Friday, 1 May 2009

Boyle's Law 2.0

The furore over Susan Boyle and her first appearance on the excruciatingly-named Britain's Got Talent comprises a dimension which few if any commentators have touched on. It's that her narrative - ugly-looking unloved ancient female turns out to have the holy and exalting voice of an angel - seems so bogus, so obviously fraudulent, so evidently staged and manipulated.

As Charlie Brooker pointed out, Boyle (a) looks like most women of her age that you see anywhere and think nothing of - she's not "ugly" in the least, and (b) Boyle is a good but in no way extraordinary singer - she has a very nice voice, that's all. On her first appearance we were asked to believe that the judges had never seen or heard her before, that all their responses to her were spontaneous and sincere and authentic. Except the responses were so inappropriate to what they objectively had in front of them that they seem utterly faked - Amanda Holden's jaw hanging open in stupefaction, as if Boyle had revealed she was in fact the Warrior Christ and the hour of Armageddon was at hand.

Two possible interpretations of this international hysteria can be given:

(1) the implicit consumer of many digimodernist texts - and Britain's Got Talent is a digimodernist TV show - is credulous, naive, gullible. There's some validity to this, but it's a gross oversimplification too;

(2) Boyle's narrative looks, smells, sounds, walks and talks like fiction - like the fictional stories we are used to hearing and seeing. It's fairy tale - the humble girl who finds out she's really a princess, the ugly duckling legend by which the unprepossessing individual blossoms magically into a thing of beauty. It's the redemption narrative. It's the artist myth (unloved, unwashed genius toiling away in secret to bring forth eternal beauty). We ought to be wary of the Boyle narrative because, indeed, it comes across as something made up - as myth, as legend, as a structured and familiar story. But the context for this is a reality TV show. And when we watch such shows we are in fact watching the emergence from out of the formless flux of everyday life, the chaos and hazard and banality of the quotidian, the shape of narrative. This is what reality TV is: a format in which viewers can actually and apparently watch stories come into being, and participate in the development of those stories by voting and choosing.

So when a reality TV show comes across as fictional, it fulfils its raison d'etre. Nobody smells a rat because that is what reality TV is supposed to do: to dramatize text-making, story-making, narrative-making in real time. The irony is that for the participants their entry into "reality" TV marks the moment when their life passes from real into fiction.

And don't get me started on that kid who they made sing a different song...


  1. To be honest, I think there has been quite a widespread acknowledgement that the storylines of BGT are, as you say, evidently staged and manipulated. I think most people take it as a given these days with this kind of programme; Big Brother has a "story editor" listed in the end credits (at least in the UK version, not sure about here)
    And "Boyle's Law" - a headline really too good not to use :)

  2. ("at least in the US version", that should say)

  3. But I was trying to move away from the "reality/manipulated" binary to understand why it is that, when something which sells itself and indeed is (on one naive level) "true" looks so fictitious, this doesn't matter to the audience. And my sense is that what the audience is looking for and getting from shows such as Britain's Got Talent is a particular relationship between the "real" and the "invented" in which the latter is overtly dramatized as emerging from the shapelessness of the former.