Judging a book by an unflattering cover

Illustrator George Booth cartoon character with catsBritain’s Got Talent, Simon Cowell’s UK precursor to American Idol, is pulling another Paul Potts out of its hat, flying in the face of its own conventional wisdom that only attractive people could possibly have talent. This time, straight out of a George Booth cartoon, she’s “never been kissed” (never had a boyfriend, job, etc), climbed out from under a rock we’re supposed to believe, Susan Boyle.
 
You might well ask, how otherwise would un-pop-culturish faces get a hearing? I share in Mr. Potts and Ms. Boyle’s triumph, but the feigned incredulity of the celebrity judges mocks us all.

Do you remember Paul Potts, the jagged-toothed mobile phone salesman who wound up singing like Mario Lanza? You can see it replayed on Youtube still, the smiling junior Fudd, patiently bearing the judges’ smirky condescension until he had the chance to give them pause.

Susan Boyle on 2009 Britains Got TalentThis year it was Susan Boyle’s turn, already 20 million views online. To her credit, or her handlers, Ms. Boyle doesn’t wait on the stage with the air of a sanitarium orderly for her turn to turn the tables. She antes up a feisty personality, impossibly self-confident by the audience’s pre-judgment. Until…

Are we supposed to believe that neither Simon Cowell nor the other judges anticipated how a face that could have scuttled a thousand ships, would have made it past the preliminary call-backs without something up its sleeve? Or that Ms. Boyle’s notoriety might not have preceded her. A voice like that is not untrained. She was already a star in her local church. It’s hard to imagine that her village neighbors hadn’t arrived by the lorry load for their 47-year-old protege’s television debut.

Tenor Paul Potts on Britains Got TalentLikewise, Paul Potts was already a traveled tenor before his performance on Britain’s Got Talent. Noted control freak Simon Cowell is probably the Idol/Talent antagonist delivering the real virtuoso acting on those shows. Pretend or not, his reality TV magic does leave viewers with a sense of enrichment.

So are we chastened by coming face to face with our predisposition to low expectations for our common looking peers? The Potts and Boyle moments purport to provide transformational climaxes, but I’m unconvinced. I believe rather we are still laughing at the fool, and reinforcing our media’s quite artificial prejudice against ordinary people. Social classes used to be distinguishable in a person’s face. America’s melting pot, and to a degree, democracy’s march across the world, may have blended the clues we are accustomed to finding in bone structure, eye color and posture. It looks to me like Western media is determined to bring eugenics back, the dividing line being the red carpet.

American Idol
I remember reading not long ago a culture magazine blogger expressing surprise that an unknown contestant had advanced past the Idol favorites. I wondered: there are such things as known Idol participants? There’s already a distinction between reality TV and celebrity reality TV, now there are pre-Idol idols?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *