The Susan Boyle Factor

Entertainment Weekly has an excellent post up today: 15 Ways to Fix American Idol.

While I agree with all of their suggestions, I think there are some even better ideas that didn’t make the list.  Perhaps this is why some ideas were overlooked:

Considering the stunning success of season 4’s Carrie Underwood, it’s baffling that Idol has done a lackluster job of casting country-oriented females in five subsequent seasons (not counting season 8’s tragically overlooked Mishavonna Henson, that is!).

Carrie Underwood is not the reality contestant turned superstar that should be used as the model to revamp Idol.  The producers captured lightning in a bottle that season.  A beautiful young woman with flawless vocal control and a clear understanding of who she wants to be as an artist? If it was as easy as an open casting call to find more like Underwood, there wouldn’t be a conversation about fixing Idol in the first place.

But there is an artist that could teach both American Idol and Nashville record executives three big lessons: Susan Boyle.

Lesson #1: Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number.

Idol’s insistence on capping the age of contestants below thirty means the Susan Boyles of our country can’t even get a foot in the door. Why was her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” so powerful?  Because at age 47, she’s old enough to have lived it.

As Boyle proves, a reality show can provide a shot at stardom for those who’d never get the chance in the traditional way, as labels rarely sign artists who are older than thirty.  Instead of limiting auditions to those who fit the traditional age range that record execs look for, Idol should open it up to those who’d never get a record deal the old-fashioned way, even if they deserved it.

No label honcho would ever look at Susan Boyle and think, “That woman is going to sell more albums than anybody else this year.” But that’s just what she did, moving 4 million albums in the U.S. alone. The audience saw her and fell in love.  That can’t happen with more artists like her if we never get the chance to hear them.

Leson #2:  Try a Little Tenderness.

One of the reasons Boyle’s audition struck such a nerve was the setup.  We’ve been conditioned for years to laugh at the Susan Boyles.  Idol’s audition episodes are top heavy with them. I’m one of many people who can’t even watch the early rounds anymore because they’re so mean.  But when I did watch them, I was always hoping for the happy ending that never came.

Are there people who don’t have the talent that they think they do? Certainly. But what is gained by roughing them up for sport?  The cruelty line was crossed long ago.  I suspect that Idol’s lower ratings this season have a lot to do with that.

If you’re going to have a singing competition, just focus on the singing.  If a singing hopeful  has no chance at making it to Hollywood, give the screen time to those who do.

Lesson #3: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

Most Idol contestants, along with most new country artists, are conventionally beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it seems hard to believe that none of the “not conventionally beautiful” artists out there have the talent to warrant an Idol slot or a record deal.

Consider this quote:

People might see me at a gathering and say, “God, she’s an awkward girl,” or “She’s not really a looker, is she? But if I sang to them, I knew I could outshine any girl in the room. – Pam Tillis, 1992

I personally think that  Tillis is beautiful, but who knows how many doors didn’t open for her because she didn’t fit the mold.  Would she even have a chance if she came on to the scene today? How many future legends will never be because of our narrow definition of beauty?

Susan Boyle didn’t fit the mold, but by some small miracle, she was given the shot to share her talent with the world.  More artists like her need to get that opportunity. Perhaps if the top 24 wasn’t stacked with 24 year-olds every season, they’d have a better chance.


  1. I Once wrote an argumentive essay in my Junior year (a few years back) of High School (on which I earned an ‘A-‘), stating that American Idol should be pulled off the air. In supporting this, I made a lot of similar points that you did Kevin, regarding a diversity of the cast (not just in music styles, but with regards to ages and races). I also stressed a point that with these restrictions, talent has become more and more hard to find. I also criticized the cruelness that is displayed on the show.

    I wish that ALL record companies could learn from Susan Boyle, then maybe half of what is shipped to country music wouldn’t be mindless pop fluff. Good Article, Kevin.

  2. This was a very insightful article. I fully agree with the points made. Age should not be a factor. The only reason “American Idol” has an age limit is to ensure that only young and pretty people are seen on the show – that has always been a peave of mine. And I definitely think that more focus should be placed on talent, and less on exterior beauty. Nowadays, it seems the common tactic is to find any cute skinny blonde and then auto-tune her, and then you make a huge pile of money off her. Pam Tillis might not be considered “hot” or “sexy,” but I do think she is beautiful in her own way. Her most beautiful traits are easily her voice and her smile. Though I’m happy that country fans have had a chance to hear her, I don’t think she would stand a chance in the messed-up Nashville of today. The fact that she is rarely heard on modern-day country radio seems to support that theory.

  3. the first person that comes to mind is Reba. She started out as this “not the most attractive woman”, took 6 years to break in, and has been unbeatable in the next 27 years. How many record execs focus on only the first layer. If Reba had come out today, she would have been tossed aside, and the world would never know the force that she would become. We (society, record execs, radio) need to stop focusing on media and looks to judge who is going to make it. Let’s start judging on talent, and invest in the artist we have. If they focused more time on artist who are of good quality but just can’t seem to break through, who knows what Sarah Buxton, Julie Roberts, and Jamey Johnson could become. We are so driven by numbers and the all might dollar, that we forget that if we put more money into the talent we have, that maybe we’d be better off in the end.

