Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thoughts on Susan Boyle and my little brush with fame

When Susan Boyle suddenly became the most watched instant celebrity on the planet, a part of me was angry. Yet another part of me was pleased, as it started a conversation about our expectations of people who are not beautiful (or even pretty) in our society's overly perfect, airbrushed and non-diverse way. Yet, I doubt any of us has learned a thing from all of what has happened.

Susan Boyle didn't win Britain's Got Talent. Ironically, a dance troupe called "Diversity" won. The ugly ducking didn't win the magic prize. Instead, she had an emotional breakdown and wound up in a clinic - "resting."

The final say was made by the British public, whom had tired of Boyle. News that she could actually swear was met with horror. People were rooting for her, but only as long as she remained "Simple Susan", a woman-child who had been done wrong by society for her looks and learning disablities, but who seemed to have absolutely no anger about her life. Sorry, but only saints would fall into the last category, and when Susan Boyle finally showed she was not a child-woman saint, and that she wasn't going to negotiate the waters of insta-fame with perfect aplomb, that was probably her downfall.

Who's going to be there for Susan now? She is a seemingly friendless, family-less 48-year-old virgin, who has led a lonely life. Word is that she cried out for her cat Pebbles when she was being taken to the hospital. The very idea of this (even if it's not true) is heart wrenching.

Fame (and the public) are fickle. Susan was adored, got too famous too quickly, and had to be taken down a peg. Looking at the video of the last performance, I wonder if she looked too good in her new gown. Would she have done better if she had showed up wearing an outfit that reminded "us" of how we first saw her? Maybe folks had stopped thinking she was such an innocent in that fancy gown.

But her breakdown reminds us that she probably was. And what will happen to her now? I can't imagine she'll go back to her quiet life. She has a recording contract. Life will now be filled with the continuing agonies of the ups and downs of fame, or perhaps no fame at all, when it is plainly obvious that is what she did want, after all.

And why do people want fame? For many, it is a form of revenge, and I think this is true for Susan, too, though I doubt we'd hear that from her lips, in spite of the fact that she can indeed curse. Susan Boyle is not the first famous person to want to prove something to all the bullies she's put up with in her life. She may have had the quickest rise to notoriety of any person, but she's not as rare a story as she may seem.

From my miniscule brush with fame at the age of 22, I can tell you that it is difficult. I had the revenge motive, undoubtedly, but the revenge was not so sweet. Suddenly having your bullies saying they were once your best friends or calling you every day is not much fun. For the sake of graciousness, you must treat them politely, while in one's head one is screaming "Fuck off! I'm no different than when you hated me!"

One time I was alone (or so I thought) in a large theater after a show. I was washing my hands when a person came up to me and started to gush - "You were so great tonight! I love you!" I thanked her, but she went on "I saw you with another band a year ago, and I thought you sucked. You've become so great!" I stood there, fuming inside. A year before this show, I played my heart out. I wasn't hired for the band this woman had just seen for my guitar abilities. I was hired as a performer. I barely played the guitar - I was supposed to act menacing and make as much noise as possible - I specialized in feedback. This was "great"?

I also remember when I was introduced to the CBS Record executive, he said right in front me that he thought I both wasn't good enough looking and didn't look like rock star material. Who talks about people like that right to their faces? People in the "industry", who see others as commodities, which in this world, they are.

This is the entertainment industry. It's a rough place. I got out quickly, for I knew it might kill me. Luckily for me, I didn't believe the love that came from fans meant anything or could make up for anything, but somehow I think Susan Boyle might. And for that, I'm scared for her. But hopefully, the worst is over for her. I certainly hope so.

Photo note: Susan Boyle in the semifinals. Even the lighting says "see what a saint she is?" C'mon folks, she was only a human being.


BitterGrace said...

I haven't followed the arc of Boyle's treatment in the press, so I was sad and a little shocked to hear about her collapse. I have had the faintest glimpse of the music business, just thanks to living in Nashville, and I don't know how anyone survives it. When Roseanne Cash first tried to get a record deal, an exec said, "Well, we just have to make this little girl fuckable." This is how the daughter of a music legend is treated. What must it be like for ordinary humans?

jbrawley said...

I wonder what the response would have been had Ms. Boyle not chosen (or had chosen for her...) to sing the same piece that sent her into the stratosphere on YouTube....

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