The real reason we cried at Susan Boyle

Why did you cry when you heard 47-year-old ugly-duckling Susan Boyle sing?

“Because it was surprising to hear a beautiful voice come from an ugly person.”

No. If “surprise” was all there was to it we’d laugh, we’d clap, we’d hold our chests in amazement, we’d be happy, we’d be heartened, but we wouldn’t cry. We’d look at each other with knowing smiles and say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and then we’d move on to the next contestant. Proof? You won’t cry at Hollie Steel.

“Because we realized we judged another human being unjustly; we felt guilty.”

No. If you prejudge someone as stupid because of a speech impediment, you do feel guilty, you do feel ashamed, but you don’t cry.  You resolve to make up for it, you decide not to prejudge like that anymore, you feel reinvigorated to be a carrier of justice yourself, but you don’t cry.

“Because we realized a great talent had been wasted.”

No. Wasting talent is a shame but it doesn’t cause us to burst into tears three notes into a performance.  We could be shocked, angered, saddened even, but the overwhelming and immediate reaction to weep wasn’t this thoughtful.

We cried for Susan Boyle’s entire life.  The life we imposed on her.

For fifty years Susan was treated the way we all treated her — laughs, jeers, doubt, no one listening, no one caring, no one taking her seriously enough to give her another thought.  Even before we learned she’s never been kissed, we knew, and we laughed at her anyway.

We laughed.  Fifty years of struggling against this emotional battery. And we laughed.

Now comes the part where you change your life forever:

What would you have done if Susan Boyle couldn’t sing?

You would have laughed.  She would have walked right off that stage  and continued living that life until she died, and you wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

Is that Susan any less human?

How will you treat the next Susan you meet?

  • Wow, deep and powerful thought.

    Great challenge Jason.

  • I agree that part of my emotional reaction to Susan was sympathy. However, I had nearly the same reaction to the video of Hollie Steel. In both cases, Hollie and Susan (and Paul Potts for that matter), the context in which I learned about them primed me to not be surprised that I was going to see something extraordinary, so it’s not surprise.

    I attribute my emotional response to something else… the moment. By that, I mean simply that the show provided us the opportunity to share (by observing) the moment these people accomplished their lifelong dream. They each toiled in obscurity for the day that they would "become a star" and this talent show was the realization of that dream. Seeing a proverbial "underdog", for whatever reason, accomplish their dream heightens the emotion, but is by no means necessary. I felt the same emotional response to watching Jacoby Ellsbury run in from left field when the Red Sox won the World Series in ’07.

    I think it’s mostly empathy, not sympathy, that brings the tears.

  • Very thoughtful post, thanks for instigating such a debate. It’s both wonderful and fascinating to me to see how people attribute their response to Susan’s performance. It didn’t occur to many that they cried because the beauty of her voice, combined with the particular sequence of musical phrases called forth an emotional response which was pretty near irresistible. The fact that certain kinds of music, and certain arrangements of musical notes will affect many human listeners in a certain way has been well documented. Most of the songs in Les Miserable utilise this very effectively, which helps to account for the musical’s popularity. People enjoy being so physically affected.

    The thing is: very few people are aware that it is the sound that they hear which is responsible for the emotional/physical response. It’s not something we grow up being aware of, that the sound of the human voice has an impact over and above (and under and below) the words that the voice may be speaking or singing.

    There is, of course, another factor which comes into play when we are in the presence of a great performance. It involves tremendous committment, and personal courage to create a voice such as Susan Boyle’s and to offer that voice so generously under stressful situations of public performance. Although we may not know exactly why, we do respond to such a generous act by being emotionally moved. Then, of course, we will try to rationalise it in oh, so many ways.

    I suggest that we would probably have cried even if Susan had looked like Selma Hayek. The fact that she looks like Susan Boyle just means the added element of ‘surprise’ experienced by people who were not aware that physical looks are no indication of talent or skill allows them to put their emotional response down to that.

