Susan Boyle gets "Stoned"

The "Britain's Got Talent" star takes on "Wild Horses" and shows she's no one-trick pony

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 17, 2009 5:18PM (EDT)

In a week of celebrity deaths, embarrassing public outbursts and Jay Leno, couldn’t we all use a little a glimmer of hope that pop culture as we know it has not completely gone down the toilet?

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Susan Boyle.

Boyle, the out-of-nowhere “Britain’s Got Talent” contender  whose stunning version of “I Dreamed a Dream” redefined the term “viral sensation” last spring, made her U.S. debut last night on the finale of “America’s Got Talent.” And what better song to prove she’s not just a one-trick pony than with “Wild Horses?”

The Susan Boyle who stood on the stage last night was not the same middle-aged, small-town church singer we first met six months ago. She has a new hair color, a sleeker wardrobe, and a greater degree of both polished showmanship and guarded reserve that come from sudden fame. In the last few months, she’s lost the big prize on “Britain’s Got Talent,” been hospitalized for exhaustion, and recorded her first album. There were times it looked like Boyle was cracking under the pressure, that she was destined to fade into a niche notoriety reserved for dramatic chipmunks and dancing bananas.

Instead, she appears poised to make all those professional ambitions that she spoke of in April a reality. Though it doesn’t release until late November, her “I Dreamed a Dream” album immediately rose to No. 1 on Amazon’s music chart when it became available for pre-order a few weeks ago, and an early release of the “Wild Horses” single promptly garnered positive buzz.

Boyle has said she’d like a career like musical theater star Elaine Paige, and her background is mostly in the choir. For her two “Britain’s Got Talent” appearances, she chose show tunes. So who’d have expected her to take on the Rolling Stones? Give credit to her, her producers, and whomever else steered her to the tune, because she gave it a memorably gorgeous turn. Boyle doesn’t have the original's dark, sexual rasp, but it’s safe to say she hasn’t led Mick Jagger’s life. Last night, however, she brought a power all her own to the song.

In the intro clip to her performance, Boyle said that before her life-changing decision to try out for “BGT,” “I was very lost and very lonely.” Now, however, “I’m not the frightened wee lass that I used to be.” She may have displayed a welcome touch of wonderment and humility onstage last night, but she was definitely no frightened wee lass. When she sang, “Graceless lady, you know who I am. You know I can’t let you just slide through my hands,” she stood firm, impassioned. She seemed to be singing straight to herself. And she did it very, very well.

It may not have been much of a surprise when the audience leapt to its feet at the end, but that didn’t make the gesture any less earned. She’s not just a plucked from obscurity, feel-good story. Susan Boyle has spent her life preparing her voice and herself for this. She also happens to be a righteous, kickass entertainer. This morning, her album is holding comfortably steady on the Amazon chart at No. 2, nestled comfortably between The Beatles and Whitney Houston.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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