Everybody knows Susan Boyle – Media as a contemporary star factory

The Susan Boyle’s story is a perfect example of the uncontrollable power of television and the electronic media. In spring 2009 no one has ever heard about her, but one audition in one of April’s episodes of ‘Britain’s got talent’, where she sang “I dreamed a dream” from the musical “Les Miserables” has turned her life upside down. In few mere minutes of her performance she transformed from this inconspicuous overweight ‘plain Jane’ with really bad hair into a star. She impressed everyone, including restrained Simon Cowell and went all the way to the final.
But it’s not only the television that decided about her fame. Almost immediately after her appearance on the show the big internet machine started. Fans of the show uploaded a lot of fragments of her performance on the web. After only few days she’s been watched over 100 million times and the “I dreamed a dream” video have become a big You Tube hit. With such a big backup of potential fan base she was bound to succeed. Her first album came out in November 2009 becoming the fastest selling debut album in the history and a number one in nine countries, including UK.

The tabloids just loved Susan Boyle inventing all the possibles comparisons – from the Cinderella story and the Ugly Duckling fairytale to the american myth about bootblack becoming a millionaire. There were also attempts to analyse her phenomenon from the feministic point of view. She became a role model to every housewife in the country and a glimmer of hope that dreams really do come true. As the american activist from the ‘Huffington Post’ said, Susan Boyle was a big kick in the face for the youth culture where there’s no place for older women. Another controversial comment was made by Sharon Osbourne who compared Susan’s looks to a ‘slapped ass’ in the radio interview, which she actually had to apologize for. In fact it’s hard to imagine more accurate contradiction to all the standards binding the world of contemporary pop culture  Pop culture where beauty and youth are worshiped. ‘Is Susan ugly? Or are we?’ asks Tanya Gold from the ‘Guardian’.

Year 2009 didn’t belong to Susan Boyle only. One of the biggest stars of those twelve months was Lady Gaga, who isn’t an example of perfection either. Actually more spiteful comments on the web say that she looks more like a well groomed transvestite than a classic beauty. Even so Stefani Germanotta has taken over the playlists all over the world. Because of her controversial over styled outfits she also became a specific style icon. She made provocation and originality her main weapons in the battle for fame and it worked. Like Madonna quarter of a century ago she uses drastic methods to grab the attention and always manages to think of something new. We all remember that meat dress don’t we? Lets not even try to search for logic or sense in this – she just simply plays with rules and conventions in order to shock us. Controversy always have and always will sell. Anyway Lady Gaga knows exactly what she’s doing to satisfy the audience and the hungry for scandals tabloids. It’s not that easy considering the fact that we live in the world where we’ve already seen everything.

Anther media product that caused a lot of noise in United States – Adam Lambert. The American Idol contestant keeps shocking the audience with his sexuality. He’s homosexual but he’s image is quite far from the safe image of a typical gay person created by the contemporary media. He expresses it in a very controversial ways. As an example we can use his performance during the American Music Awards ceremony when he kissed his keyboarder and simulated oral sex with one of the dancers. It obviously caused discussions in media, but Lambert stubbornly claimed that if women do it for years it’s ok for men to do it too.

Some can be moved by Susan Boyle’s story, some can be impressed with the talent hidden underneath her sloppy exterior, but that’s not the reason why we keep reading about it. Just like in the Lady Gaga’s or Lambert’s case – it’s the guilty pleasure of spying on people who are different, who are beyond normality and acceptance. On the other hand Susan Boyle and Lady Gaga have more in common that we’d think. Aesthetically they might be on two different poles of the pop culture, but they’re both drastically exaggerated by media.

Being in the center of attention and the sudden fame can easily overwhelm though. Susan Boyle didn’t handle the fact that all eyes were on her very well either. She became a star and media’s favorite subject among only few days. Everyone was convinced she was going to win the competition, have a big future and even bigger money. Unfortunately in the grand final she lost to a dance group Diversity. While the results were being announced we could all notice that there’s something wrong going on with Susan. She looked confused and when she was congratulating the winners she did some kind of wild dance pulling her dress up to her hips. Things got worse when she demolished her room in Crown Plaza hotel and ended up in the London clinic – Priory. Her career became a big question mark at the time.
Her house in Scotland for months was surrounded by nosy journalists. In all her interviews on You Tube we can see how big metamorphose she went through. From cheerful happy women she transformed into a nervous shaky wreck. Her short interviews with Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman through video links show the best how much she changed. Facing such a big pressure from society and media had a huge impact on Miss Boyle, for whom world must have become very narrow and one-dimensional. She either had to win or loose. Things had to be either black or white. Ofcom even considered initiating proceedings, after receiving a massive amount of complaints, but it has been postponed. One is certain – Susan have become a victim of fame and probably a victim of being a ‘media product’.
Lets stop there for a while and analyse this phenomenon of people becoming a branded product. Years ago only the first league politicians had to worry about their image. Nowadays everyone who appears in media tries to create a specific phenomenon, be different and build their own brand. Having a talent isn’t enough in contemporary world. Like we’ve seen on Susan Boyle’s example – no one would have noticed her if she was physically attractive, world is full of beautiful talented people. Her inconspicuous looks have made her remarkable.