    I’m enjoying your twits, by the way!

  • Jason

    Great comments. It’s fun to see how everyone perceives it. This is a great example of the comments being more interesting than the post. :-)

  • Ina

    I like the point you make, Jason. Moreover, I like the way you make it. I enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up.

  • Josh

    This is the kind of insight that I feel separates your thoughts from the normal business rhetoric I read in most places. We sometimes get so caught up in the technology and business challenges we face, that we don’t spend enough time thinking about the really important issues. People. Great post as always.

  • Jason

    @Josh — Thanks man, much appreciated. I almost didn’t post this because it’s a little off my usual topics, so it’s nice to know that it’s appreciated.

  • I cried because they laughed at her. And if it had turned out that she couldn’t sing well, I would have cried harder.

    She sang beautifully, but I didn’t cry for her.

    I wept for us. That, assembled together, we showed just how petty, small-minded and stupid we can be as a people.

  • Adelle

    could it just be the beauty of it? sometimes amazing beauty brings tears to my eyes, and it has nothing to do with me judging anything or any person by their looks. susan boyle makes us cry maybe because she has a beautiful talent.

  • I tend to agree with Adelle… I think there is something beautiful in seeing someone overcome obstacles like emotional abuse and being marginalized by society and then using their talents to their fullest. I think we see it in movies all the time… the beauty of the human spirit overcoming obstacle to make something beautiful in this world and not giving up on what you know you can give.
    but that’s just my thoughts….

  • Kirsten

    I’d like to provide a different perspective on the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon.

    When we see a single clip from "Britain’s Got Talent" we forget that we are watching a reality show, cleverly concocted, dramatized, and edited to invoke suspense. Many of us are unaware of the particulars of BGT, and so what we have is a single, lovely, and isolated event. On Youtube it assumes a sort of pristine quality, and we can forget that those 7 minutes and 7 seconds are a part of a ratings-driven staged circus.

    This is what we forget: the two guys interviewing Susan Boyle were involved in the pre-screening process. They’ve heard her sing and with Boyle’s incredible repertoire, were possibly involved in the music selection process. Whether they were or not, the song selected did not merely allow us to impose a particular life on her, they/she orchestrated that imposition, and we, the audience, could not argue.

    "I had a dream my life would be
    So different from this hell I’m living"

    Susan Boyle and the producers of BGT played us. And it was sensational.

  • Jason

    @Adelle & @Hunter — Great perspectives, I see just what you mean. I agree that without an audience to jeer, we might still have had the same, basic reaction. Perhaps the jeering just heightened the situation.

    @Kirsten — I’m sure no one could argue with you. The choice of song does seem too perfect. I guess in the end if we can take something positive away from the experience — like being better towards others — and if Susan Boyle gets her shot, perhaps it’s worth it. But yes, thanks for injecting the true "reality" into this "reality" TV.

  • Jamie

    I most definitely cried because it renewed my faith in human potential and opportunity. No one thinks old people can start a new career and become wildly sucessful in it. "I had a dream" was the perfect song, and whether she picked it or tv exec’s picked it, it exemplified that after a certain age we consider our life lived, our opportunities seized or missed, that we have vast and overly ambitious dreams when we’re young and then they slowly fade away into the mediocrity of everyday life. We’ve all come to accept this as some sort of truth. Most of us would never have gone on that show if we were Susan Boyle. "I’m too old, I’ve had my opportunities" seems to be the reigning ideology. To see Susan, not at middle age starting a family or raising kids, but nearing retirement age – show us that we can still make something fantastic with our lives no matter how much we’ve experienced…. It gives you hope. It renews that feeling of potential you have when you’re a teenager and anything could happen with your life.

    That’s why I cried. I forgot life can still be lived and changed and great achievements made after you’re forty. That potential never dies for the truly determined. That dreams never have to die at all. Even grandiose ones like becoming an international sensation.

