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15 April 2009
Susan Boyle's performance as cultural artifact

Let us grant that “reality TV” is generally anything but real. Let us grant that even and especially when television purports to show “real people,” it still draws them inexorably into its own unreality, so that we could speak of “Susan Boyle” herself as a cultural artifact of sorts.

Let us grant that the kind of triumph you can win on any stage is likely to prove fleeting or even false. And let us grant that “I Dreamed a Dream” is the kind of hook-laden heartstrings-tugging pop tune that can only take us so far: more nutritious than cotton candy for the soul, perhaps, but hardly the bread of life.

And having granted all that, let us also grant that at least one gimlet-eyed cultural critic had tears in his eyes for most of an afternoon thinking about this video, not just because it lays bare the calculating and ultimately deadly superficiality at the heart of popular culture, but because it does so much more. It offers a picture of our age’s übercynical critics surprised by joy. It gives a glimpse of the creative capacity latent in who knows how many lives. And perhaps therefore it gives us a glimpse of the embodied glories that await us, the grace that waits just around the corner of our hopes and fears.

Also, it is simply a damn fine performance of a damn good song.

What does Susan Boyle’s performance make of the world?

1. What does Susan Boyle's performance assume about the way the world is?

It is not Susan Boyle’s performance that is the cultural artifact, rather the reaction before, during, and after that vividly expresses the way the world is.  The way the world is to educator’s of student’s with special needs, or any student a little different from the “norm” as we try to help them navigate a culture that can be cruel and unforgiving.  The irony should not be lost that the song isfrom Les Miserables (Fantine) and that the back story of Susan’s life is expressed in the entire performance.  It is not that she has a talent that is somehow “latent” until the we hear it; she has had this talent all along.  It is not about Susan finally realizing a dream to sing professionally (or in the case of Britain’s Got Talent winner, before the queen) it is the cultural reality that we dismiss those who are different, not polished in the way of the current cultural icons.  As we watch the audience (and judges) first dismiss, belittle through eye rolling, scoff then come to their feet and applaud we must realize it is more about the stunning upheaval of our preconceived notions about who can achieve and by what path than about her beautiful and heartfelt performance which has existed and endured well before we had the privilege of witnessing it.


That is beautifully put, kmfullerton. Thank you.

Andy Crouch

very true!!

All too true that we continuously judge too quickly.  Thank goodness there was an opportunity for Susan to begin her dream, in the such gruel light of reality tv as well.  It shows that when you have courage and perservance you can still achieve dreams, and in Susan’s case with her talent and yes stage presence, she will be a success…..I just hope that the future will be the dream and not the nightmare of fame.  Also thankgoodness there is the internet to watch and watch again, the performance, for I would never watch the public ridicule which seems the norm in reality tv.

—jane prezma

Physically touched by God! She dreamed a dream that came true!!!!


Devout Catholic, church choir singing virgin. Unaltered, unadulterated, unscathed woman, pure like she has always been since she was a baby. She lived her life simply, weathered life’s storms and cruelty in stride, took care of her ailing mother till her death, continued to be of service as a volunteer worker for her church and her community .What a beautiful woman so deep in her total being. Her gift from God was an angelic voice waiting to be released at an appointed time by her Creator to a world that seems hopeless, and God demonstrating through her that nothing is ever hopeless.

A. Mars Delacuesta

People are judged by how they look, but we can change that based upon how people perform.  It’s hard for human beings to embrace people the way they are ... nothing like being in the position of a “judge” not just by trade but due to the fall.

Tom Grosh

Educated people often assume that what they have been educated toward is the “right” thing. One thing I hate about these shows is how they embarrass people, especially people who are different in some way. Susan Boyle spoke from her heart. She wasn’t just singing a song, she was singing about her life. I can relate because I lost a mother recently and it sucks. Ending lyrics are:

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seems
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.

She won the first round, but have any of you seen the other acts? There is Flawless - a dance troop which was flawless as well as other acts. They deserve attention as well. All this focus on her may backfire. I hope it doesn’t. I hope the lyrics aren’t profedic. (SP??)

—Moira Levant

I thought that she might sing somewhat good but she turned out better.  I thought that because she was a little older that she might not sign as good as younger people.  But she turned out to be very, VERY good.

Ellen Grosh
2. What does Susan Boyle's performance assume about the way the world should be?

I just watched the much talked about performance and I was blown away.  In a time when turning on the TV is just plain scary, I was left with a smile on my face that will maybe last all day.  The world would be a much better place if it had more Susan Boyles and if everyone tried to be a little more like her. 


P.S. Somewhere in heaven there is one very, very proud Mother.


