Monday, April 20, 2009

Oh, The Poor Children....


The Internet is buzzing with news of Susan Boyle's appearance on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen laments that people with "touching" stories get on this type of talent show and, despite being significantly short of professional quality, gain celebrity.
Poor nice Miss Boyle. The story of her deprived, honest life is touching. In a more rational society, she could have had a enjoyable part-time career singing for pleasure rather than profit in the local choir and amateur operatic society, which is where talent such as hers honourably belongs....

But Susan Boyle is past the point where informed criticism would make any difference, projected into a crazy fantasy world where all our dreams come true and anyone can earn the equivalent of a Goldman Sachs bonus in a nanosecond.
Let's be honest for a moment. Boyle did a nice job with a song, but were she a stunning beauty by conventional standards she wouldn't be receiving this level of attention. It's the contrast between the expectations of the audience and her performance that has made her a sensation. (For an illustration of the opposite effect, consider Joshua Bell's performance in the DC subway.)

Yet how does that make her different from any other celebrity? Some of the world's most recognizable celebrities were born in to fame, bought their way into fame, or had a chance encounter with an agent or producer that led to fame. How many of them were boosted not by talent, but by their appearance? And at that, often an appearance that was in small or large part purchased at a cosmetic surgeon's office? Which of the top earning actors are among the world's most skilled? Which of the top ten earning singers? It seems fair to ask, is Christiansen offended by the serendipity involved in Ms. Boyle's sudden fame, or by the fact that it's not the type of serendipitous outcome with which he's comfortable?
What really bugs me, however, is that Miss Boyle’s success gives out the entirely misleading message that anyone who can pass muster at karaoke can become a star overnight and that it’s luck, rather than slog, that does the trick. How can we expect young people to take the surer path and train for years in drama schools and music conservatoires when there’s this short-cut smash-and-grab approach to stardom on offer?
Think of the poor, talented children who will look at Ms. Boyle's case and recognize that there's a huge amount of luck in achieving fortune and fame. Because... what? They're not going to notice it from the success of pretty much every other celebrity out there? Because the most famous entertainers in the world, the highest paid actors and singers, trained for years in "drama schools and music conservatoires"?

But leaving that aside, assuming Boyle even had the opportunity to spend years training in a drama school or music conservatory, what would have happened next? Let's even assume that she would be "in the class of Elaine Paige or Patti LuPone". Is it not fair to ask, would people like Christiansen be able to get past her physical appearance? ("She's an exceptional talent, but....") What lesson would Christiansen have children draw from the fact that people who look like Boyle are most often relegated to the chorus, or become backup singers?

The idea that Ms. Boyle is exceptional in how she found celebrity? It's nonsense. The idea that Ms. Boyle would have had a strong chance of finding fame, let alone equivalent fame, by pursuing years of training in a music conservatory? In my opinion, also nonsense. I'm not arguing that the knowledge that fame, and the huge paycheck that goes along with it, has more to do with serendipity than with talent and hard work is the most inspirational lesson for young people. But such is life. Most people have to train and work harder than a lot of celebrities did, yet settle for far less reward.

There's one more thing Christiansen overlooks. That fame and fortune frequently come in what seems like a flash, and it's easy to forget that there's often a great deal of effort, preparation, and work that leads up to somebody's being able to get to the point that they become an "overnight sensation". Another expectation bias comes up when we hear the background to a particular performer's success and learn of their years of formal study and practice, years of minor performances when nobody had heard of them, or, similarly, hear a beautiful celebrity speak out on an issue and are surprised that they appear both intelligent and informed. That surprise is just as much a consequence of our instant-celebrity, beauty over talent culture, as is Ms. Boyle's attaining fame and possible fortune by virtue of her TV appearance. It's every bit as much a bias to see beauty and assume "unintelligence" as it is to see somebody of average or below average appearance and assume "untalented."

Christiansen's quick to embrace formal training as the proper path to fame, and for vocal performers there's no real doubt that formal training can make a huge difference. But it appears that Ms. Boyle took advantage of the formal training opportunities she could reasonably obtain. She didn't just wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll go on TV today and sing glorified karaoke." She studied and practiced (within the confines of her day-to-day life), got an opportunity, grabbed it, and by virtue of extraordinary luck and timing it worked out for her. That doesn't make her exceptional in the world of celebrity - it makes her pretty typical. I don't begrudge her the opportunity to make the most of her fifteen minutes - she should go for it.

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