“What happens to these ambitious people after their first appearance? Do they go on, succeed, become famous and lead the lives they’d dreamed of living? Or, after a brief glimpse of glory, do they return, disappointed and broken, into the humdrum lives they’d led before?” Those are question many viewers feel compelled to ponder after watching common folk like Susan Boyle perform on amateur competition programs like Britain’s Got Talent. Now, Boyle did not win last night’s finale, and a chance to sing for the Queen; still, her audition turned the unassuming, middle-aged belter-weight into what we are wont to call an overnight sensation. She so captured an international audience of television viewers and YouTubers that a movie deal and a musical seem pretty much in the bag, even though a career as a recording artist strikes me as somewhat less likely for La Boyle.
The world—or a considerable part of its too readily distracted population—fell in love with a moment, not with a voice. It was an instant in which our media-forged preconceptions about appearances in relation to ability was being checked in a way that was eye-opening without being cause for contrition. Boyle was duly rewarded for dealing with our initial cynicism, with the schadenfreude with which we approached her and to whose temporary check she so greatly contributed. Watching that performance was not so much a guilty pleasure as it was pleasurable guilt.
For anyone who has seen the audition performance (I only caught up with it online, days after the original broadcast), that sudden realization that she was proving us wrong by proving we had wronged her can never be recaptured. From now on, we simply expect a boffo performance worthy of all the ballyhoo. We are accustomed to the face and, having gladly suffered the momentary loss of ours, we keep our jaundiced eyes open for another chance to snicker and sneer. After all, as T. S. Eliot famously remarked in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “criticism is as inevitable as breathing.”
The thing is, though, that the above questions were not raised by a contemporary reviewer; rather, they were voiced on this day, 31 May, back in 1937, by American news commentator Edwin C. Hill. Hill was referring to the rise of the amateur hour, a programming format he called “[o]ne of the most interesting radio developments in recent years” and commended as a “very human, very appealing movement”—“and a worthy one.”
The comment was made on Your News Parade, ostensibly with one Helen Gleason in mind:
Well, Saturday night on the radio, Helen Gleason answered this question—at least insofar as her particular case was concerned. Winning an Amateur Night Contest was the beginning of a brilliant career for Miss Gleason . . . a career which has carried her around the vaudeville circuits, through the concert halls of Europe, to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera Company . . . and more recently to stardom in operetta.
I say “ostensibly” because that blurb about the “appealing” talent show format was only another occasion to advertise cigarettes, Lucky Strike being the sponsor of Your News Parade. The media may create “overnight” sensations; but in their exploitation of such phenomena, in the milking of the cash cows of human kindness, they foster the very attitude of doubt that they make us question.
Somehow it has only gotten worse with the advent of video. On radio, Boyle might have had a chance to show off the talent she came to display and to be judged by that ability alone. It is television that makes us look like asses by encouraging us not to believe our ears . . .
[This post came to you a day late, on account of the exceptionally fine weather we’ve been enjoying.]