Monday, November 23, 2009

At the height of the hype - Susan Boyle

I am not going to pretend that I discovered Susan Boyle by accidentally hearing her on 3PBS while driving to the train station, nor that I happened to stroll past one of her gigs at some underground music shop in a Melbourne laneway. I freely admit that I was as swept up as anyone in the hype and publicity following her debut on Britain's Got Talent earlier this year, and that I watched the ensuing media debacle with every bit as much perverse voyeurism as anyone else.

It intrigued me, like it intrigued many people, how Susan Boyle received worldwide adulation when there seemed to be a sudden discovery that someone didn't have to look like a megastar to sound like one (something which for me, as a long time and passionate opera lover, was hardly news) and how then, five minutes later, the adulation turned to ridicule when a woman, exhausted and battered by the world's expectations of her, and by its unrelenting spotlights on her, needed a rest.

For those five minutes, everyone who was anyone was talking about what a phenomenon Susan Boyle was. None of us wanted to quite come out and say that we were staggered that a woman who "looked like that" could sound like that, so instead we hid behind slightly more politcally comfortable lines about how inspiring she was.

And so when our hype carried her along to the recording studios, it was perhaps hardly surprising that the more cultured corners of the music industry, the critics who know the difference between music that is performed well and music that is marketed well, would decide that enough's enough and heap scorn on her CD debut, I Dreamed a Dream.

So when I bought the CD today I knew that I was going to have a bit of a struggle listening to it on its own terms, and to be influenced neither by the temptation to be inspired, nor by the urge to show my musical sophistication by sneering at it.

So I played a few tracks tonight to Greg, my brother, to Inge, my sister-in-law, and to Scott, my nephew. The general reaction was shivers down the spine, goosebumps down the arms and overall comments along the lines of "wow".

I Dreamed a Dream is a wonderful testimony to a diverse, powerful and beautiful voice, doing incredibly creative things with an amazing range of songs, from her arrestingly beautiful version of The Rolling Stones' 'Wild Horses', through a stunning blues version of Tina Turner's 'Cry Me a River', a grand, noble take on Madonna's 'You'll See', a slow and beautiful transformation of The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer' to her more recognisable clear, pure soprano in traditional stalwarts such as 'How Great Thou Art' and 'Amazing Grace' and the admittedly obvious, but nevertheless beautifully simple, bid for the Christmas market in the album's closing track, 'Silent Night'.

There is no pretence that these songs are anything more or less than songs that show how wonderful, and how moving, the human voice can sound when it is singing good melodies in good arrangements. These songs are tuneful, they flow easily, they are easy to listening to. But the album is more than that, too. It takes songs from a whole lot of different genres, songs written in a whole lot of different colours, and reshapes them into music that calms you, moves you, excites you and, most of all, makes you think, "what a voice". It's a voice that is much more subtly hued than either Britain's Got Talent or the media hype would lead you to expect, always changing its tones and textures, at times crying and howling, at times gliding in the clouds, but always deeply musical, profoundly beautiful.

I Dreamed a Dream really makes it clear that it is time to forget the hype of Susan Boyle and to instead listen to her music. And that is, after all, all that she, and any other half-decent musician, wants anyway.

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