I was touched by Susan’s joyful and chipper attitude. As I watched her sing, I could not help but think about how she put her career on “hold” in order to love and care for her sick mother, and how fitting that God would granted this selfless woman the desires of her heart…to sing before a large audience. She “rocked” the world in more ways than one!


i wonder how many susan boyle’s there are in this world waiting for a chance like this, you go girl as they say never judge a book by its cover. you were fantastic


I just want to say, in hopes that Susan reads this, I cried my eyes out. What a beautiful magical moment in her life and so rightfully earned. She is a tender, sweet woman with an amazing voice and gift.  I dont think she’ll ever have the world back as she knew it, I hope and pray she’s ready for the cameras and the world as her audience. I’m already to go buy her first album and see her in concert regardless of whether she wins the American Idol show or not!


When Susan Boyle sang, why did we weep? Perhaps because we were struck that her beautiful voice had been locked away for forty-seven years and might have been forever silent were it not for this night when this unlikely woman braved ridicule and insisted on being heard.

But what do I know. I’m just an old, retired TV comedy hack.

Joseph C. Cavella

I have been a presenter for over 20yrs and I thought there was nothing left in this sham reality TV culture that had any appeal for me but my God I have had the most delightfull surprise of my entire life. I know there are many more Susan Boyle’s out there who will never be heard, but I am so glad the we heard this one. What an incredable voice I have to say I was moved to tears. Her wonderfull simplicity, no paint or powder, or five hundred pound dresses, just Susan as is. You have a wonderfull gift and we are so lucky that you have decided to share it with us. May your dream continue to grow and may you prosper but always be your wonderfull, simplistic and delightfull self. congradulations to you Susan Boyle

robert murphy

We are to embrace and listen to people the way they are.  We are the extension of God’s transformational, loving, listening presence in the world, not his “judge.”

Tom Grosh

Try and you may win. Don’t try, you can’t win. She keeps saying “baby steps” in her interviews.

—Moira Levant

The world should be more like giving people chances.

Ellen Grosh

Susan Boyle’s performance assumes that the world should be able to look past physical appearance in order to understand a person. And I think that makes so much sense given that our bodies are a broken representation of what we will embody in heaven - when we are where we are supposed be. Humans strive so hard to make their bodies good enough for others, but the performance by Susan Boyle speaks to the perhaps cliche idea that what really matters is on the inside. The inside, our spirit, is what the world should be crafting - and instead we, myself included, focus on clothes, and hairstyles, and make-up. The world should be able to look far past the human bodies we have been given to the wonderful possibilities God has created in each of our hearts.

3. What does Susan Boyle's performance make possible?

Susan’s performance reminds us of the “creative capacity latent in who knows how many lives.”


There are no assumptions to be made about the way the world is or should be with regards to Ms. Boyle’s performance!  Her performance is beyond a shadow of any doubt inspirational to say the least.  Her performance makes possible the reinforcement that for anyone with a dream and the desire to one day fullfil that dream anything is possible.  Her faith along with her hope and desire to be a singer she maintained all these years and now, yes now, her chance and opportunity to display her talent has arrived, and display her God-given talent she did.  In this particular scenario, seeing isn’t believing but hearing firsthand certainly is!  God bless you Ms. Susan Boyle you are awe inspiring to countless people of all ages and nationalities around the world for your wholesomeness and honesty and sincerity!  Thank you Ms. Boyle from the bottom of my heart and I wish you the best of success in your upcoming performances all the way along the road to victory.  Blessed regards,  James

—James Winterbottom

The audience of this show (and other “reality” shows) derive much of their entertainment in the early audition phase of these programs from mocking the performers and laughing at the often cruel comments of the judges.  This is certainly true in my house where my kids seem to get a bigger thrill out of watching people being made fun of - granted it is often because of their own misconception about their talent - than out of seeing some really good performance.  It strikes me that Susan Boyle’s performance makes possible the realization that it is more wonderful to be surprised by unexpected excellence (and more satisfying) than to settle for making fun of people and calling it entertainment.

—Karen Guzman

The performance makes it possible for me to see more clearly what a jerk I am. 

Why did I get teary eyed?  Not because she was good—I listen to Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt all the time without that effect.  Partly, perhaps, because I was happy for her—the Cinderella story thing.  But mostly, I suspect, because of the gap between her performance and my low expectations.  She revealed my prejudice—literally, my pre-judging.  One of the best parts of the video is Amanda Holden’s response—an honest, almost soul-searching acknowledgement of her own “cynicism.”  To say, as Amanda did, that it was a privilege to hear the performance is very nearly to suggest that she is not worthy to hear it.  Simon acknowledged as much in his response, but—looking like a man in search of repentance and not finding it—had to use sarcasm to do so. 

In short, the performance serves as the occasion for (which is sort of like making possible) my repentance.  As a British journalist once said in answer to the question, What’s Wrong With the World?  “I am.”

