by | Apr 19, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

She walked onto the stage in a frumpy dress, with unwieldy hair and a stout figure, looking very much like a middle-aged Scottish woman who lives alone with her cat.

Which she was.

And then she began to sing.

And she brought the house down.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old unemployed church worker with the voice of a Broadway diva. The YouTube videos of her audition for “Britain’s Got Talent” had been viewed more than 40 million times, and by the time you read this, it could be 50 million. She has been interviewed by CBS and Larry King, pursued by newspapers around the world, chased after by Hollywood producers.

This all happened in a week.

And that’s what scares me. A meteor like Elvis

It used to be, if a singer was discovered, it happened small, in a club or an office. A recording was made. Maybe it got played on a radio station. It grew slowly, organically.

Consider Elvis Presley. He was discovered after walking into a Memphis studio to make a record for his mother. Everyone thinks he just took off. But from the time he showed up that day to his first real public performance was over a year, and his first record was released a year after that. Yes, his rise was meteoric. It still took a while.

Today, it takes minutes. Think about it. A week ago, you hadn’t heard of Susan Boyle. Now you can listen to a rare 1999 recording she made for a charity project. It’s online.

I’ve been asking myself why Boyle struck such a chord. Someone referred to her as the “Slumdog Millionaire” of music. Maybe that’s part of it. We love an underdog story. We relate to the ugly duckling. When Boyle tells the cameras she has “never been kissed,” that she has never had a date, that her dream is to be a singer, but she has never been given the opportunity, well, your heart goes out to her.

And when the audience rises and cheers her, even the hardened cynics might admit to a lump in their throats.

The thing is, the audience was cheering her from the first line of the song. The first line?

That’s how fast we render public opinion. An ‘Idol’ no more

And what scares me is this: What’s fast on the way up is fast on the way down. I remember interviewing William Hung a few years ago. You remember Hung. He was an “American Idol” contestant who sang so badly that he became endearing. He made a record. He was hot for his 15 minutes.

But by the time I spoke with him, his 15 minutes were up. He was promoting something, but you could tell nobody much cared. The public was on to the next oddball phenomenon – which is a specialty of the Internet.

Meanwhile, Hung – who dropped out of college to pursue his singing – acted as if he’d be recording forever. He got defensive about his talent. He honestly thought people found his off-key performances melodic. It was sad.

I don’t know what’s in store for Susan Boyle. For all this attention, she only passed the initial audition stages of “Britain’s Got Talent”- meaning there will be weeks more of competition. Will the public tire of her, the way it does of everything else? Will it demand that she fix herself up? Will it criticize her weight? Will it realize that while her voice is amazing for an unemployed church worker, it is just OK when compared with other major singing talents?

If so, then what? Does this wonderful ride Boyle is on come crashing down? I admit, I got a little misty the first time I saw Boyle win over the crowd. But I also wondered whether there wasn’t some catch to this – did the judges know how good she was? Would we find out something about her later on? Could this really be as sweet as it seemed?

Maybe I’m too cynical. But in a world where an overnight sensation doesn’t even take that long anymore, what choice do you have?

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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