There’s not that much of a gap between Phineas Taylor Barnum, grandmaster of the freak show, and Simon Cowell. Both Barnum and Cowell are exemplars of transmuting showbiz into mega-biz gold. The difference is that we look back now, 150 years later, and judge the freakshows that made Barnum’s name as exploitative and degrading. I wonder how we will judge Britain’s Got Talent in 30 years time?
There is no doubt that Barnum would have loved Britain’s Got Talent – a cost-effective format that gathers a collection of strange and strangely determined people into its fold and pushes their saleability, if they have any, to the hilt. It’s nothing new – Russell Birdwell conducted star searches for Selznick International back in the 1930s, the Harry Potter films made a public search for their star. The only new thing in the mix is the ability to spread word on the show’s latest runaway idol to the world in seconds flat via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere.
Cowell is a remarkable man, who puts the business into show with enormous skill. With Britain’s Got Talent, he has recognised, as Barnum did, that there is a vast well of public desire to ogle. They invest briefly in the people that X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent draw out of the woodwork, admire them and root for them for a time when the sing or perform well – within a certain set of strictures – and then watch as they sink slowly and unwillingly back into oblivion.
There is a huge appetite for the fairytale ending on TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, but beyond the fairytale endings, real life isn’t that simple. The audience is always going to want to know what happens next. The pressure of expectation, especially on a global scale, is enough to make anyone crack, let alone a woman with learning difficulties who has been plucked from obscurity and plunged into the vast acid bath of fame. Susan Boyle may be an ugly duckling who has become a swan, but what happens when the public find the next ugly duckling to swoon over? What it amounts to, from either end of the process, is too much pressure on the shoulders of Susan Boyle.
Susan Boyle is very unlikely to be anything but a one hit wonder. I’ll stick my neck out and say that it may well be a mega-hit on the back of all the euphoria because yes, she has a very good voice. Britain’s Got Talent has lifted her from obscurity, but the trouble is it also seems to expect her to deal with the pressures of fame on a scale that nobody could have predicted. The show side-steps the well-worn cliché of the long pub tours and constant struggle that has marked the progress to fame in the past – a process which was still no guarantee of steeling the acts it produced for the sudden onrush of the corrosive processes of mega-fame. Despite the quality of Boyle’s voice and the willingness of the public to love her at the moment, I still can’t see this as a lasting love affair.
I’m not attacking Susan Boyle when I say that I don’t think that people will pay to see her perform in six months time. I just don’t think she’s got the wherewithal to withstand the pressures of fame and I don’t believe the public will stick with her, because too many of them are too in love with the moment of her transformation to consider or care what happens beyond the happy ever after moment of that one big hit, other than to watch her implode. She is not a role model because there is no room for role models in the world of ‘pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ celebrity.
What I am attacking is the process, the public expectation, the weight being placed on Boyle’s shoulders. As I told the Times, “’You can’t pluck somebody with those issues and fix them overnight. This has been a fantastic soap opera for the fame-makers, Syco [Simon Cowell’s record label] and Talkback TV. I’m not suggesting that they are cynical and deliberately looking to exploit, but they have got their eye on the buck. They’ve done very well out of Paul Potts and they want to see what they can make out of this. We are beginning to see more and more people who are casualties of the process. Jade Goody was over. She was resurrected by her illness.’”
If Boyle overcomes the caustic nature of fame and makes a real go of it – wonderful! I’ll gladly be proved wrong. But I honestly believe that she will have one huge hit and then slowly disappear, most likely because the public will have found another fairytale to follow. If that happens, I just hope the realization that it’s all gone away doesn’t destroy an already palpably fragile woman. She doesn’t deserve that.