Interesting, attention grabbing idea is essential. Sasha Baron Cohen is a comedian who created three different contrasting with each other characters. He gained an extreme popularity with each one of them. Those three characters are: racist  sexist but naive Borat, a ‘chav’ with a mentality of a pander – Ali G and a homosexual journalist – Bruno. Sasha has succeeded because he’s selling images that we love and hate at the same time. Paradoxical, but sells. It’s a part of creating a personal brand. Creating a remarkable feature we can easily associate with a person.

Worth mentioning is also the massive role of magazines in this ‘star making’ machine. Their impact is huge, especially if it comes to juveniles. The real ‘role models’ are being kept in a shadow because they’re just simply too boring to write about. The whole attention is going to the fake celebrities, ‘five minute wonders’. They’ve become famous in a trivial way or only because they’re friends of other celebrities. They’re not talented and not remarkable but, only because they already exist in the world of media and they’re known by the audience, the producers want them in their movies and music companies want to record their albums. It’s also surprising how people are able to humiliate or embarass themselves in aim to ‘stay on top’. It concerns people who create shows like “Jackass” or “Dirty Sanchez”, where the main characters intentionally wound or injure themselves in order to shock the audience and make them laugh. At the end of the day they’re making a lot of money on that and that’s the only thing that matters in the media world. All star wannabies want to get media’s approval. People who aren’t interesting enough to grab their attention can forget about their dreams of big fame. If they appear on the television they’re not just ‘somebody’ anymore, they become a ‘personality’.

Another fake stars – reality shows’ contestants. Those are ordinary people who got into the shows like ‘Big Brother’, pretend they’re someone they’re not and sell a fake image. In fact what we see on the telly or read in mags is only a part of them they want to show us, a part that is most sellable. Unfortunately the image can also easily wear out and celebrities are aware of that. That’s why they so often change their style and try to come up with something different and new. It’s all just a part of a product and result of good marketing.
Wedding videos, affairs, deaths, tragedies, secrets – they’re all for sale too and most celebrities have their own ‘tariff’ for them. A lot of them will do anything to stay in the center of attention  even expose their private lives to the public as a part of manipulation. A big role in that plays Twitter, where celebrities on their blogs share their privacy, thoughts and sometimes pictures to promote an image. Twitter is a way to communicate with the fan base and give them impression that they’re actually taking part in celebrities’ life. Blogs are specific form of media that gives us possibility to have a closer look into someone’s real life. They’ve become popular because people actually believe they’re more authentic than anything we can see on telly or read in tabloids – because it comes directly from the celebrities. Tweeter can be also used as a tool. For example Barack Obama’s blog, during the campaign was active at least once a day, now is completely silent. The existence of Twitter is only one of the proofs that the myth about celebrities being unreachable extraordinary people is falling down. Today they’re just one of us, especially when we live in the mass media world where almost everyone can become a celebrity.

I used to think that the mane role of media is to inform. But recently even the more opinionated and respected broadsheets started to write about cheap sensations that used to be tabloids’ domain. According to what we see in media – what sells good, is good. Quality doesn’t matter anymore. People need celebrities, even if they don’t represent anything valuable. Even if they’re all the same – the same face, the same talk – people still watch them. Not because they like them but because they get used to them and know them.

Anyway if you’re a celebrity you have to appear on the television or in papers systematically. Media can make miracles. It’s just as easy to fall off the pedestal as it is to get on it – like it was in Susan Boyle’s case, I described before. Her appearance in a talent show became a media revelation but ended tragically for her. Just to sum up, it’s worth noticing that being a media receiver has two different sides. One of them is trivialization of the content shown in the media an the other – wrong impact on the society. Media throw on people an excess of an information, giving them ready products, pathetic ‘role models’ and in a result people don’t even want to think for themselves following the patterns created by media. Some people in the media, as they’re just a product, might be influential popular or even powerful. But not very often they represent any values or a character. We, as an audience, are responsible for that. It’s about time we start fighting those patterns, just like we fight terrorism, climate or the economical crisis.