Album: Susan Boyle, I Dreamed a Dream (Syco)
Friday 27 November 2009
The success of Susan Boyle provides an interesting metaphor for the decline of manufacturing in the information stage of late capitalism.
Since her appearance on Britain's Got Talent in April, she has become a sort of global cultural meme, parodied by chat-show hosts, namechecked in The Simpsons and South Park, and triggering an ongoing internet tsunami of curiosity – without actually doing, well... anything, really. With just one talent-show show-tune under her belt, she seems to have run the entire showbiz career course, from overnight sensation to rehab burnout, all before actually releasing a record.
It's the classic example of pop values in the Cowell era, a flimsy construct of mediocrity inflated by back-story, in which success is measured in tabloid headlines, and few sustain any longevity of career. Perhaps this is why it's taken seven months for Syco's team to deliver the product that would usually appear within weeks of the TV promotional blitz: an understanding that deferred gratification is more rewarding than premature disappointment.
Because it's impossible to regard I Dreamed a Dream as other than a disappointment, with its routine, impassive versions of "Amazing Grace" and "Silent Night" supported by a slew of songs with supposed biographical resonance, such as "Proud", "Who I Was Born to Be" and Madonna's vengeful anthem of solitude "You'll See". But it's the other cover versions which reveal the limitations of her interpretive abilities. The Stones' "Wild Horses" is treated with a preciosity which scours away its careworn charm, while "Daydream Believer", so joyously ebullient in both its Monkees and football-crowd renditions, is similarly shoehorned into a slow piano ballad that completely crushes its jollity.
This desire to smooth away any excessively emotional aspects also kills Boyle's take on "The End of the World", politely delivered in a manner lacking the desolation of Skeeter Davis's version – but then, the singer's own annotation ("Don't be silly! It's only the beginning!") suggests she was always unsuited to a song which depends on despair. There's a fundamental difference between this kind of karaoke imposture, and inhabiting a song so intensely it comes alive; here, she sounds less like she's at the end of the world than at the end of the check-out line.
But karaoke is the key to Boyle's approach, which is why the best performances here remain the title-track and "Cry Me a River". You can instantly tell she's been singing both for years, reaching the position where practised technique compensates for the kind of emotional revelation which, one suspects, would be anathema to a nice lady like her – but which is a vital part of bringing songs to life.
Download this: I Dreamed a Dream; Cry Me a River
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