By now, I imagine every sentient being on the planet has seen the YouTube video of Susan Boyle singing on Britain's Got Talent. This singularly surprising performance has generated more internet commentary than any television program I can remember.
Our fascination with Miss Boyle's virtuosity, despite her very ordinary appearance, is certainly puzzling. Cass Elliot once noted that America had hundreds of singers who were at least as talented as her scratching out a living doing commercial jingles for local radio stations. Nassim Nicholas Taleb observed in The Black Swan that there are thousands of talented writers, actors, and financiers that we will never hear about because of the luck of the draw.
We have all of this talent around us, and we rarely notice it. Miss Boyle has apparently been singing her heart out in her village in Scotland for 35 years, but I imagine she's never drawn a crowd of more than a few dozen souls. If she had never tried out for the show, she'd still be at the local pub every karaoke night, with the same passion and skill.
Whether it's an insurance lawyer in Prague writing short stories he never expected anyone to read, a psychotic artist managing to sell just one of his paintings before killing himself, a patent clerk in Zurich imagining an entirely new universe, four black-leather-wearing drop-outs from Liverpool unleashing a new musical energy, or a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago coming to grips with the role of race in society, our history is full of obscure individuals coming out of nowhere to challenge our perception of reality.
In my youth, a road trip across Europe or America was a true adventure. You never knew what delights (or horrors) you might find in the local restaurant or what kind of welcome you might receive from the natives. Each establishment was as good as its owner made it. But when it was good, it was extraordinary.
Now, every town is largely the same, a dot on the map of Corporatocracy, Earth. A traveler can go to Applebee's or Pizza Hut or wherever and get an acceptable--but never great--meal, made from the very same ingredients she's used to anywhere else. The beer will be identical to the beer back home. The hotel will be clean, comfortable, and utterly devoid of charm. The music on the radio will follow a playlist formulated by a national research firm. The local news broadcasters will look and sound the same in Alabama as in California as in New York, and their stories will follow the same format as back home.
My home country of Iceland is another victim of this uniformization. Pre-WWII visitors to Iceland consistently noted our devotion to intellectual pursuits, despite our impoverished condition. We read the Sagas and Shakespeare for entertainment during the long Arctic nights. My great-grandfather, Guðmundur Einarsson, even found the time and energy to write a book (his autobiography, which was published), despite the long days he put in farming and supporting 18 kids.
Now, however, the works of Snorri Sturluson and Halldór Laxness are as foreign to young Icelanders as the kæst skata (fermented or putrefied) we traditionally eat before Christmas. We're more American than Americans. Big cars, designer clothes, satellite television, rock-and-roll, Mexican food--if you've got it, we've got it, in spades.
Susan Boyle was the diamond in the rough, the unique local talent that I imagine inspired great pride among her mates. She belonged in a way few of us will ever know.
The Chicago Tribune has already posted this Susan Boyle makeover photo montage.
Now that the secret's out, I fear that the corporate powers will try to polish her up to fit into their mold. They'll put her on a diet and exercise program, give her a make-over, and feed her lines to repeat in interviews. She'll still sing like an angel, but the passion that touched us this week will become increasingly an act--the type we get when Eric Clapton plays Layla for the 10,000 time, each time farther and farther away from the raw passion that he and Duane Allman captured one day in 1970.
I don't begrudge Miss Boyle her day in the sun or the financial rewards that are certain to come her way. I hope she is able to keep her head straight and force those rewards to come to her on her own terms. I hope she doesn't become a parody of herself, the way so many of the musicians of my youth have.
And I hope that we all look around and appreciate and encourage the unique local talent that surrounds us.