    Look at Susan Boyle, when she walked on that stage, every person in the audience laughed and snickered, and she proved them all wrong. We judged the book by it’s cover and counted her out. Gladly, her raw talent overtook, but it makes me wonder, in the last 20 years, which artist that were never to break through on their first disc, and were then were dropped by their lablel could have been the biggest thing in country music.

    I also think of Miranda Lambert, her music has always been steady (and getting better) and well received…except on radio. I am so glad that her record company held on to her, because now she is finally proving to the world what pretty much everyone knew already, that she is a force to be reckoned with.

  4. Also, Susan Boyle succeeded in spite of most critics and the media, which probably makes them feel very insecure. Seems nobody liked her but the people. And she gets practacally NO radio coverage in the US and little in the UK because the powers that be push what is essentially crap. I only listen to Sirius radio with the music I like which is mostly from the 50’s through the 70’s. I love music that has intelligent lyrics and singable music. Most today drowns out the vocalists anyway.

  5. I personally think Boyle saw success BECAUSE of her appearance – people tend to love someone who is a complete underdog. Regardless, her album was dull as dishwater, and I was extremely disappointed by it. She is a very competent vocalist, but an interpreter she is not, and when that’s the case, it’s never a good idea to craft an album of (almost) all covers.

  6. I completely agree with you.
    Every now and then talent shows do unearth real talent, but I refuse to watch talentless people be ridiculed. They’re like freak shows and they exploit people for ratings and they seem to feel that no one can sing if they’re not 20 and pencil thin.
    Not everyone that can sing is going to look like Carrie Underwood and it’s about time they realize that people buy music for the voice and not for the artists appearance.
    When I listen to Susan Boyle’s Wild Horses the hair on my arms literally stands up. Her voice is so innocent and unique and she really feels what she’s singing. I knew nothing about her until I heard Wild Horses so I didn’t fall in love with her voice because of her story.
    I agree with Erik that her first album was mostly covers but I think they were anxious to get that first album released and the next one will be completely different.

  7. Perhaps if the top 24 wasn’t stacked with 24 year-olds every season, they’d have a better chance.

    True. There’s definitely an element of “casting” each year, some worse than others. However, don’t lose sight of the many young adults Idol has given chances to who aren’t conventionally beautiful – Elliot Yamin is my favorite example. Others off the top of my head are Mandisa, Scott Savol, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks, Melinda Doolittle, Chris Sligh, etc. All are incredibly talented. How the public treats these contestants via votes is another story, of course.

    Kevin, will you be watching the X-Factor this fall? I will be purely to see Simon, but I think I (and you) may end up enjoying it.

    They should stop selecting contestants based upon their “back story” and focus once again on their voices.

    Agreed. It’s an added bonus when we’re treated to watching a farm girl or cocktail waitress shoot to stardom, but the focus shouldn’t be on the back story. I’ve never seen it so blatantly pushed as it was this year, and I think that’s why we have ourselves our first winner with pitch problems.

    The only reason “American Idol” has an age limit is to ensure that only young and pretty people are seen on the show – that has always been a peave of mine.

    Well, not necessarily. I think the age limit is there in part because it allows us to watch the cultivation of raw talent. There’s some charm to that. The season that had the most decidedly “polished” singers –Season 7— felt a little dry to me, and I think I remember reading that the producers felt the same and approached Season 8 differently.

    Nowadays, it seems the common tactic is to find any cute skinny blonde and then auto-tune her, and then you make a huge pile of money off her.

    Yes – this is the trend in the music industry, but the beauty of Idol is that its winners are brilliant live singers, if nothing else. Idol in many ways gives us alternatives to the quintessential pop star.

    I personally think Boyle saw success BECAUSE of her appearance – people tend to love someone who is a complete underdog.

    I’ve always felt this way. I think Boyle is a great singer, but I don’t hear the outstanding quality in her voice that others do. It seemed like a bit of hype to me, which is heartening, but at the end of the day, is it really better than the hype surrounding a beautiful young girl who has the same level of talent? I can see an argument for both sides.

  8. While Susan Boyle may not necessarily be my cup of tea, so to speak, I have to applaud her for getting up there and just doing what she has done the way she has done it, and overcoming all the verbal darts that have been thrown at her in the media.

    At the same time, though, we have to acknowledge that Susan’s success is an extreme shock to the system because of how much the media still seems to choose youth over experience and image over talent. Linda Ronstadt, whose huge success in the 1970s and 1980s was based on talent and image combined, put her finger on the button in this area in 2006: “The women’s movement has run into a bit of a brick wall. You almost can’t be successful now if you’re not a babe.”

    And even if you are a “babe”, success isn’t necessarily a sure thing.

  9. Tara wrote:
    It seemed like a bit of hype to me, which is heartening, but at the end of the day, is it really better than the hype surrounding a beautiful young girl who has the same level of talent? I can see an argument for both sides.

    I’d say yes, it’s quite a lot better, since it goes against the conventional narrative and could actually open the doors for other artists. A beautiful young girl being successful is expected, and doesn’t change anything.

