Susan Boyle and The Big Society

Posted on December 9, 2010

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So Susan Boyle is now as big as The Beatles.  So, why is it the case that the typical 47 year old Scottish virgin, as the LA Times put it, has achieved such feats where the likes of U2, Madonna, Take That and REM failed?

This isn’t some written piece aimed at deriding Ms Boyle. Whilst I won’t be rushing out to buy her album, which like her debut is now No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, I think she could herald a new age – but not in music.

Think back to that day that she stepped onto Cowell’s stage 2 years ago. There she stood, an awkward and not apparently attractive face amongst the other preening wannabes seeking fame. We laughed at her. At more primitive audience may even have thrown rotten vegetables before she had uttered her first notes. And then she sang, and the audience stopped. It quite literally shocked people. Here was a real person, with life experience the sort of which I’m sure none of the audience aspired to, singing pure notes. A talent in Blair’s British working class clothing. And the nation fell for her.

Was this just a reaction to the X Factor conveyor belt of products? I don’t think so. Rage Against The Machine didn’t have their anti-X Factor success for another 18 months, in which time a number of other plastic pop products were born. No, Boyle was different to the other wannabes in that she was not seeking fame at this time, nor money, nor the focus of the cameras. She wanted to sing.

Take a look at all the Shane Wards and Joe McEldery’s that have been found by the X Factor and ask where they are. Also ask what it was that they wanted. Now considered what it is that the audience wanted? To be entertained, yes, but deep down they also wanted something else. This was 2007 and the nation was on the brink of recession. We all knew it was coming and many people had spent the last 10 years seeing their standard of life decreasing, their working hours increasing, their stress levels going up and their job security going down. What they wanted was to get out of the rat race, the chase for fame, and go after something new.

In his book the Economist Naturalist, Robert H Frank makes the point that there is a cycle of selfishness and selflessness that we humans in Western society move through. The selfish cycle sees us pursuing wealth and possessions, competing with our fellow men and women go improve our lives. At first that improvement is tangible and feels beneficial, but the more we chase the harder it becomes until it starts to mess with your soul. What kicks in is a desire to do something different. To do something selfless. And so, people turn their backs on selfishness and change careers – they become teachers, they start small businesses, they join the PTA and raise funds for schools or even campaign politically. They put their energies sometimes into activities which won’t result in them attaining high office or becoming rich. They want out of the wannabe race.

Susan Boyle is brilliant. Is she a sign of society saying we are at a point in our cycle where we want out of the wannabe race? David Cameron hopes so. His austerity measures and Big Society are built upon the idea that society will want to play a bigger role; a more selfless role. But beware. Remember, this is cyclical. After the selflessness and the establishment of all sorts of Big Society cooperatives will come the selfishness again. Look out for that cuckoo in your cooperative nest that will offer to buy the nest and all the eggs in it, for they will come again.

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