    But everyone’s different. I think many people did weep because of the life we imposed on her. Everyone sees it differently, but no matter how you look at it, it was enlightening.

  • yOJ

    I cried because her voice touched my soul – pure and simple.

  • Amy

    I was only very impressed because the song "I Dreamed a Dream" means a lot if you know Les Miserables very well, and she performed it very well and really understood the character of Fantine.

  • Thomas

    I am a German 44 years old male, so what she sang is not my native language. I tend to not listen to the lyrics of english songs the first time I hear one, but to concentrate completely on the sound. I am also the dominant kind of person, the "rough guy". :-)

    I was crying the second after she started singing. It was like a flash. And not because of any higher feelings for her or her situation but because I always cry when I hear "angels" sing. :-) I cry everytime I hear certain songs from Celtic Woman (Caledonia, You raise me up, May it be), Clannad (Celtic Moods), Andrea Bocelli or even some instrumentals, mostly when they are kind of irish.

    Maybe this is not normal behaviour for a "real man". :-) But I could not care less. Since I was a child I respond very emotionally to music. When I drove my car one day and they played a song I hadn’t heard for years I instantly burst to tears and could not see the road anymore. I had to stop. :-)

    I guess this is something in our brain that used to be useful some 30.000 years ago (I am scientist :-)). For many people (like myself) to cry when someone sings as beautiful as Susan there is no emotions needed regarding the person herself.

  • yourjustlikeme

    This is how it is. We all are a little like Susan Boyle. We cry because we feel the struggle of someone trying to make it. If it wasnt for our own struggle we would not know what it means for someone to rise above struggle. Granted we don’t reveal ourselves to the world but we do experience the same embarassment whether it is not knowing how to do something, our fly is down, we have no belt and our pants fall around our ankles, no toilet paper and we have to yell down asking for some not realizing that there is a party being hosted downstairs. These things happen to people everyday. These things happen to all of us. In some ways we have adapted to the accusing culture because this is the way it is, everyone does it to each other on a daily basis. But when we saw her we saw that embarrassment and when she sang we realized where we were, this woman has to live with her life and she has done a good job at exploring her talent. We should not see an embarrassing situation yet we should praise her for her talent. We misjudged the situation. But really its focusing too much on the embarrassment because that is what makes people laugh and not enough on the gifts she is trying to show us.. and that same thought can be applied to all of us.

  • Jason

    @Thomas — I agree there’s something primal about it. Nice point.

    @yourjustlikeme — Great insights; I really like your point that we all struggle and fail, and we see all that effort reflected in her.

  • Jeff Phurm

    The real reason why I cry when I hear her sing is the fact of how she gave up everything she wanted to do to take care of her bed ridden mother. And also it was like listening to my mother sing who passed on some 41 yrs ago when I was 10. I love this women, and I would really like to buy her album if she ever decides to record one. She is a person who is a remarkable talent. Yes this has probably over whelmed her all of the media attention and such but this is my advice to her. You have arrived enjoy it!

  • Albert22

    A new song called ‘Susan’s Dream: a song about Susan Boyle’ was released recently/
    It is at

    Included are the lyrics of ‘Susan’s Dream’.
    Susan’s Dream
    In spring of ’61 God made a deal,
    That Susan’s star will remain concealed,
    When sun and moon eclipsed on April 1st,
    He told Aries “fame is a curse”
    Let her live her life until forty-seven,
    Let her care for her folks ‘till they go to heaven,
    She’s an evening star, she will show her hand,
    In the fall of her life she’ll become a brand,
    ‘cause she
    Dreamed a dream of times to come,
    She’s our Cinderella-girl
    Never judge a book by its cover,
    Never kissed a boy, now the world’s her lover
    She’s the queen of kind, she’s so divine
    She’s our Cinderella-girl

