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Sympathy Vote


I was going to let this one go. I like the story, I was a fan, and it made me smile and yeah, (sniff) warmed my heart, too. But after a week-long worldwide hoopla, and finally this morning hearing Mike Gallagher gush about this story on his radio show, (plus the fact that I’ve been mysteriously stricken this year with a terminal case of Can’t-Shut-Up Syndrome)…

…I must weigh in.

(Hey you think living with me is fun? Ask my family – I’m insufferable.)

Susan Boyle became an overnight sensation with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. A rather frumpy and homely middle-aged woman by today’s beauty standards, she presented an unlikely candidate for singing stardom last week in front of the Celebrity judges, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, and Piers Morgan. But as she began to sing, everyone was snapped into shock, so unanticipated was her fine singing voice. The ovation and accolades that followed went straight to YouTube and set Boyle on the road to viral cyberspace superstardom.

And…reduced to its simple basics…it was a sympathy vote.

Don’t get me wrong; I cop to an emotional upsurge at the whole story. I applauded her and thought “Good for you, girl!” when I first saw it, as I do at any ugly-duckling success story. And then I thought about it – and settled down to reality.

Her performance was nice – certainly unexpected – but it wasn’t all that great. She sang very well (one of my favorite songs from Les Miz)….but if you had heard her on the radio, with no idea of what she looked like, you would say, “Hm. Nice voice. That’s pretty.” And that would be it — certainly not deserving of an ovation, an ecstatic eruption of celebration and awe. The reaction was colored in a very large way by our preconception of her homeliness. The proverbial face made for radio.

Yes, we prejudge; and often to our own detriment. Yes, it blew everyone’s mind…but I also think… it shouldn’t have. Why should physical beauty portend vocal excellence; and conversely, why would the lack thereof mean, what, that she couldn’t possibly sing well? It would be more logical to prejudge a very skinny man as weak…and then be awed when he exhibited great, overpowering strength.

I saw Susan Boyle’s video performance with someone who visibly recoiled when she first saw her. “Oh! What is that!?” she exclaimed. Like a villager beholding Shrek for the first time. Then she heard her sing… and swooned at her voice; and felt very guilty for her prejudgment; stating that she’d ‘learned such a lesson’.

Me? Yeah, I did all those things as well. I was touched and moved etc. But… my reaction was somewhat of a sympathy vote…as, I think, was everyone’s. We were collectively pulling for her, so seemingly disadvantaged was she by her appearance.

It was the very large chasm between expectation and execution that elicited the huge response. Not to take anything away from the woman, she was great — funny, humble, delightfully overwhelmed, cute. And yes, a very nice singer.

For some it was empathy. For others, sympathy.

A sympathy vote.

The blind guy on American Idol lasted as long as he did, over singers, I think, of superior talent, due to the fact that he was blind…and could sing well. Sympathy vote.

Okay, you say – So what?? What’s wrong with that? Where’s you sympathy, where’s your compassion, Gary? To that I answer that my sympathy and compassion are firmly in place, thank you very much; sympathing and compassing with the best of them.

But shouldn’t excellence be judged solely on merit?

Things aren’t always so black and white. Take our newly elected president. I was one who, though I did not vote for the man, felt a twinge of satisfaction that we’d finally elected a Black man as President. (Or at least, half-Black. Close enough.) No one around the globe can now legitimately point a finger at the U.S. and squeal, “Racist!” That sad chapter in our history is over and done. And look at the spectacle of the inauguration, look at that nice Black family, so sweet and proud, and humble and noble, they’ve suffered so much for so long (?), and now four million years of oppression is undone and repaired, and the balance of justice is finally set right.

Sympathy vote.

Our current president was elected largely due to his color. American’s effusive eagerness to show the world our newly evolved post-Bush compassion and tolerance and understanding resulted in completely overlooking any sort of excellence or actual qualifications to hold the most important public office in the world; and electing instead, based on style, appearance and feel-good ‘compassion’…an inexperienced, grossly under-qualified, naively adolescent socialist as President of the United States.

The French have a saying for that one special occasion that is so inexplicably bizarre and completely unfathomable to the point of a frustrated, head-in-hands incredulity and disbelief…

‘Je reve.’

I’m dreaming.

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