The secret to Susan Boyle’s success

Other reality stars (think Adam Lambert, Kris Allen) try to be originals. Boyle knows better.

The secret to Susan Boyle's success

Is Susan Boyle about to cross over from reality star to singing star? The 48-year-old Scottish woman, who surprised Simon Cowell earlier this year with her powerful singing voice on Britain’s Got Talent (and then lost the competition), is one of many reality-show contestants to release an album. But I Dreamed a Dream, her debut CD, is performing at a level that goes beyond the usual TV tie-in. According to Billboard, the recording sold 701,000 copies in its first week in the U.S. alone, “the best opening week for a female artist’s debut album” since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking album sales in 1991. She’s just as popular in Canada, though she doesn’t exactly love us back, having twice cancelled plans to visit here. No matter where she goes or doesn’t go, she’s the most popular recording star produced by Cowell’s Talent and Idol TV franchises. And not just because of her famously dumpy appearance, or the publicity she got for a recent bout of exhaustion. She’s the first reality contestant whose CDs have unlimited appeal to reality TV viewers.

Not that Boyle is the first reality star with a hit album; Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, among others, came before her. She isn’t even the first successful loser: Adam Lambert is famous for finishing second, while Jennifer Hudson recently got the ultimate mark of star status, her own Christmas special. But none of them have achieved the success of I Dreamed a Dream. Lambert’s debut album hit Billboard’s chart with 198,000 copies—a good figure but not in Boyle’s league; the man who beat him, Kris Allen, couldn’t crack the top 10. Critic Ryan White pointed out in the Oregonian that Cowell’s shows are a launching pad for older songwriters “looking to get their music back out to a broader audience,” and no one cares about most of the people who sing those songs. But the wide audience that watched Boyle’s Talent debut on YouTube is actually buying her CD; they wouldn’t buy Lambert’s or Allen’s.

This might be because Boyle has staked out an area of pop music that is popular on Idol and Talent, but not in the recording industry: proudly middlebrow music. Other reality stars feel a need to go on to something personal. Lambert’s debut album features mostly up-to-date pop songs, while Kris Allen co-wrote most of his own songs, none of which has really caught on. Boyle does not pretend to be a songwriter; she chose 12 standards, ranging from a Madonna hit to public-domain favourites like Silent Night. Not only does this reassure customers by giving them songs that they know in advance are good, it means that there will be at least one song that appeals to any buyer in any age group. That gives Boyle’s album the same demographic profile as American Idol, which the New York Times’s Bill Carter described as “a phenomenon built on new artists singing mainly middle-of-the-road pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s.”

It helps that Boyle’s tracks are calculated to appeal to Cowell’s audience—which is to say a mass audience. Her singing style is based on Broadway and West End divas like Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige (Evita), a breathy, heady voice that starts quietly and builds to a big climax. It’s a style that can be applied to any kind of song, and makes them all sound more or less the same. Choosing the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses for the first track on the album brought Boyle some notoriety for branching out into a new kind of music. But while the original song is a downbeat country-rock ballad, Boyle’s version—with its arrangements dominated by strings and piano—makes it sound exactly like the title track. In a fragmented market, this kind of arrangement may work because it’s not really anything in particular: like the uptempo, all-purpose arrangements on the hit show Glee, Boyle’s recordings can’t offend fans of country, rock, or show tunes.

No wonder Donny Osmond has recently become friendly with Boyle; with her all-ages appeal and her choice of songs from every era, Boyle is a throwback to the mass-market, all-purpose variety style of Donny and Marie—just like Britain’s Got Talent is. The question now is whether she can keep this up. One possible warning sign came when she told the Korea Herald that including the song You’ll See was “a kind of way of saying to the ones who made fun of me at school—well, I can really do better than some people.” Her record company had better watch out. If she continues on that path, she might be tempted to pull a Kris Allen and make an album that’s completely personal—and unpopular.