A review copy of Someone to Watch Over Me arrived in our offices a few days ago, addressed to Saeed Saeed, whose words can usually be found in this newspaper’s Arts & Life section. Saeed, being a man of good taste and generally sound mind, quickly tossed it aside, rightly reasoning that Susan Boyle’s new album wasn’t really his thing.
A few hours later he would suggest to me that “you might like to do something with this” as he handed me Boyle’s third release. He didn’t need to say anything more. What that short sentence was really saying, of course, was that he is down with the kids, while I am with kids and a softening taste in music. He had not the first idea why anyone would want to listen to her album, but he had a sneaking suspicion that I might.
I took the bait willingly. I had, by chance, recently watched (for the umpteenth time) the YouTube clip that had launched Boyle so successfully to the world. To date, an estimated 200m web users have viewed the same video, which was originally broadcast on the Simon Cowell-backed Britain’s Got Talent TV show. The clip represents something close to perfection in light entertainment – it makes viewers laugh and cry within the space of a couple of minutes, it has a funny beginning and a happy ending – and, I confess, it still gives me the shivers.
In its opening frames, we see the heavy-footed Susan marching onto the stage. We hear members of the audience laughing at her appearance. We watch her fumbling for the right words when Cowell asks her the simplest of questions (“Where are you from, Susan?”). We witness her odd mannerisms, we giggle when Boyle tells the judges she wants to be a professional singer. We make a snap judgement. We wait patiently to send her packing.
That moment never arrives. As Boyle begins what would be a note-perfect performance of I Dreamed A Dream, Ant McPartlin, one of the programme’s co-hosts, turns to camera and says “I bet you didn’t expect that, did you?” Well, of course we didn’t. The early rounds of such talent shows are given over almost entirely to the twin extremes of the talented and the terrible. In this case, the producers had set Boyle up as a fool, only to make fools of the public who dared to judge her.
Later in the same clip we see Cowell contemplating the remarkable voice he cannot believe he is hearing. Later still, Boyle was swiftly put through to the semi-finals of a competition she now seemed destined to win.
She didn’t and the day after her surprise defeat – Boyle finished runner-up to a now largely forgotten dance troupe called Diversity – she would slip very publicly into The Priory, the rehab clinic of choice for British celebrities.
Her defeat and her retreat from public life seemed as assured as her rapid rise to fame. Indeed, in that moment, the arc of her story cuts right to the incredible appeal and the unremitting awfulness of all TV talent shows. This is the arena in which we want to first make and then break the fortunes of the acts that flicker across our flat-screen televisions. By virtue of the public vote, we hold their fate, their survival in our hands, a process akin to a baying crowd at a very public execution or an 11th-hour rescue. And when our appetites are sated, we want to forget those we have just cheered and jeered, and ready ourselves to set sail with an entirely new ship of fools.
But Susan Boyle refuses to be forgotten. On the contrary, she appears in rude health, having made the hardest of all transitions from mere reality star to close to credible artist. Someone to Watch Over Me follows her debut, titled somewhat inevitably, I Dreamed A Dream, and The Gift, a collection of Christmas songs. She has sold more than 10 million albums worldwide and achieved platinum sales in the GCC.
It would be easy to rubbish Boyle. She exists almost entirely on a diet of cleverly reworked cover versions. In this endeavour, she needs to be clever. We live in the era of Glee, the TV series that continually surprises us with its snappy arrangements, and where they make, in the lingua franca of Cowell, the songs their own. This Boyle completely fails to achieve on the album’s title track, an unpromising, lounge-bar arrangement of a George Gershwin classic.
Of most interest are her reimagining of the Tears for Fears’ hit Mad World, in which (sadly) she simply retreads the path so successfully taken by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules in their 2003 cover of the same, and Enjoy the Silence, in which she reshapes one of Depeche Mode’s finest moments.
Sadly, on both tracks she appears muted and fettered, when what her fans will yearn for, I suspect, are the peaks of I Dreamed A Dream. Those heights can be found, most notably in You Have To Be There, a track composed by the Abba pair of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and overall, there is enough of merit here, and there is still enough interest in the artist herself, to suggest the Boyle phenomenon will continue to run and run.
In Josh Krajcik, who awaits his destiny in the final of X Factor USA on OSN First tonight, America may well have found its own heir to Boyle. He is the former big burrito maker who now promises to make it big. He is the man who appeared in the open auditions as awkward and ill at ease but who, like Boyle, quickly silenced his critics with the power of his voice. And he is, like her, generally given warm notices by Simon Cowell, the judge whom all X Factor contestants hope to be flattered by.
Krajcik’s song choices have begun to reference the Boyle playbook as he has made progress in the competition: a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah last week (Boyle sang the same song on The Gift) and his own reworking of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses a couple of weeks earlier, which Boyle had sung so well on her own first album.
His demographic is, one imagines, largely similar to the one that drove Boyle to the brink of victory across the Atlantic. Emerging from the “Over 30s” category – for that, read those sipping in the entertainment industry’s last chance saloon – he has been cast as a man who has battled adversity before finding his destiny and his purpose anew on X Factor.
He is not alone in possessing a challenging past, such is the necessary back story of successful candidates on these shows. Indeed, Krajcik’s main rival tonight is likely to be Chris Rene, who has moved from rehab to recording artist in a few short months. Both have emerged as stars in a competition of surprising depth. The challenge now is to maintain that aura outside the show.
If only X Factor UK continued to exhibit such depth. Its eighth season and the first without Cowell (who cannot be on two continents at once) has just concluded. This year, the series largely descended into the soap opera format it normally skirts – a contestant was kicked off the show following a drugs scandal, there have been lip synching and auto-tune suggestions and, inevitably, the judges have been at each other’s throats. Out of all this, Little Mix, a girl-band manufactured for and by the show, have emerged victorious. Their eyes are now focused on their version of Damien Rice’s Cannonball being top of the UK charts come Christmas morning.
For five of the past six years, it has been the right of the act who won X Factor UK to be number one on December 25, but this year, Little Mix face stiff competition from several contenders, including Slow Moving Millie.
Actress-songstress Millie, real name Amelia Warner, has been plodding along for years, plodding that is until her delicious, mournful cover of The Smiths’ song Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, shot her to fame through its appearance on a seasonal TV commercial for a leading British retailer.
Renditions, the rush-released album from which it is culled, bristles with smart piano-led reworkings of a number of Eighties highlights, including versions of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love and Black’s Wonderful Life and some songs from the same era we’d all happily never hear again, most notably Bananarama’s Love In the First Degree.
As lovely as it all is though, and Warner really does have a great voice, once you understand that every one of these covers is simply pared down to the bone, the novelty begins to wear off.
That said, the TV commercial, with its touching soundtrack and its beautiful visual treatment, is as heart-tugging as any X Factor audition tape, a truth that hints at Slow Moving Millie pipping Little Mix to the UK post on Sunday, even if the midweek charts strongly discourage that suggestion.
Instead, that honour is likely to fall to The Military Wives, a collection of British servicemen’s partners, and their single Wherever You Are. The song’s lyrics use the real words from the love letters exchanged between soldier and spouse, and reflect the reality of life for those waiting for absent heroes to return.
Nick March is editor of The Review.