  10. I’ve never seen American Idol but I’ve heard about the roughing up of contestants for sport you mentioned. That’s pretty low. Regarding age, one of my favorites, Hal Ketchum, had his first hit at 38 with Small Town Saturday night in 1991. I’m glad he didn’t get discouraged and quit.

    Is Nashville Star still around? I remember seeing that once when Buddy Jewell was on so it was probably quite a few years ago.

  11. I choose to not watch AI as I find it very mean spirited. The labels need to wake up and support true talent rather than the next ‘hot young thing/studly young guy’. It’s truly a shame when talent like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood are putting out music that is not heard on radio in favour of autotuned 20 year olds and Barbie look a likes.

  12. I consider the success of Susan Boyle to be quite the anomaly. However, I strongly agree that we need to extend the bounds of these platforms in order to properly utilise the talent that wouldn’t otherwise have a shot.

    Of course, it will then evolve into a discussion of marketability as well as sustainability etc, especially in the context of older performers catering to a consumer demographic that is much younger and far more transient in nature.

  13. @Casey, that’s not going to happen in my house. Not until talent shows stop exploiting vulnerable people who have absolutely no talent, just for entertainment and to fill Cowell’s pockets even more.
    These people go through preliminary auditions before they get to the live shows, and are put through to Live TV where they’re humiliated.
    I’ll never understand the mentality of people who watch that and think it’s funny.

  14. This is a great topic. But I’m going to take the unconventional road with my personal opinion on the topic. I think some people have sensationalized the success of Susan Boyle so much, they just have to blame her lack of success on record companies, rather than sharing in the mindset they forced the music industry to create.

    Artists who don’t look and sound a certain way are forced to become the factory model of a star because the public won’t accept anything less, just as labels themselves refuse to do. Look at the way so many people snickered and laughed when she walked onstage; if they chose to accept her for means beyond her pysical appearance, they would’ve just embraced and shown they were willing to give her a chance without judgement.

    Yes, Susan is an older talent, but I also think record labels are smart enough to refrain from signing her because the public is just as shallow as they are. She may have had a shot being marketed to an older generation, but when young artists who tell another generations stories are successful, why would they take a chance? Miley, Taylor, Justin Beiber, and most others like them have proven to be what the public wants to hear; they’re not going to be persauded to accept someone who is the complete opposite of themselves and identifies more with thier parents and grandparents genration than thier own.

    Yes, the curelity on shows like Idol and America’s Got Talent has been crossed. But it wouldn’t be so harsh if the public hadn’t shown it gets them watching for an episode or two.

    When the measure of sucess is aided with a televison show, I think the public holds an even bigger responsibilty. Idol gives us the oppertunity to make stars out of unconventional and odd people who don’t find the mold. When America still choses to vote those unconventional contestants, they are showing their own jugements to be just as narrow as those of the companies that wouldn’t take a chance on them.

  15. Hey

    Really enjoyed the article and agreed with the points made. However, Susan Boyle was found on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ which is an open audition to everyone at any age much like your new series of X-Factor, I suspect, will be. We have had X-factor over here in the UK for many years now. But never forget it is a TV show!

    I am one half of a Pop/country duo, called Raintown, which is difficult in this country (UK), but if we went in for X-Factor we would not get through regardless how good or bad we were because we do not fit the pre-conceived need for the show to produce a mainstream pop act. Susan Boyle differed due to the way she was initially treated by the panel (including Mr Cowell) and how she was perceived by the audience, before opening her mouth to sing. It was the incredible mainstream press and YouTube reaction that made record bosses and Simon sit up and take notice, not just her talent.

    I guess what I am saying is, Susan Boyle has done great and more power to her for breaking the mould. But for the record she did not win the show. (Although it is fair to say she is a winner.)

    As for American Idol, it is what it is, a TV show. Just like the coming X-Factor will be. It might be different because the audition process will not be ageist, but it will still have a similar format of cringe worthy auditions and it will be interesting to see who actually wins the show.

    Anyways, enjoyed the article!
    Best wishes

  16. Up to now Idol contestants have moved forward on their vocal ability to make it to the top 24 if you had watch the beginning of the show when they went through the many judges auditions to even make it on the show -and those auditions were based on singing ability – if you watched the Idol finale this year when the Idol winners came on stage with some of the former seasons top Tens – you didn’t see Hollywood faces and figures – you saw ordinary, average sized people like Kelly Clarkson, large sized people, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia, Jordin Sparks and a top ten finalist this year, average looking people – but they all had one thing in common – great voices – one exception to the looks dept is Carrie Underwood – she is really the only winner to have the whole package, talent, beauty, and an incredible work ethic – so to say Idol bases it’s decisions on looks is not correct in my opinion. If you go back and check out all the Top ten finalists and the winners – you will see that I’m right. As for age – they have to limit it somewhere or auditions would be chaos – they already have 100’s of thousands of people auditioning – it would be impossible to expand the age range however they could do an over 30’s Idol show

  17. Radnor: “it would be impossible to expand the age range however they could do an over 30’s Idol show”

    Me: Why would that be impossible?

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