Cry Whom a River?
Okay, I'll level with you: I've never been one you could reasonably count among the fans and admirers of Susan Boyle. That is not to say that I ever bore any ill will or particular distaste toward Ms. Boyle, as surely it would take a critic far more jaded and immune to the occasional poetry of the human experience than I to refuse or fail to appreciate, if not outwardly admire, the real life storybook tale that contains her. I shall also admit to one of my less ingratiating personality traits: that any reaction to a particular artist or work that, from the outside, resembles mass (positive) hysteria, particularly regarding an artist or work I have yet to sample for myself, has a cruel tendency to force my whims stubbornly in the opposite direction (at times simply in spite of myself). With that said, I feel I should impress upon the reader that I have, in this extraordinary circumstance, made every attempt to ensure that when and if I found a quiet spot in time in which to adjudicate the Scottish phenomenon that is Susan Boyle, I would do so with as close to neutrality as possible.
First, a quick recap for those by some miracle still in the dark (although if this is the case, I'm afraid the rest of this blog may prove a further quandary): Susan Boyle, 48, is a Scottish singer who within 90 seconds soundly rectified the fact that no one had any idea who she was, when on April 11 of this year she appeared on the UK reality competition television show Britain's Got Talent*, and subsequently in a clip of said broadcast that in December was named the most viewed YouTube video of the year, its count of over 120 million views more than tripling the total of the runner-up. The video made even more succinct the emotional knockout Ms. Boyle's first appearance was, as it begins with the unquestionably awkward-looking (the nicest word I'd heard was "plain") Scot entering a stage in front of an incredulous studio audience and panel of judges (including the famously particular star of American Idol, Simon Cowell) and inspiring every expectation for disaster, only to floor her audiences live and at home with her almost eerily lovely voice as she sings "I Dreamed a Dream," from Les Miserables. She became an overnight sensation and a half, as you might imagine, but bafflingly placed second in the final of the show to...well, who really remembers now?
Sadly, the sudden avalanche of fame proved overwhelming for the dowdy yet in a way charming woman who, it quickly became known, had never even been kissed, and Ms. Boyle spent the five days following the Britain's Got Talent final in a high-end private psychiatric clinic after reportedly erratic behavior and concerns about her mental health. However, not only did she end up playing 20 of the 24 dates of the Britain's Got Talent UK Tour later this year, she also put together a neat little debut album, fitting titled I Dreamed a Dream, which landed November 23 and as of December 19 has sold - ready for it? - over 5,204,021 copies worldwide (that it has also held the top spot on the Billboard 200 since its release and is expected to do so again this coming week almost need not be said).
Enough ink and cyberspace has been devoted to the curious case of Susan Boyle and her unstoppable dream as far as how this juggernaut came to exist and continues so firmly to do so, and what it all might mean for the future of the music industry or mankind, and I assuredly could add nothing to the pot that has not been added numerous times before, so I won't bother with explanations or meaning. I will say, though, that it strikes me as more than a bit misleading the way much of the entertainment journalism has sensationalized Ms. Boyle's album's success, particularly as it relates to accompanying album releases by such mainstream artists as Eminem, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, since the former is marketed to a rather different market than that of the latter examples, one whose methods and habits in purchasing music vary greatly from the other.
My varied curiosity about the "SuBo" tidal wave, though, invariably gravitated away from the question of commerce and instead to the question of quality. I was able even to acknowledge Ms. Boyle's gifted vocal talent (if not earth-shatteringly incredible as one would think given the frenzied consumer response), even despite the fact that the two songs she selected to sing on air during the original competition may well be at positions one and two on my chart of songs I most loathe, and as an export of the Simon Cowell machine (protege of the Simon Fuller/American Idol machine) I imagined the album, which consists entirely of covers with one exception (many of them common standards), would at least exhibit a sense of polish and polite if unambitious competence. I'd also read good things here and there about Ms. Boyle's apparently signature rendition of the great jazz tune "Cry Me a River," and I added another dollar to the mountain of cash this woman is raking in to obtain the one track on I Dreamed a Dream I could reasonably expect to deem worth the minimal time and expense.
