woody_zimmerman_118_2007People who know me well will affirm that I don't care for the popular TV show American Idol. This is not because I'm non-musical, but because I am musical. I've loved singing since I was a little shaver - even after my first grade teacher said I had "the worst voice" she had ever heard and made me stand in the second row and play the sticks. (This was before the self-esteem movement had gained traction in public education.)

Somehow I overcame that harsh early critique. When my voice changed, I found that I did have some natural gifts. Subsequently, I spent 50 years standing in front of people and singing songs. (But I digress. This is not about me.)

My objection to American Idol has been its tendency to put people on stage who clearly should not be there because they lack the requisite talent for public singing. These misguided folk are then ridiculed and made sport of, for the entertainment "value" that represents to the crowd that finds such pathetic spectacles amusing. As a singer, I find this personally distasteful, as I know what it takes to risk your personhood by standing up - entirely unprotected by even a teleprompter - and delivering a song to people who wouldn't dream of trying to do the same.

Sometimes I do watch American Idol in the final stages of its competition. The singers tend to be good and worth watching at that stage. But I always skip the early rounds, when too many contestants really aren't "singers."

English television has its own version of Idol, called Britain's Got Talent. Simon Cowell is one of the judges on the English show, too. He has, of course, made something of a reputation with his sardonic reactions and caustic dismissals of aspiring contestants.

Simon and the other judges on BGT - as well as a live audience and a national British TV audience - got a memorable surprise when an unremarkable-looking, somewhat dowdy woman with bushy eyebrows and a double chin stepped onto the stage on April 11, 2009. She answered the judges' questions about why she was there. Eye-rolling over her unsophisticated appearance was everywhere apparent - even among the judges - when she said she aspired to be a professional singer. Simon Cowell sardonically asked, "Why hasn't it worked out?" Susan Boyle - a 47-year-old never-married Scottish woman - answered that she hadn't had the right opportunity. Her unpolished look and pronounced ordinariness reinforced the skepticism clearly felt by every judge and most of the live audience. (I watched the video clip. People in the audience were visibly tittering and shaking their heads before Miss Boyle sang.)

Miss Boyle announced that she would sing, "I Dreamed a Dream," from Les Miserables - Schönberg and Boublil's stupendous musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic. Having seen the show several times on Broadway, I knew the song was a show-stopper with a demanding range and high emotional content. If it doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're not breathing.

When the song began, Miss Boyle's rich, free voice soared out over the astonished judges and the disbelieving audience. Time seemed to stand still. The audience - firmly in the cynics' camp just moments before - was on its feet, cheering as each of Miss Boyle's brilliant high notes rang out with joy and conviction. Astonishment registered on the judges' faces. I've heard hundreds - perhaps thousands - of singers over the years, but few performances have evoked such emotion in me. Tears came to my eyes as this dowdy, un-glamorous woman showed the whole world what real singing is all about. With her pure Celtic voice soaring through the song's high passages, and caressing the lower notes with beauty and emotion, she totally knocked the place over - winning unanimous acclaim from the judges and a standing ovation from the crowd. I saw people in the audience applauding, laughing and embracing - literally dancing in the aisles.

I watched the seven-minute clip several times on the Internet. [1] (Over 100 million hits have been recorded on the site.) One of the most touching parts of the episode, as it seemed to me, was the reaction of two backstage technicians who had heard Miss Boyle rehearse. They clearly anticipated the surprise in store for the audience and judges. As she triumphantly completed the song, the two tekkies were alight with jubilation, as though their team had won. They pushed Miss Boyle back onto the stage to talk with the judges, who were calling for her. I'll never know, but I wonder if they were celebrating, in part, because an ordinary-looking person, like most of us, had crossed over to stand in the spotlight and succeed. It was truly a golden moment.

A few weeks later Miss Boyle sang "Memories," from the musical Cats, in the semi-final of the BGT competition. [2] Her voice was a little shaky in the first few bars of the song - I thought perhaps she couldn't hear the pitch properly - but she went on to take control of the demanding score. The judges were again unanimous in their praise, and Simon Cowell even had the grace to apologize for the condescending way they had treated her in her first appearance. Miss Boyle brushed it off with an equally gracious jest, and thanked the public for their support. Her performance won her the chance to sing in the final round of the competition.

For reporters and other spectators, competitions are all about winning. The athlete - or, in this case, the singer - who wins gets the glory and the coverage. Second place might as well be 100th. You're nothing if you haven't won. That's why the Internet and the Mainstream Media today are awash with puff pieces on how Susan Boyle's dream sadly "ended" on May 30th, when she failed to win the BGT finals. She reprised her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." [3] Reviewers said she sang with more emotion and control than the first time, and I would agree entirely. She was in complete command of the song in every way. Chills ran down my spine as I watched her.

Miss Boyle's performance was very well received, but the national audience did not vote her first place. A dance group called Diversity edged her out for the £100,000 prize. The common theme of many commentaries is that Susan Boyle's dream has died, in a kind of verisimilitude to the text of her signature song from Les Miserables.

They are quite wrong, however. Miss Boyle "won" the moment her first brilliant notes rang through the hall on April 11th, raising Simon Cowell's eyebrows and electrifying the whole world. Long before the final, Miss Boyle was already a winner. She might have been disappointed - who wouldn't be? - not to win the monetary prize, but she won't need it. She will realize her dream of being a professional singer, and she will become a star. She already is.

Readers who have seen photos or performances of modern pop-singers might have wondered (as I have) how much plastic surgery it took to produce those eye-popping bodies. No normal person looks like that. It's an artificial package created to market an entertaining persona and an often-mediocre voice. Miss Boyle provoked skepticism from judges and audience because she didn't look like our modern idea of a popular singer. Hopefully, she never will. She doesn't need it.

Men are less hampered by the physical ideals that bedevil women. Luciano Pavarotti was a huge man, tipping the scale at 300 or more through most of his career - thereby reinforcing the maddening tendency of tenors to be stout. His tremendous stature dwarfed most divas who sang opposite him - sometimes to a comic extent. Nevertheless, one never heard that Pavarotti was too big or too fat to sing in the Met. The Maestro had the Voice. It was all that really mattered.

The same will be true for Susan Boyle. She's not Pavarotti (who is?), but assuming good management and reasonable exposure, Miss Boyle will succeed because she has real talent. People will want to hear her. Pop-divas, with their extravagant figures and botox complexions, will stand aside as Susan Boyle strides on-stage and wins an audience over with her marvelous voice. She deserves this opportunity because she has done so much for all of us already. By standing out there with her frumpy, ordinary looks, she has taught us a lesson I hope we shall never forget: Talent is the real deal. I'd like to think she has set back the pop-music beauty cult by fifty years. May she, and others like her, amaze and entertain us for a long time.


[1] Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk

[2] Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle, semi-finals - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmWCqIVQpEI

[3] Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle, finals -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2xiAQCTy2E