism.

8) Boyle can bring the world together

A writer for the Huffington Post says the Boyle phenomenon gives the lie to the idea that the internet is ‘making us numb to personal interaction’. In reality, he says, through Boyle ‘millions of people [are] flocking to a virtual destination and forming a “flash mob” style community, never meeting each other but finding a real outlet to come together and share in the moment’. So Boylemania is making real the ‘global community’ talked up by Clinton and Blair and fantasised over by Web Theorists for the past 10 years? One might ask what kind of ‘community’ only cheers and cries together over a seven-minute video of a woman singing an old Les Mis song. This isn’t only a ‘lonely crowd’; it’s a lonely, individuated, virtual crowd of spectators of a TV show.

9) Boyle has been offered $1million to do porn

Seriously. By Kick Ass Films in Los Angeles. Everyone is outraged, of course, yet if TV producers, Oprah, churches, feminists, writers and cynics can try to make a point (and a buck) of the back of Boylemania, why not porn-producers?

10) Boyle is a symbol of anti-bullying campaigns

The revelation that Boyle was mocked as ‘Simple Susan’ at school has generated endless stories about the terrible problem of bullying. Boyle is held up as a ‘survivor’ of the scourge of childish cruelty. Yet when she was asked about these incidents by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America – an interview that should have come with a warning: ‘Some Viewers May Find This Interview Deeply Patronising of Its Subject’ – Boyle said she had ‘moved on’ and her former bullies had grown up and were ‘now quite pleasant’. A brusque Scottish spinster challenging the ‘scarred for life’ view of bullying? Funnily enough, none of the Boylemaniacs has pursued this possible storyline.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow wondered if a fat girl winning Pop Idol was a triumph for ‘real women’ or a bad advert for obesity. Patrick West decried the vacuous fame-seeking of shows like Britain’s Got Talent and examined American TV’s love-hate relationship with Brits. Nathalie Rothschild thought the message of Ugly Betty was pretty predictable: it’s the inside that counts. Elsewhere, she reviewed Cosmo Landesman’s Starstruck, a book about fame, failure and families. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today