Susan Boyle

I just finished watching this video from “Britain’s Got Talent” for what was either the third or fourth time in three days, and it still gives me chills. It had all three of show’s frequently snarky judges raving. Why?

The performance is a beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis—at once both subtly emotive and unreservedly belted out into the audience. The singer, Susan Boyle, is a 47 year old unmarried unemployed and self-describedly never kissed villager from a village so blighted that, reportedly, the film crew that was later sent to do a followup biographical segment for the show chose to film in a neighboring village instead of Boyle’s own.

The irony is overwhelming: by singing this song about broken dreams, Boyle—whose life has apparently, up to that moment, been difficult enough to justify the lyrics as autobiography—makes her lifelong dream of success as a professional singer effectively come true. It’s extremely likely now that she’ll end up with a recording contract and a busy performance schedule.

Before she begins to sing, the judges engage in their usual repartee: How old are you? What do you want to do? They, and the audience, react skeptically, though not cruelly, when Boyle says that she wants to be a famous singer like Elaine Page. Scattered applause.

Afterward, Piers Morgan, one of the judges, says, “When you stood there, with that cheeky grin, and said ‘I want to be like Elaine Page’, everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now.”

It’s upsetting to see Morgan rain on Boyle’s super-bright parade. She’s just delivered a bravura performance, and he, impressed as everyone else is, responds by reminding her how low our expectations were. But in truth, the meanness, the low expectations, the expectation that Boyle, who had apparently failed in so many other respects, would make a fool of herself, contributes powerfully to the warmth and joy we feel when we are not only pleased but also surprised (shocked, even) by her success.

There’s a larger pattern here—bitterness that makes the sweet sweeter, or pleasure “spiked” with pain as the Chili Peppers put it, can at times be better than the unalloyed original. Personally, I’m taking the lesson to heart in what might seem a strange, but is for me a very rewarding way: I’m listening to whole albums again instead of songs. For albums that other people love, albums that work together as integrated wholes—OK Computer being yesterday’s example—the fact that some of the songs are less likable than others isn’t simply a regrettable price that I can now avoid thanks to effortless re-ordering of digital playlists. Instead, my dislike of some parts of a listened-through album itself somehow contributes to my enjoyment of the whole.