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Susan Boyle's Easygoing 'Dream' Of A Debut

The rapid rise of Susan Boyle illustrates a pop-culture truism: No piece of popular music stands by itself — we also bring to any judgment of the work the image of the person singing it, and whatever we know about him or her. In Boyle's case, we had a middle-aged woman whose dowdy, unpolished presentation was belied by the confident power of her voice. Her media breakthrough was at least as important as her ability: Appearing on Britain's Got Talent before three judges and an audience snickering and ready to jeer, Boyle shamed and cowed her audience with the sheer strength of her vocals.

It takes a lot to tamp down the sarcasm of Talent judge Simon Cowell, but Boyle did that and more. She ushered in, however briefly, a moment in which glitz and irony were pushed aside. There was an overwhelming worldwide response to YouTube viewings of not just Boyle's singing, but also her humble comments about living in Scotland with her cat and, before her death in 2007, her mother.

People professed not mere admiration, but also love for Susan Boyle. She singlehandedly, overnight, altered the tone of shows such as America's Got Talent; suddenly, tears of gratitude were popping from the eyes of judge Sharon Osbourne at the mere sound of a child contestant hitting a high note with precision. The feeling was, Boyle is real. In this sense, she was as much a benefactor of the cult of authenticity as Bruce Springsteen has been.

And so now we have Boyle's debut album, inevitably called I Dreamed a Dream. It showcases her clear, surging voice with tasteful, minimal orchestral accompaniment. The songs here don't test or twist her, but then, her instantly massive audience doesn't want to hear Susan Boyle pushed into slickness or cool song choices.

The biggest gamble Boyle takes is in covering The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." And she pulls it off: She renders the song exactly what she calls it in her liner notes: an "emotional release."

There's no humor or swing in Boyle's phrasing, no evidence despite a few song choices that she's been influenced by anything in the rock-music era. Her album includes two hymns, a Christmas carol and Broadway musical theater (in addition to "I Dreamed a Dream," a version of "Cry Me a River" with all of that composition's rueful vengeance drained off).

At her best, she makes "Wild Horses," the Madonna song "You'll See" and the Skeeter Davis hit "End of the World" into anthems of perseverance. This is the kind of debut that confirms Boyle's talent.

Whether she can move beyond it, becoming an interesting singer with a wider range of emotional concerns, remains to be heard. For now, she's giving her fans what they want; inevitably, she'll have to give them something that will challenge both their expectations and herself.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.