I'm sorry to say that I was only able to make it through a verse and a half the first go-around before I had to shut off my speakers. No, it's no William Hung - far from it, in fairness, and I wouldn't inform the authorities on a well-meaning adult son or daughter presenting the track or its home album to a hard-of-hearing in-law as a Christmas gift. Still, "Cry Me a River" has put up with enough, what with having its title forever marred by entirely separate 21st century creations by Justins Timberlake and Bieber and others, and doesn't deserve the strangled, forced, and essentially amateur delivery it endures at the hand of Ms. Boyle. Indeed, as I forced myself through a second and this time full listen, it struck me as very probable that Ms. Boyle likely performs the piece far more skillfully and smoothly in her out-of-studio repertoire than she does here. Both brief and complete plays of some of the other tunes that make up the debut reveal similar flaws throughout the album, eventually proving more or less ignorable or tolerable depending on one's preconceived affinity or otherwise for each of the songs themselves. (Boyle is strongest, or at least most effective, on the three hymns spaced across the lineup, and, not surprisingly, on the title track that has come to define her. On her Madonna and the Monkees covers I cannot say the same.)
In terms of quality, I Dreamed a Dream ranks among the higher mid-range EPs I've come across from the greenest of new singers trying to make their way onto the scene, and in fairness it would generally be what one might expect from someone as new to the profession as Boyle is were it not for the extraordinary circumstance that brought her to the public eye. Ms. Boyle is clearly blessed with a fine voice, one which at times demonstrates the care and moderate training she has clearly given it throughout her life even though up until less than a year ago there was really no reason to expect the need to do so for the sake of a career.
On I Dreamed a Dream Ms. Boyle isn't careless or overly flawed, but rather she sounds uncomfortable in a studio, as though she hasn't yet figured out how to adapt from the concert hall, which had served as her first and primary venue, to the sound booth and microphone. I doubt if there are more than a handful of musicians who never needed even some basic training in their first recording sessions, but most also have the opportunity to get a feel for it before being shoved inside and plunking out a thirteen-track debut album in three months (while simultaneously touring, no less) in time for the holidays when their target market is most vulnerable.
Taken out of the context of its herculean commercial triumphs, I Dreamed a Dream is a passable album one might expect to find in a slightly discounted bin at a bargain department store, the kind typically picked up by members of the more advanced generations or those whose musical tastes aren't so much poor as merely ambivalent, and these hapless buyers would likely find it pleasant. In context, I'm left with two main thoughts. The first is that I will be interested to see what, if anything, will become of Ms. Boyle and her singing career, if it is to be that at all: Boyle's fame came so immediately and so staggeringly that it can be strange to discover that besides her looks and her voice, there really is little known about Susan Boyle as an artist, what she thinks and what she plans to pursue. If she does desire to continue with a music career, will she find enough guidance along her way now that her golden egg has been laid for Cowell and co.?
The other thought with which I shall close, though, is that regardless of what may lie ahead for Susan Boyle, I Dreamed a Dream, both in content and in context, is nothing if not an entirely fitting way to cap the fairytale year this so-recently unknown woman, an embodiment of every ugly duckling fable wherein true beauty is found to reside often in the unlikeliest of places, has undergone. I just wish the final product had ended up far more worthy of the attention it has received than this hasty, amateurish album.
Susan Boyle's First Appearance on Britain's Got Talent
Order I Dreamed a Dream on Amazon at the link below; or, for your convenience and edification, I've also suggested three recordings of the song "Cry Me a River" that far exceed that of Ms. Boyle that you may prefer to download instead (of the three, Ella Fitzgerald's sassy take on the ballad is my personal favorite; however, I feel it is best appreciated after listening to either Julie London's classic and defining cut or Diana Krall's smoothly faithful rendition).
*Based on the US television show America's Got Talent, itself based on an unaired pilot called Britain's Got Talent, which was based on the US television behemoth American Idol, which in turn finds its direct roots in a UK singing competition reality television show known as Pop Idol. Not to be confused with the current UK singing competition/reality television show The X Factor, which itself is based on American Idol, which was...oh, forget it.