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Boyle v Beatles: Compare and contrast

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Will Gompertz | 11:37 UK time, Friday, 19 November 2010

The fact that Susan Boyle has had two simultaneous chart-topping albums on both sides of the Atlantic this year is just that: a fact. As is the statistic that the Beatles also achieved this rare feat back in the late 1960s. Beyond that, the two events bear little comparison.

The Beatles were making new music and writing new songs that reflected the world they were living in. Susan Boyle is not. She's singing old numbers that have been selected for their marketability.


To compare these achievements artistically is like comparing the famous photograph of a girl in a short tennis dress scratching her bottom with Picasso's Guernica and concluding that they are somehow of equal stature because as posters they are both million-sellers.

Nor do her sales achievements mean that Susan Boyle now stands comparison with the likes of Frank Sinatra or Edith Piaf, two performers that, like SuBo, sung songs written by others. They interpreted their songs in such a way to make them their own, bringing them to life by giving them their soul.

Whereas, to my mind and ears, Susan Boyle is doing little more than a karaoke job: knocking out the songs to the best of her considerable ability, without adding an extra dimension that makes them "hers".

Maybe she will do so in due course as she develops her own singing personality and the confidence to argue for her vision with producers and managers. Whatever she does, though, the chances are she will achieve immortality through another art form.

Pop-culture figures such as Susan Boyle are becoming a staple raw material for artists such as Mark Lecky to appropriate and re-configure into an original artwork: maybe a video, or a collage or perhaps both framed within an installation, as was the case with his 2008 Turner Prize-wining exhibit.

He took part in a debate called The Trouble with Painting at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts last night, where the panel discussed the merits and faults of paint as a medium with which to make art. Mark was on the anti-paint side.



I couldn't go, but I asked Mark to join me in a BBC studio yesterday morning to have a warm-up bout with Jennifer Higgie, the co-editor of Frieze magazine and the holder of a master's degree in painting. Jennifer took a pro-painting stance.

Much ground was covered in a lively half hour discussion which took in subjects ranging from the slow-cooking movement to the way painting is currently taught in art colleges (badly, according to Jennifer). A condensed version of the conversation went out on the Today programme this morning.

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  • Comment number 1.

    It's interesting that the other artists to achieve this 'feat' were the Monkees. They were not so much "singing old numbers that have been selected for their marketability" as singing a set of new numbers selected for their marketability (mostly). Whether posterity will afford SB the value now attached to early Monkees remains to be seen: those early Monkees singles were extremely finely crafted piece of pop and are still fun to listen to.

  • Comment number 2.

    Everything generated (so far)from these talent (?) shows is mearly entertainment and is not music. Any comparison between entertainment and music is like comparing apples and oranges. You are correct in saying it is Karaoke, and should be treated as such. The Monkee's are a very interesting example and probably unique in that they escaped from the bonds or entertainment and became music once they insisted on using their own songs. Very few people have ever managed to create music doing covers but sinatra, presley, and a few others show that it can be done.

  • Comment number 3.

    Mark Lecky is a part of a transient culture that will be unknown in the next century.

    When the current crop of installation artists and their over rich and under educated patrons are dead the galleries will be able to clear out the waste of space junk so people can stand around and marvel at the paintings that will then then be hung on the reclaimed walls.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    The key phrase in this article to me is "to my mind and ears".
    Fair enough.
    To my mind and ears and heart, Boyle has a voice that touches me like no other ever has.
    To each his own. You buy and listen to whatever music you like and I'll do the same.

  • Comment number 6.

    An article full of patent snobbery. Fair enough, Subo isn't the most original chart artist on the block but like it or not, marketing and hype rule the music industry nowadays rather than musicianship or originality.
    What Subo represents to a lot of people is an archetypal rags to riches story of an ordinary person. Good luck to her - however long it lasts.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great Article. Suzan Boyle, Glee and now even Taylor Swift seem to be breaking records that have stood in some cases for over 50 years........all of a sudden. They will continue to be broken primarily because of technology, internet downloading, MTV, sattalite TV, Weekly TV shows (Glee) and mass (instant) communication and electronic marketing. Elvis, Sinatra, The Beatles and others never had ANY of these tools to accomplish what they did. To put it in perspective. Stadium concerts with 55,000 seats sell out in a matter of minutes nowadays. The same shows in the 60's by the Beatles took many many hours to sell out. Not because ticket sales were slower but because tickets were sold person to person one at a time. Today computers can handle thousands of purchases on line - in addition to telephone orders, while the same computers track and provide best available seating tickets. So those that are younger can trust what I say (I think), I was around when the Beatles were at their peak in popularity, and nothing has come along, that I have seen, that even remotely approaches them. Susan Boyel is a wonderful. Yesterday the Beatles held 86 of the top 10 spots worldwide on itunes out of a potential 220 (22 countries X10), or near 40 percent of the top 10 albums worldwide. Over 40 years after they broke up.........Imagine how these albums would have faired if the internet was around in the 60's, when the Beatles were "current"?

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    @Jimnoon, The Beatles would have become famous much quicker with the internet, that's true, but they had TV and radio and once they made it, they made it.
    When it comes to albums, they would have probably sold far less.
    When they were recording, if you wanted to own their music, you bought it.
    No one was able to steal music from the internet, buy one CD and make 100 copies for friends, or download singles.
    Taking those things into consideration, Boyle's sales are staggering.

  • Comment number 10.

    Time will tell. Susan's glorious voice; her humble, winsome personality; and her simple, courageous life story touch people's hearts in a refreshing way ~ like the refreshment of water after agonizing thirst. Perhaps the reviewer is not thirsty.

