Thursday, April 16, 2009

Are You Nobody Too?

You’ve seen it or you can see it—the way 47 year old, beetle-browed, double chinned Susan Boyle stuffs a sandwich in her face, tells the backstage interviewer she’s ready to sing, then stumps out onto the stage of a nationally televised British talent show. She dares to confront a live audience of mainly young and hip Brits in her nondescript beige dress that covers her thick body more like a tube than a garment. Her sturdy legs protrude from below and terminate in white high heels that she uses somewhat as if they were stilts. If you haven’t watched, please do it now:

The three judges make a chick sandwich—two tanned unblemished guys flanking a sleek young blonde. Watch the guys snigger as she introduces herself. “And what’s your name, darling?” asks the youngest guy leaning back and playing with his pen. He asks her age and rolls his eyes when she says she is 47. When she says she wants to be as famous as Elaine Page, the beautiful blonde who starred in the debut of Evita, judges and audience faces wince and snigger.

By her own description she was just another Scottish woman living alone with her cat Pebbles, singing in her church choir, never married, never courted, never noticed outside her own circle of friends. Today over 12 million people have watched her sing on YouTube.

What made her an instant sensation on the Internet and British and American television? Not her sure enough good singing voice. Her real triumph was the way she suddenly and decisively smashed and shamed the smug superiority of the three gliteratti judges, the two fay, condescending back stage assistants, and an audience ready to laugh at a bush-browed, sack-of -potatoes woman who dared sing for them in a national talent show.

And what will she sing a judge asks. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables she announces confidently to the audience that clearly pities the dreamer. Within a few bars not just her voice but her confidence and her identification with the song lift both audience and judges out of their seats. They are applauding and shouting approval. She sings on. The song is everything.

If you don’t know the song, it opens with this stanza:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high,
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

The last lines are these:

But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms
We cannot weather...

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seems
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.

As the applause and screaming approval die down, the older of the two male judges tells her that when she walked onto the stage “and stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Page,’ everyone was laughing at you.” The younger guy says he had been expecting “something extraordinary” and it’s clear he means extraordinarily bad.

Few people, even professional actors and singers, have ever turned an audience around as decisively as this Scottish nobody. And she did it not by acting or performing in any professional sense.

Those judges, theater people, television hotshots, and the hip audience—they all had a dream. Their dream was that they were somebody and other people were nobodies. Many of us dream this to justify ourselves, and most of us know better. Emily Dickinson once played on this theme with her lines:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Susan Boyle proved that inside every nobody is a somebody. Perhaps she reached inside of those frogs and that bog and killed their dreams. But she brought back life to their hearts.

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