    In the spring of ’09 God made a deal,
    That Susan’s star may be revealed,
    When sun and moon eclipsed on April 11,
    Susan dreamed a dream at forty-seven,
    The girl from the village is the “real deal”,
    Her secret talent is now revealed,
    She’s the queen of kind, she won us completely
    Who cares for make-up, she’s got inner beauty,
    ‘cause she
    Dreamed a dream of times to come,
    She’s our Cinderella-girl
    Never judge a book by its cover,
    Never kissed a boy, now the world’s her lover
    She’s the queen of kind, she’s so divine
    She’s our Cinderella-girl
    In Spring of ’09 God made a plea,
    to stop our prejudice, to make us free,
    when sun and moon eclipsed on April 11,
    The world created Susan’s heaven

    This is some of the feedback so far:

    rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    Dottie51 commented on May 20, 2009
    That is a great song! Thanks for sharing it with us!
    dellygal commented on May 20, 2009
    I can’t get enough of this. I have come back and listened to it several times. You have got to record this song for all us Susan fanatics. Love it, love it, love it.
    dellygal commented on May 20, 2009
    susanaddict commented on May 20, 2009
    Have just looked at this again and it really is a nice piece of work. Well done. I love it.
    Cottonwood rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    gentlerain commented on May 20, 2009
    That’s a 10+! You have a beautiful voice. Please record it if you can. Did you write and compose this yourself? Wonderful…I think everyone, especially Susan, would love this song. And…yes, Loving’Ever­y Minute!, he does have that Lennon voice.
    SuBoUnited commented on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    dellygal rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    dellygal commented on May 20, 2009
    This is beautiful. I agree; you should record this. You have a beautiful voice and, if that’s you on the piano, you are very talented. I think Susan would love this song. Thanks.
    ammo commented on May 20, 2009
    This is so beautiful. Lovely words for a lovely lady, and you have a great voice too. Thanks.
    ammo rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    Sacred rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    RubyRose rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    RubyRose commented on May 20, 2009
    I absolutely love this flowing song. Thank you for gifting us with it.
    Ingrid rated this on May 20, 2009
    Score: 10
    GueroMex rated this on May 19, 2009
    Score: 10
    mina commented on May 19, 2009
    wow, a very nice song, susan will love it!!
    WAMckinley commented on May 19, 2009
    Thanks for posting the words—because I couldn’t readily understand all of them at first. But what a great song it is!! Great words and sentiment, well sung! Thanks for another wonderful tribute to the beautiful Susan Boyle!! Cinderella Girl extraordinaire!­!
    Godscre commented on May 19, 2009
    Great song about Susan’s dream!
    Allikat rated this on May 19, 2009
    Score: 10
    Allikat commented on May 19, 2009
    What a wonderful song–please, do get it recorded so it can be released for the masses to enjoy! Let’s hope it somehow gets to Susan herself; you know she’s gonna love it!
    BetteH commented on May 19, 2009
    Beautiful song for a BEAUTIFUL WOMAN!!! Our Susan!
    Wild Ol’ Dan commented on May 19, 2009
    Howdy Pard, Well, I agree with all the other folks in this outfit, this here is mighty fine! Ya done good…and as YourAwesome said this one you should RECORD FOR THE WORLD! Adios for now. Talk to ya on down the trail. Wild Ol’ Dan
    YourAwesome commented on May 19, 2009
    RECORD FOR THE WORLD!!!!!!!LOV­E IT…made me cry tears of joy!! Thank You…and Ms Susan will LOVE IT!!!!!!!!! :) Blessings to you, whoever you are!! :)
    TommyUSA commented on May 19, 2009
    PKoch commented on May 19, 2009
    SusanBoyleFan commented on May 19, 2009
    Fantastic song! Well written – Good job
    SusanBoyleFan rated this on May 19, 2009
    Score: 10
    susanaddict rated this on May 19, 2009
    Score: 10
    Lovin’ Every Minute! commented on May 19, 2009
    WOW!! That’s wonderful beyond words! BTW – has anyone ever told you you sound like John Lennon?
    Lovin’ Every Minute! rated this on May 19, 2009
    Score: 10