Aristotle, Meet Susan Boyle


Why are we so captivated by the Susan Boyle story?

The answer may lie in an ancient text written 2,300 years before the Scottish spinster appeared on YouTube, writes Adolfo Cruzado

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

Susan Boyle is the 47-year-old singer from the Lothians District in Scotland who became a global sensation after singing 'I Dreamed A Dream' on a popular British television talent quest program, Britain's Got Talent. In the nine days after a video of her performance was posted online it attracted nearly 100 million views on YouTube.

Why did this video clip fire
up such interest?

In his work, Poetics, Aristotle wrote about catharsis, a term referring to a form of emotional cleansing. Catharsis, in dramatic terms, refers to a sudden emotional climax that evokes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any other extreme change in emotion, resulting in restoration, renewal and revitalisation in members of the audience. It refers to the sensation that would ideally overcome an audience upon viewing a tragedy.

Cathartic climax may come some way in explaining the Susan Boyle phenomenon.

In Poetics, Aristotle gives an account of what he calls poetry by recognising its genres and basic elements, or 'first principles', which consist of the lyric, the epos, and the drama. He includes key terms such as mimesis (imitation), peripeteia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition or identification) and hamartia (miscalculation or tragic flaw). The centrepiece of Aristotle's surviving work is his examination of tragedy in performance:

'Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.'

Key to a tragedy's effect is the idea that the audience experiences astonishment from the knowledge that there exist those who could suffer a worse fate than them. This realisation or anagnorisis is to them a relief.

Elemental to Boyle's popularity on YouTube was her choice to sing from the popular musical, Les Miserables, a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel published in 1862. The original story is set in early 19th-century France and follows the intertwining stories of a cast of characters as they struggle to survive a socio-economic and political revolution.

Through their struggles the characters aim to gain personal hope and redemption. One of the main characters is Fantine, the single mother who is forced to become a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. The character of the prostitute with a ‘heart of gold’ is a staple of many modern-day melodramas.

The musical version of Les Miserables was composed in 1980 by the French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, with libretto by Alain Boublil, and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It is possibly the most famous of all French musicals and one of the most frequently performed musical worldwide.

On 8 October 2006, the show celebrated its 21st anniversary on London's West End and became the longest-running West End musical in history. It has played in 38 countries and 223 cities and over 38,000 performances have been staged, giving a total audience figure of more than 51 million people.

The biggest single live audience for Les Misérables was in Sydney, where 125,000 attended the 1989 Australia Day concert. The biggest broadcast audience was when 250 Les Mis cast members sang at the 1996 European Football Championship, televised to 400 million viewers in 197 countries.

The receptiveness of the audience to the music of Les Mis is significant to Boyle’s immediate, even sudden, appeal on the World Wide Web. In Les Misérables, the character Fantine, the character with a heart of gold, sings the ballad 'I Dream a Dream'.

Aristotle used the term catharsis in its medical sense as a metaphor. Since before the Poetics, catharsis was purely a medical term, usually referring to the evacuation of the katamenia, the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material. “It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.”

Some modern interpreters of Poetics infer that catharsis is pleasurable because audience members felt ekstasis, Greek for ecstasy or its equivalent literary description of astonishment or trance.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German writer, philosopher and dramatist, for example, sidesteps the medical aspect of the issue and translates catharsis as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance. “In real life,” he explained, “men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little: tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.”

Tragedy is then a corrective. Through watching tragedy the audience learns how to feel these emotions at the proper levels. Audience members may be feeling ekstasis and astonishment that there exist people worse off than them, and this is a relief to them.

Boyle's story resembles that of Paul Potts, a shy mobile phone salesman turned opera tenor who won the first season of Britain's Got Talent in 2007 by singing a credible rendition of Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma".

Potts' performance was another online sensation, with more than 43 million views to date. Bullying at school undermined his confidence, he said in interviews. Susan Boyle also told a British newspaper that she was bullied at school for her frizzy hair and for having learning difficulties.

Both performers are classic underdogs, non-threatening people who, in pursuing long-held dreams, managed to triumph over personal adversity.

Cognitive research into how music affects the listener's emotion is another way to analyse the emotive impact of the Boyle phenomenon. In basic terms, moods such as excitement, calmness or a sense of danger and feelings of romance are signalled by a number of factors, including melody and rhythm. A change in pitch is one of the most decisive; a single high note can convey excitement, a single low note sadness.

On a deeper cognitive level, Daniel Levitin writes, “the emotions we experience in response to music involve structures deep in the primitive, reptilian regions of the cerebellar vermis, and the amygdala - the heart of emotional processing in the cortex”. Levitin's study, This Is Your Brain On Music, goes further into neuropsychology:

'The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum’s contribution to regulating emotion through its connection to the frontal lobe and the limbic system.'

In relation to the musical performances of both Boyle and Potts and its impact on the audience is an interplay of music appreciation and expectations. And just as significantly, in visual media terms, is the contribution of the TV producers who focus on the artful manipulation of the story of the musicians who interpret the music.

In the few days after Boyle's performance, the entertainment news media and a frenzy of online articles chased the hot story. Amanda Holden, the female judge on Britain's Got Talent, wrote in an email: "When she came onto stage the audience immediately started booing and hissing her, based purely on her appearance. She looked a little odd [and] was a bit nervous and searching for her words.

"We were laughing at her. She was someone who seemed to be completely deluded."

Scott Collins, from the Los Angeles Times, says that the Boyle story is perfect for the internet, where short clips rule. Indeed, a full range of emotions is expressed - “first humour, then shock, followed by warm appreciation and perhaps a dollop of self-reproof for anyone who dares to judge others principally by their appearance. Giving the Boyle story staying power may prove harder.”

All stories with staying power have a moral. Boyle's short story seems to be about the identity and place of the individual in Marshall McLuhan’s global village. McLuhan was a fixture in media discourse from the late 1960s and key to his argument about the media is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent - it is a tool that profoundly shapes an individual's and, by extension, a society's self-conception:

'Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But," someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.'

Though the internet was invented 30 years after McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy was published, the moral valence of technology's effects on cognition is, for McLuhan, a matter of perspective. He questioned the place of morality in the new media in an era with rapid and irregular movement of information through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge. If there can be no attempt at universal moral questioning, McLuhan believes that 'there can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies'. Don Watson's description of the frontier society in American Journeys can be applied to the internet's claim to an imagined commercial place in the future: 'a place where idealism and indomitable courage were mixed in with greed, trickery, betrayal and brute violence'.