Tuesday, April 14, 2009


With a big h/t to Red Tory, this stunning performance on the Britain's Got Talent competition is not to be missed--embedding is disabled, so head over to YouTube.

Listen for yourself. Be enraptured, as Red and I and by now literally millions of others have been.

I freely admit that I had tears in my eyes at the end of this visual and aural narrative: the dowdy church lady who seized the cynical and amused crowd with her first three bars, and lifted us all to the heights.

"I'm forty-seven," she said to the infamous Simon Cowell. "And that's just one side of me," she continued, seeing his facial response--and did a little shimmy!

Then pure, liquid gold.

Beyond the "appearances can be deceiving" commonplace, we need to step back, perhaps, and look at appearance itself, and its influence over us. Why
shouldn't a person have such colossal gifts without looking like Beyoncé Knowles? What does youth and sexiness have to do with the ability to do math, or write poetry--or sing? What is it in our cultural matrix that directs us to bundle attributes in this manner? Is it evolutionary mating-ritual essentialism or a social construction that accomplishes the same, or similar, ends?

Obviously this issue is salient when it comes to performance talents. We don't expect poets of either sex to be beautiful, let alone mathematicians or construction workers. I would be tempted to call our reaction
a gendered one, except that male performers are expected to have a certain look as well: if you sing like Mick Jagger and play guitar like Eric Clapton, you won't get far if you look like Oliver Hardy or Stan Laurel.

But even here, this is not always the case: people go to the opera to listen and enjoy the spectacle: we don't judge the physical appearance of the tenor or the contralto, but the sounds of their voices. So we might say that only certain types of performance--rock, for example, or American Idol and Britain's Got Talent contests--are indeed bound up in the complex interplay that constitutes sexual capital.

But even this is far from the whole story. The devastating effects of lookism, the next site of struggle for equality, are not confined to mating displays, nor are they peculiar to the West. We saw recently how "Communist" China treated a little girl whose looks did not, in the functionaries' opinion, match her voice. A literature is currently developing, although the discussion is in fact an ancient one.

Here's an interesting account that brings us up to date: "Today, the debate is still between essentialists and constructionists, but the essentialists have become evolutionary and the constructionists have become social." As you'd imagine from anything published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies,
however, the arguments and conclusion will disappoint progressives.

But let us step back further: must stage-genres remain immutable, bounded wholes, or are they subject to transformation? Are new genres--on stage or in art in general--possible? With respect to the latter, one need only plunge into Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire, or his Book of Embraces, where fiction, fable, documentary, history and poetry are combined into something moving and entirely new. And regarding the former, it may be brave souls like Susan Boyle, with her obvious self-protective armament on display as she exchanges banter with the three judges, who shatter the boundaries by their sheer will and their enormous gifts.

Who knows what prodigious talents have been and are buried by appearance--skin-deep, perhaps, but nevertheless for most an impenetrable barrier, whether socially constructed or an evolutionary mating-ritual imperative. Susan Boyle reminds us that any time is a good time to examine our assumptions. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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