Better quality version here
Before Susan Boyle, there was Paul Potts. He was the winner of Britain's Got Talent in 2007 and a viral success in his own right. (The various videos of his first performance have over 52 million views.) But Susan Boyle is something else--a global, viral phenomenon not just on YouTube but in the mainstream media too, even in countries like the U.S. that don't air the show. Why?
The contestants have a lot in common. They are both attractively-challenged and they both emerged from obscurity (Susan Boyle, living with her cat in a small village in Scotland, and Paul Potts, working as a mobile phone salesperson in Wales). Both having seemingly impossible dreams to be professional singers and both setting up negative expectations with the judges and the audience that they then completely demolished with their performance. No doubt this was by design--I'm sure that Paul Pott's success in 2007 had the BGT team looking for a repeat performance. So, once again, why Susan Boyle?
Let's start with the judges explanation (after her semi-final performance):
Reality vs. expectations: This was where Simon focused: "I want to apologize because of the way we treated you before you sang the first time. You made me and everyone else look stupid." Although Paul Potts delivered an equally unexpected performance, the show did a better job this second time around of setting up and capturing the expectations of the judges and the audience.
Context (these hard times): When Paul Potts won the competition we were still in the sub-prime and derivatives-fueled boom-boom times. Now we're in a recession so, as Piers said: "When the world was going through a pretty tough time and was looking for a bit of hope and inspiration, Susan Boyle was there to deliver."
Some other ideas:
The song: "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables (Susan Boyle) vs. Giacomo Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" (Paul Potts). An advantage for Ms. Boyle. Not only because musicals are more familiar and accessible to the general population than Italian opera but also because the theme of her song mirrors her story. ("I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life, worth living.")
The back story: Another factor in favor of Susan Boyle. She really seems to have come from complete obscurity vs. Paul Potts who had had some professional experience prior to the show. Whereas he had sung with the Royal Philharmonic in front of an audience of 15,000, her experience had come from singing in church and karaoke in the local pubs in her village.
Practice makes perfect: I think that Paul Potts' success perhaps caught the show a little by surprise and they didn't take full advantage. No mistake this time round as they figured out every (camera) angle and every other way (cutting to Ant and Dec as the crowd gasps etc) to maximize the impact. They were ready.
So, there's five reasons but have I missed anything here? As I look at this list, I think it shows the importance of timing, the need for a deep and consistent story and how small details matter a lot.
One final thought--what about next year? I guarantee that the show will be scouring the nation's backwaters for more well disguised talent. But how are they going to avoid appearing like they've gone back to the well one too many times? Could Susan Boyle's great success actually be the beginning of the end for the show itself?
I don't know but let's leave the final word to Susan Boyle herself lest, by this dissection, we forget the bigger picture:
"All my life, I've always striven to prove to myself--that I can be accepted--that I'm not the worthless person that people think I am--that I do have something to offer...I just want that chance to perform in front of the Queen." Susan Boyle