—Karl Johnson

A reminder of how the beauty, joy, and splendor of the creation, culture, and those in ‘the image of God’ is found ‘in the rough.’  Yes, must ‘sees, haves, and styles’ will receive attention, but let’s be local by giving time/space to embrace, nurture, and express the precious gifts of those in our neighborhood.

Tom Grosh

It doesn’t matter what you look like, its how you act ;-)

Ellen Grosh

The affirmation that beginnings happen all the time. That life can change directions mid way. She’s just starting on a new voyage.

—moira Levant
4. What does Susan Boyle's performance make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

I deeply, deeply wish that her performance would make it impossible to write off people who don’t fit the outward norm, that it would be more difficult to have low or zero expectations of those less outwardly beautiful. Alas, this is the third season, and two years after Paul Potts.

—Simon Fowler

Her performance makes it impossible to forget that God loves the bravery of the weak things of the world far more than he loves our pretentions of significance and strength.  She makes it much more difficult to lose ourselves in our carefully guarded privledge by papering over the idea that the last shall be first.


Well said Simon and Dave.

I would add, let’s not strive (or encourage others) to be all/nothing superstars/professionals or only give our ‘time/space/attention’ to them.

Tom Grosh

Pay our attention to things that don’t matter as much.

Ellen Grosh

Unfortunately I don’t think it makes anything impossible. We all pre judge people. We should learn to keep an open mind, heart and look toward the possibilities rather than the things that can’t happen. Itzahak Perlman is a violinist who had polio as a child. He showed the world a generation ago that “different” people could shine. I think we still need that lesson. I saw a midget (I think he was a midget, might have been a dwarf) baritone in Pittsburgh once. He sang wonderfully. He ended his program with the PSO with Sonatra’s “I did it my way”. Maybe that will be the 2nd song Susan Boyle sings.

—moira Levant

I would add, given the recent additions to the saga, that the narrative of the heroic underdog v. the oppressive Empire may be a bit simplistic… the poisoned fruit of the fall is pretty evenly distributed amongst the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  I stand corrected, or at least nuanced.

5. What new culture is created in response?

May God bless you and continue to give you multitudes of joy and peace, Susan Boyle. I have watched your performance several times yesterday and today and each time I am wiping away the tears. Your story combined with the purity and inspiration of your God given talent has touched me right down to the deepest parts of my inner core. I am the mother of a beautiful little girl who has a seizure disorder and is severly learning disabled. Like yourself, she has had to undergo cruel taunting from others. You have given me hope not only for her but for myself. You have shown the world in a loud, clear and strong voice that inner beauty is far more valueable than outer beauty. Before you started to sing you could tell that everyone was ready to mock you and you blew them all away. YES!!!! I shall be looking for with great anticipation your first CD. God Bless You!!!!

—Christine Reed

Here’s why I think we love Susan.

nick b.

Quel bonheur de savourer une telle prestation. Je suis heureuse de constater qu’il y a encore de tel talent à découvrir.
Bon vent Susan

Jocelyne desmont

—jocelyne desmont

OMG susan has made my dad with that song it sounded so good I cant put into word’s!!!!!!!! I havent heard anything like that in along time it gave a real good pick me up TYVM sunsan boyle!


day ^^


I am honored to have heard such a beautiful voice and woman show the world what talents God has given her. I believe she will shine in his words for her. May God be with you thru out all your journey.

—Barbara Nicoletti Bucholz

Her audition opened my eyes to a soul that can not be dismissed for any reason.  Susan embodies the true and real beauty that belittles the stereotypic perception of little minds, including mine. As a whole, Susan is gorgeous, when she touches the eye, the ear, the heart and soul as one.  May I ignore the image makers and invest the time to look inside the package to judge every person as a whole before making any judgment. Shame on those that put to words her personal life, for they have no bearing on the true beauty that is Susan! Asking Susan to compete in a dog and pony show is like asking Einstein to submit a high school science project.  Her talent transcends any competition and would be blatantly unfair to her fellow competitors.  The world is fortunate to have finally found her, I just hope she can hold on to her beauty as it was before this.

—Bruce Forrester

My thoughts are along the lines of Bruce’s.  My wife Theresa would like to hear her sing more songs and I’m sure we will :-)

Tom Grosh

It isn’t really new. BUT it helps me realize I need to keep true to my own calling and expressions of art. Music, visual arts, movies have become too commercial and ignore the true expression of the inner soul, the soul of man.

—moira Levant

Reminds me that once in a lifetime everybody can get a chance, but still keep doing the little things that you know are right and enjoy.

Ellen Grosh

Can’t seem to get enough of the performance of Susan Boyle.  She truly has inspired me through her remarkable voice and her down to earth lifestyle.  I just hope everyone won’t try to change her into the Hollywood type and that she remains as she is; a normal human being, being given a wonderful opportunity of sharing her gift with all of us.

—Joanne Rungaitis