Saturday, April 25, 2009

Susan Boyle's Transformation: We Have Met The Ugly Duckling And He Is Us

Turnabout is fair play as Susan Boyle turns Les Mis into Les Millions in her now famous YouTube fairy tale.

The Susan Boyle video clip that currently is reaching new viewer heights on YouTube exhibits aspects implying post-production tinkering (or at least extensive pre-production planning) which moves it from the realm of real time cinema verité to preconceived narrative.
The way Boyle's stunning performance is preceded with shots of her in the waiting room, the contrast of her plebeian appearance with the glamour and celebrity of the judges, even her song choice creates a specific effect. Is it a coincidence that this would-be ugly duckling chose as her performance piece Fantine's swan song from Les Miserables?

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Imagine after that lengthy and somewhat embarrassing introduction, Ms. Boyle had begun singing "Oklahoma!" or "Luck Be A Lady Tonight!" The audience reaction might have been quite different.
The presentation and contemplation of transformation is a key characteristic of mythology, properly understood. Myths and fairy tales use a magical transformation as a standard narrative device. The ugly ducking transforms into the beautiful swan. The kitchen drudge transforms into the beautiful princess. The frog transforms into the handsome prince. What is different about the Boyle YouTube video, which might be called a Twitter fairy tale, is that it is we, the audience, that is transformed, not the protagonist.
Using multiple shots of the Britain's Got Talent judges, hosts, and audience, this video narrative clearly documents their (and by extension our) transformation from ugly critics to enthusiastic supporters. By contrast, Susan Boyle herself remains unchanged, except in our eyes. This reversal of transformational aspect as a narrative device is what makes this video so compelling, and I believe it could only happen in our television-weaned, computer-enhanced, social networking era.
Particular storytelling techniques shape themselves to the available medium. In distinguishing the "light through" aspect of the video image vs. the "light on" nature of movies, Marshall McLuhan observed that with television (and by extension the computer monitor) the viewer is the screen. New media present opportunities to tell old stories in a new way, and from a different vantage point. The salient feature of this Twitter-Tale is that it replaces the protagonist with the audience as the object of transformation. We have met the ugly duckling and he is us.

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