Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Meaning Of Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle's debut album entered the Billboard charts at number 1 and has stayed there for five weeks. Each week the album has sold over 500,000 copies, which is the amount required to go gold. This is an unprecedented achievement in the history of the Billboard music charts. Here's another interesting fact. According to Billboard, 2009 saw 374.6 million in album sales, 13% lower than for 2008. As moaning recording industry execs continually remind us, album sales have been slumping for years.

So, my question is: how - in a down economy rife with illegal downloads - does an un-'kewl' woman way past 20 with no sweet ass to shake or a half-baked reality show manage to shatter sales records?

The answer is that Susan Boyle represents what the record industry should be doing more of if it wants to save itself. Now I'm not saying she's my favorite singer or that I'm head-over-heels for her album. But I sure did respond to that viral video of her. In a jaded sea of calculated marketing, it was refreshing to see someone so artless. Plus, somewhere under that unibrow there had to be a hell of a lot of guts and courage. People connected with that - and with her - because of it. Beyond that, I think of how comic legend Betty White once explained why young audiences tuned into The Golden Girls, an 80's sit-com about four senior citizens. She said: "Funny is funny." In the same way, good singing is good singing. People buy talent. Now it's definitely true that people also buy crap (and sometimes in really large numbers). However, crap has a distinctive odor and people tend to catch on (and move on) before too long. With talent, you have a chance at getting them for the long haul. Talent has a better shot at enduring.

Look at the music industry. For 13 or 14 years, it's been a revolving door of hair-extended, breast-augmented sluts: Britney Spears, Christina Agulera, Jessica Simpson, Brooke Hogan. As time goes by, each new 'girl' is sluttier and her voice is weaker than the one who came before. None of these women have anything to say. In fact, Simpson and Hogan flaunt/ed their stupidity on weekly reality shows and positioned that stupidity as a character strength. Seems like artists used to worry about being exploited by record labels. Today's 'shrewd' artists do it to themselves. Against that lot, what music buyer wouldn't ultimately gravitate towards Susan Boyle? At the very least, she's something different.

Now, I don't mean to deify Susan Boyle. I don't know how smart she is, whether she's been through anything difficult in her life, or whether she's capable of writing a song. But I do know that I respect her and what she brings to the table, and I sense that she respects herself. I also like that she doesn't 'oversell' her voice by doing vocal acrobatics every time she opens her mouth. She lets her talent speak for her. She can take a good song, sing it sensitively and sincerely, and let that carry her. I don't care that she isn't 98 pounds or that she has kind of weird hair or that she looks her age. I don't have to want to sleep with the people whose music I buy.

What does the success of Susan Boyle mean? I think the record industry should consider it a wake-up call. The majority of Americans are over thirty. Few of us - and not everyone in the under 30 set either - are interested in hearing Brooke Hogan sing about her peesh in an autotuned voice while flashing her tits. We're certainly not going to pay money for it if we can download it for free! Stars like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Madonna are no better. In fact they may be worse because by the time a woman reaches her 40s or 50s - regardless of whether she's still got a body or not - she should have something on the ball besides T&A. It's pathetic to watch a powerful woman like Madonna sing, dress, and act like a teenage slut. The teenage slut doesn't know any better, a woman like Carey, Jackson, or Madonna certainly does (or should).

And it's not like there aren't sisters out there doing it for themselves. How about Mary J. Blige (who's at #2 on Billboard this week)? She sings way better than Susan Boyle and, in spite her fab stylin', is no bleach-blonde prom queen. Blige's aura says: "I'm Mary J. Blige and you will respect me". And that is cool. Plus, Blige has been through stuff and she sings her heart out year after year. Again, I have an emotional connection with a singer like her that is hard to break even when she occasionally puts out an album I don't feel. Why aren't record companies signing more artists like this? I mean, there will always be pop and R&B crap that appears and vanishes each year. I'm not saying don't milk a fad. But it seems like, for over a decade, the music industry's focus has been on milking the same fad and not signing or developing any actual talent. What do A&R people at labels even do these days?

The bad news is I don't think even an atom bomb like Susan Boyle will register with these douche bag record industry executives. My cynicism, surprisingly, comes in part from Susan Boyle's album. If you listen past her singing, the first thing you notice is that the arrangements behind her are not particularly good. It sounds like the music was tossed together rather indifferently. I'd seriously be willing to bet that the industry views Boyle as the flash in the pan while they plan to out their serious support behind Brooke Hogan (does anyone think her 'use by' date is after 2011?). Well, maybe not Brooke Hogan; they probably have some new slut of the moment waiting in the wings. Hmmm, maybe Miley Cyrus will want to 'grow up' on her next album by entering the fray and trying to be a bigger whore than Paris Hilton?

Mr. Executive: If that's your focus, how can you be surprised consumers aren't interested.

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