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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Time to take Susan Boyle seriously

She should no longer be considered a sideshow. As she proved again, on 'America's Got Talent,' she should be appreciated for her singing ability.

September 17, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Susan Boyle placed her hands on her abdomen as she sang the last note of the song "Wild Horses" Wednesday on the finale of "America's Got Talent," taking the familiar stance of a trained singer, carefully locating her breath. The pose concluded a performance that was exactly what Boyle's mentor, Simon Cowell, could have hoped for -- lovely, inspirational, free of surprises.

Devotees of the original Rolling Stones version of this often-covered weeper might object to Boyle's stolid rhythmic sense, her utter lack of irony (irony is, after all, the essence of Mick Jagger), and her artistic choices, which transform "Wild Horses" from a complicated account of emotional confusion to a simple exclamation of longing. But mainstream America, at least as it's portrayed on prime-time television, adores Boyle's sunny vocal tone and her ability to turn even a song about a drug overdose into something worthy of church.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Susan Boyle review: In Thursday's Calendar, a review of Susan Boyle's performance on "America's Got Talent" said vocalist Leona Lewis was untrained. Lewis attended, among other institutions, England's BRIT school, a free performing arts and technology high school whose alumni include Amy Winehouse.

No matter that her performance was canned (it was taped the night before the telecast, though made to look live), or that her nerves clearly planted her to one spot, vocally and physically. Boyle has something Americans have sought in popular music for more than a century, even as they also seek its opposite: the mask of sincerity.

Ever since she appeared on "Britain's Got Talent," the U.K. version of this global talent-show franchise, Boyle has become one of the world's most celebrated regular people. Her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables" surprised reality-show viewers used to seeing performers' voices match up with their visages.

Working class, average looking and too old even to join the cast of "Desperate Housewives," Boyle inspired many by pursuing her dream of becoming a professional in a field, entertainment, that mostly rewards the young and the beautiful.

She's not the first star to defy beauty standards: there was Ethel Merman, Janis Joplin, heck, even "American Idol" had the chubby Christian rocker Chris Sligh. Perhaps because her voice is so pure while her chin is so wobbly, Boyle seems truly exceptional.

To argue against her rise is, to evoke Dr. Seuss, totally Grinch-like.

But let's not fool ourselves about Boyle's voice. It's as pretty as a winner on "America's Next Top Model," and it's standard fare for American pop lovers.

The affect of sincerity, taken on by spaghetti tenors, crooners and balladeers since the days of Enrico Caruso, has nothing to do with genuine feeling, though Boyle certainly does seem to have access to plenty of that.

It's a theatrical approach with roots in bel canto singing and Broadway: the ingenue's wide-eyed way with a love song, devoid of the tics, blue phrasing and feel for conversation that we love in other kinds of singers, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Jagger.

Boyle looks a certain way, and so she's been championed as more "human" than other singing stars. In truth, pop spent the last century developing a whole range of voices more individualistic and challenging than Boyle's -- Shakira's bilingual hiccup-growl or the nasal drone of Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox, or even the rich but untrained diva wail of Leona Lewis. These other stars also guested on "America's Got Talent," living out music's strange democracy -- as does Kevin Skinner, this season's winner, a former chicken wrangler with a distinct Kentucky twang.

We root for Boyle for reasons that have nothing to do with the way she sings. It is heartening to see a not-quite-50-year-old woman who'd never previously caught a break find success, even if at times she seems more traumatized than fulfilled by fame. But to be surprised by her singing is, frankly, an unfair response. Boyle has trained hard to sing the way she does; she is as careful as a singer comes. We should stop being startled by her performances and respect her for the qualities she's cultivated: scrupulousness and dependability.

At 48, Boyle is old enough to have been a teen fan of the Rolling Stones. Perhaps the spunkiness that helped make her famous led her to choose a chestnut by those bad boys as the single from her debut album, to be released Nov. 24. Her rise has given the pop world an interesting new personality and music lovers a chance to embrace yet another very pretty voice.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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