After a week of unabashed hysteria about Scottish chanteuse Susan Boyle, it's time to pause and ask: What's that all about?
A psychological boost for a world battered by economic calamity? A spiritual moment for millions in search of transcendence? Maybe it's about rooting for the underdog. Or maybe it's just a new reminder of an old truism: You can't judge a book by its cover.
"Susan Boyle is a Disney movie waiting to happen," says church worker Janelle Gregory, 34, of Olathe, Kan.
• It's the vindication. "When they were making fun of her, I was getting annoyed," Carrigan says. "And inside I'm thinking, 'I hope she blows them away.' I was so happy when she just let them have it."
• It's the surprise. "If you have expectations of someone, you need to be prepared to be surprised by them," says Paul Potts, the chunky former cellphone salesman who was the Susan Boyle of Britain's Got Talent in 2007 and has since sold millions of records as an opera-and-standards singer. His second album, Passione, arrives in the USA May 5. "It's part of human nature to make judgments based on first impressions, but sometimes we allow ourselves to be misguided by first impressions."
• It's the guilt. Why the surprise? There's no correlation between appearance and talent, says Scott Grantham, 35, a financial analyst in Atlanta. "If she didn't look the way she did, would there be the same reaction? I don't think so," he says. "We make snap judgments based on appearance, and when we see those judgments were premature, we overcompensate by going so far in the other direction."
• It's the shame. Boyle forced people to recognize how often they dismiss or ignore people because of their looks. "Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?" asked essayist Tanya Gold in Britain's The Guardian.
• It's the psychology. "There's an emotional state called elevation, characterized by a warm, glowing feeling, that we get when someone transcends our expectations," says Lynn Johnson, a psychologist in Salt Lake City. Boyle is "an elevator — we want to believe in something higher, that there's meaning in life and that the ugly duckling can become the beautiful swan."
• It's the hope. "She has truly touched my heart and soul and lifted my spirits," says Anne Jolley of San Jose, who describes herself as 47, unemployed, frumpy and "disheartened, disenfranchised, disillusioned and dis-just-about-everything-else in these bleak times." The messages of Boyle, she says, are that "there is hope still in this world; that dreams really can come true; that cynical people can be turned around; that maybe my best years are not behind me after all."
• It's the distraction. With everything going on in the world, "our economy in the tank, my husband and I worried that we will lose our jobs — this was a feel-good/underdog story, and I ate it up," says Lisa Sweetnich, 40, a CPA in Massillon, Ohio.
• It's empowerment. "What are we all crying about?" asked writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. magazine, in her Huffington Post blog. "Partly, I think it's that a woman closing in on 50 had the courage to compete with the kids — and blew them out of the water."
• It's the authenticity. Unlike most of the contestants on, say, American Idol, Boyle clearly has not been groomed to be a pop star, so she is perceived as the real deal, says Ken Tucker, editor at large of Entertainment Weekly. "People want their idols to be authentic."
• It's the spiritual solace. "We're responding to someone who does not have the packaging expected of us, especially women, and in that moment of recognition, people got in touch with something so soulful and spiritual," says Laurie Sue Brockway, inspiration and family editor of Beliefnet.com. "People felt blessed by that."
For many, it all comes down to ancient wisdom. Rahn Hasbargen, an accountant in St. Paul, cites John 7:24: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment."
"Never has that verse been explained more dramatically than in the case of Susan Boyle," Hasbargen says.
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