As Sonia Maasik and I work to complete the tenth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I have been paying special attention to American popular music, which will be a topic for a new chapter that we're adding to the book. While our approach will be semiotic rather than esthetic, part of my research has involved listening to music as well as analyzing its cultural significance, and as everyone knows, there's nothing like YouTube to put just about everything you want to hear at your literal fingertips. Which brings me to the subject of this blog.
Well, you know how YouTube is. Even as you watch one video you are regaled with a menu of others that can take you on a merry chase following one musical white rabbit after another. And so it came to pass that I found myself watching some famous clips from the Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent franchises. Which means that I finally saw that audition of Susan Boyle's, which, while it wasn't a joke, started the whole world crying. With joy.
Talk about fairy-tale happy endings! Take a little Cinderella, mix in the Ugly Duckling, and sprinkle in a lot of A Star is Born, and there you have the Susan Boyle story. I'd say that you couldn't make this sort of thing up, except for the fact that it has been made up time and again, only this time it's true. And it helps a lot that the woman can really sing.
The semiotic significance of this tale is rather more complicated than it looks, however. On the surface, it looks simply like a sentimental triumph of authenticity over glitter, of the common folk over entertainment royalty. And, of course, that is a part of its significance—certainly of its enormous popular appeal. Just look at the visual semiotics: the glamorous judges, sneering Simon (I'm certain that he has made himself the designated bad guy to add melodrama to the mix), and the audience on the verge of laughter in the face of this ungainly, middle-aged woman who says she wants to be a star. And then she blows the house away.
But here is where things get complicated. For one thing, even as the celebrity judges fell all over themselves confessing to Ms. Boyle how ashamed they felt for initially doubting what they were about to hear, they managed to imply that it would have been OK to ridicule her if it had turned out that she couldn't sing, that losers deserve to be humiliated. After all, that's what those buzzers are for.
And then there is the notoriously oxymoronic nature of reality television, its peculiar mixture of authenticity and theatricality, its scripted spontaneity. One begins to wonder what the judges knew in advance about Susan Boyle; certainly she didn't get to that stage of the competition by accident. For to get past the thousands of contestants who audition in mass cattle calls for these shows, you have to have something that the judges want, and this can include not only outstanding talent but unexpectedly outstanding talent, the ugly ducklings that provide plenty of occasion for all those dewy-eyed camera shots of audience members and judges alike who are swept away by the swans beneath the skin. The whole thing has become such a successful formula for the franchise that when, a few years after the Susan Boyle sensation, a soprano/baritone duo named Charlotte and Jonathan came onto the stage, Simon Cowell made sure to quip, in a loud stage whisper to the judge beside him, "Just when you think things couldn't get any worse" (funny how the camera caught that), only to have Jonathan steal the show with a breathtaking performance that Sherrill Milnes might envy. Call me cynical, but somehow I think that Cowell knew perfectly well what was going to happen.
But let's not forget the designated duds either, the poor souls who get picked out of the cattle calls in order to be laughed at later, to be buzzed off the stage. After all, with so many truly talented people in the world, surely there would be enough to have nothing but superb performers on these shows. But failure is part of the formula here as well as success, for schadenfreude, too, sells.
So the semiotic question isn't whether Susan Boyle can sing; nor is there any question that without Britain's Got Talent she would almost certainly not be enjoying a spectacular career. The semiotic question involves what is going on when television shows like Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent play upon the vicarious yearnings of their viewers to shine in the spotlight in a mass society where fewer and fewer such opportunities really exist—even as those same viewers sneer at the failures. Thus, as with so much of reality television, there is an uncomfortable love/hate relationship going on here, a sentimental identification with the winners alongside a derisive contempt for the losers. And in a ruthlessly hyper-competitive society where more and more people through no fault of their own are falling into the loser category, this is of no small significance.
And I have to add that I'm certain that if a young Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen had appeared on America's Got Talent, both would have been buzzed off the stage.