Ms Boyle and a modern celebrity fable
29 May 2009
The week’s least surprising news is that the woman variously known as the Hairy Angel and SuBo has begun to behave oddly. In the few short weeks since Susan Boyle appeared on a TV talent show, she has been propelled from obscurity to über-celebrity.
Her voice has made film stars, politicians and commentators quiver with emotion. Her well choreographed triumph, straight from the they-laughed-when-I-sat-down-to-play page of Hollywood tearjerkers, has been a favourite on YouTube. In a single bound, she has become a new media archetype – the ordinary woman who has reminded the world of decency and niceness.
One moment, she was living with her mum and singing “The Impossible Dream” at karaoke nights, the next she was the hope of the world. Until now, she has said she has been enjoying the experience but there is evidence that an act of peculiar cruelty is taking place. The fairy story is likely to have an unhappy ending.
Already sections of the press are on the turn. They are becoming irritated by Susan Boyle. It’s The Sun that has taken to referring to her as SuBo, a reference to her portly figure. Now there are reports of embarrassing tantrums. Apparently she lost her temper with members of the public who were annoying her. Watching another episode of the programme on a hotel television, she was said to be enraged when her favourite judge, Piers Morgan, praised one of her rivals. According to reports, she swore at the TV, flicked a V-sign at it and stormed out of the room. Who could seriously be surprised by this alleged behaviour? The people who now surround her may want her to be successful but none is seriously concerned for her welfare or consider the effect of this form of instant celebrity.
Carrying the weight of public expectation can make even the young, the strong and the brilliant crack: Bob Dylan went slightly bonkers in the 1960s when the world decided that he was not just a great folk singer but the voice of a generation. Imagine the effect of the same process on an unworldly person of middle years.
Such is the need to create a heart-lifting story of hope that Susan Boyle’s first live TV performance, which took place on Sunday, has been presented as a triumph. In fact, it was cringe-making. Singing an Andrew Lloyd Webber song, she hit several bum notes, a fact carefully ignored by the judges, who knew that they had a fairy-tale to deliver. Interviewed, she behaved with strange, forced jollity, with much leering, fist-pumping and a strange, faintly grotesque little shimmy across the stage. At one point, she seemed to believe that because Piers Morgan had kissed her, some kind of flirtation was taking place. She behaved like someone trying to play a part expected of her.
Maybe none of it should matter. A talent show has thrown up a story which has made people happy and reassured in some vague way. Yet there is something that makes one uneasy about what is going on. Like those who are professionally involved with the show, most commentators have gone along with the pretence that hers is the voice of an angel and that her behaviour was adorably true to herself.
When, this weekend or later, the dream goes wrong, as it surely will, the media will have another story, and the public will be entertained in a different way. The poor, sad Hairy Angel will have served her purpose.
Is it always male tutors who take advantage?
To judge by what was said by Martin Amis, David Lodge and Sarah Churchwell on Newsnight earlier this week, relationships between lecturers and students have come a long way since Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man (as played on TV by Antony Sher), cut a wide swathe of leering seduction through his female undergraduates.
Such is the nervousness in academic circles surrounding the question of sexual harassment, Amis indicated, that doors have to be left open during tutorials and lecturers stare at the ceiling rather than make eye contact. Dr Churchwell said female lecturers had the same problem but, when questioned by Jeremy Paxman, quickly clarified the point. The danger of inappropriateness came from male students towards their female teachers, not the other way around. It was interesting, this defensiveness. Harassment, it appears, is seen as pretty much a male problem in our universities. Is this, in our great age of gender equality, entirely true? Has it ever been true?
I don’t like the sound of this noise ruling
A magistrate’s court in Didcot has come up with a ruling which might cause some alarm in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The noise made by a 40ft domestic wind turbine was so irritating, the court ruled, that the council had been quite right to require its owner to switch it off.
Although the machine’s decibel level did not break the terms of the planning application, the nature of the noise it made contributed a distressing nuisance to neighbours. “Each case is examined by their independent circumstances,” said the head of the council’s environmental protection team.
Sadly, this sensible approach would not have been acceptable had the turbines been 400ft high rather than 40. Controversial government guidelines about turbine noise, which were established in 1997, preclude objections on an individual basis. If a small domestic appliance keeps you awake, you have recourse in law; if a larger, noisier one has the same effect, you just have to put up with it.