Now, there are always plenty of talented musicians who never make it big, just as there are always relatively untalented performers who soar to inexplicable stardom. So it may be that why Susan Boyle's amazing voice went undiscovered for 25 years needs no explanation. Nevertheless, it is not entirely mysterious.
- GENRE -- Susan Boyle has clearly always preferred the dramatic ballad, from "The Way We Were" in 1984 to "I Dreamed a Dream" in 2009. Which is all well and good, but you're not going to get a lot of bar-band gigs with that kind of repertoire. It is almost always the case in the pop music business that singers (or groups) must first establish an ability to perform upbeat dance tunes before they can have a chance to score a ballad hit. The Beatles broke through with "Please Please Me" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" before they ever got around to "Yesterday." Elvis was famous for rockers like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" before he recorded "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."
- STYLE -- Susan Boyle's simple, unaffected voice is, well, simple and unaffected. Lovely as her voice is, there is no attention-getting stylistic distinctiveness that would set her apart from the crowd. (Think of Rod Stewart's distinctive rasp.) So while she might have been a success if some manager or producer had been able to connect her with songwriters who could provide her with new tunes she could make her own, she was never going to become a star merely by singing "cover" tunes.
- LOOKS -- If her thick eyebrows (a look that was quite fashionable at that time) didn't hinder Susan Boyle's early singing career, her overall look wasn't quite right, even in 1984. Or rather, especially in 1984, which was the year that Madonna zoomed to stardom on the strength of her hit-filled 1983 debut album. However you rate Susan Boyle's appearance at age 22, her wardrobe and hairstyle were not remotely what the MTV audience wanted to see.
The Kevin Cronin Syndrome
You kids today have no idea what sort of butt-ugly guys played in the great rock bands of the '70s. As long as a dude had shaggy hair and could play his instrument, he was in like Flynn. Back in the pre-MTV days, the ugliest guy in Molly Hatchet got laid by a different lovestruck groupie every night.
The advent of MTV put a new premium on looks and just about the only great band of the '70s that survived the cut was ZZ Top, where the bearded guys were clever enough to make Penthouse models and '32 hot rods the stars of their videos.
If MTV weeded out a lot of ugly guys in the music business, it was far more brutal on women. You ever took a close look at Janis Joplin? Dude, I don't care how much brown acid you ate at Woodstock, Janis could never have made it in the MTV era. Compared to Janis, Susan Boyle was Bar Rafaeli.
A superstar, but . . .
Even if Susan Boyle wasn't Olivia Newton-John, she was sufficiently attractive that -- with a more flattering hairstyle, a flashier wardrobe, a good backup group and a repertoire that included some up-tempo original tunes -- she might still have made it big as a singer, but . . .
But she never had a manager or a record producer who (a) was professionally competent, and (b) really believed in her talent. Again, I make reference to the careers of Elvis and the Beatles:
- Elvis was just another hillbilly with a guitar until Sun Records owner Sam Phillips recognized his talent, and then Colonel Tom Parker took over as his manager.
- The Beatles had bounced around Liverpool and Hamburg for years before record-store owner Brian Epstein took over as their manager and then record producer George Martin signed them to a contract.
Well, Susan finally got her big break and, as Little Miss Attila says, she's got some catching up to do. The lesson we should take away from this teachable moment, it seems to me, is that there might be some undiscovered talent -- musical or otherwise -- among your acquaintances. You might know someone who, with the right advice, the right kind of support, promotion and encouragement, might blossom into a superstar. It is incumbent upon you, then, to be that person who makes a difference in their life.
If the next Susan Boyle spends 25 years in obscurity, you have only yourself to blame.