  • Comment number 11.

    I personally wonder what the lofty BBC music critics had to say about the Monkees and the Beatles when their music first came out in the 60s? Were they also holding their noses and complaining that this was noise, and not music?
    I love the Beatles and their music (just as I also love Susan Boyle's singing), but people seem to romanticize them nowadays, and forget that they were also very much a part of popular culture at the time. They were not starving artists, suffering for the sake of art, but a group of young guys (with matching hairdos and suits) sent out by their managers to --gasp-- make money!! The idea that there is more marketing and hype in the music industry today is fairly ridiculous: the truth is, the music industry has always been about making money, or do you know of any recording companies that publish records simply from the goodness of their hearts?

    As for Susan Boyle, she is a very humble, honest person, who herself would never claim to be as good as the Beatles or anyone else. All she ever wanted to do is sing for a living--so why not drop the snide comments and let her do just that?

  • Comment number 12.

    This is a bit rich coming from the BBC who have always put middle of the road populism ahead of original creativity.

  • Comment number 13.

    In my opinion, this article is a spot on conclusion of today and the music industry. Susan Boyle is nothing more than a karoake star. Yes she can sometimes hold a tune, but she rarely, if ever has shown any emotion or expression in her music. Her voice has no high quality tone or charisma to it. The Beatles however show expression, and influenced music and also British Society to a certain extent. Even though their music is simple, it is simple and incredibly musical. Nor is their music about just love songs which seems to be what everyone wants today. They are the meaning of Brit-pop, Real, Original British young men trying to express their views. You cannot say Susan Boyle is original or ordinary at all, she was until, the talent show got hold of her and made her into a money machine, which is very sad. Su-Bo would have had great potential as a singer if she had not entered the show and had the voice coaches ruin any individuality she had.

  • Comment number 14.

    Just how people can even try to compare The Beatles with Susan Boyle boggles the imagination...Whilst Susan Boyle has a lovely voice and has done magnificent with her two albums...The Beatles music though still incredibly popular is completely different to what Susan covers...John, Paul, George & Ringo made their albums when everything was run by electronic valves...they made solo albums as well and considerably more tracks around the world charted as The Beatles and as Soloists than what Susan may only wish to do...
    She's a great singer...but you can't compare as to what the Fab Four did in comparison to what Susan has only just done...
    Paul McCartney is still touring, still recording and releasing and has lasted well in his career...just how long Susan will last...I don't know, but I wish her well, but the buying public are fickle and someone somewhere will come on top of the charts above her at some time...Let's see if her albums last the test of time...

  • Comment number 15.

    Am I alone in finding Susan Boyle's voice distinctly average? OK, she can sing a song, but she's in no way exceptional.

  • Comment number 16.

    This above blog writer is saying things that are pre approved. He has selected comparisons that stood the test of time and not his intelligence or taste -- he listens to music because of reputation -- how dull and uncourageous of him. And from what I gather his tastes are ..tooo limited.

  • Comment number 17.

    I find my self thinking 'boring' when I listen to most of her music. But sometimes I like one of her songs. And then I find her voice just perfect.

  • Comment number 18.

    What astonishes me most is the feting of Susan Boyle at all. If you go to any of the female choirs across the UK, you will find dozens of women like Susan Boyle, I know many of them. She is not exceptional and if is considered so, I am afraid it is through lack of knowledge or experience by the listener. What she is is a competent singer with a personality and history that appeal to people who are then moved by her singing as they can relate or feel that she is exceptional as a combination of all her parts - the singing, the history whatever. However, her singing is merely competent as are thousands of women her age across the UK. As such, I completely agree with the BBC on this one.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Comparing ANY achievement in any field of endeavour with that of another period of history is a foolhardy and worthless exercise.

    Susan Boyle's new album is just that, NEW.

    I could today, should I so wish, download every track released by The Beatles - which I already hold on vinyl and CD - and that would be an end to the matter.

    But, AT THE TIME of their original release, each new Fab Four release was an 'event' - and rightly so.

    (The entire canon of Charles Dickens is lined up on my bookshelves, but I still queued up to buy the final Harry Potter novel at the stroke of midnight on the day of its release.)

    It would be difficult to argue that The Beatles contributed more to the field of music than Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, etc., but Messrs Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starkey didn't take the attitude that everything achievable in music had already been achieved and so there was no point in trying - their version of "Twist and Shout" (NOT an original composition) is one of the highlights of their catalogue, but would presumably be derided as Mr Gompertz as "karaoke" or attacked as lacking originality.

    MY artistic tastes (literary, musical, and other) may not coincide with our 'esteemed' blogger, but I am pleased to be able to acquire the music, books, etc. that I like, rather than those chosen by a self-important clique.

  • Comment number 21.

    What a load of elitist twaddle! Like it or not, Susan Boyle records music. All music is a form of entertainment and whether the material is 'art' or worthy is, shock-horror!, purely subjective to each individual. An appreciation of music is enriched by an eclectic mix of styles, genre and emotion. What's to stop the ordinary man-in-the-street liking Motorhead, Take That, Pet Shop Boys, Susan Boyle, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bach? Not only did both SuBo and The Beatles achieve two no.1 albums in the UK and the USA in the same year simultaneously, but despite being separated by time, both were bought and enjoyed by music lovers! So what?

  • Comment number 22.

    So, Mr Gompertz apparently thinks that Ms Boyle's singing has little artistic merit, and has a derivative quality redolent of "karaoke"?

    Her value is presumably to be thought not unlike a literary critic who has nothing new to contribute to the wealth of human experience, other than to criticise the ability of others to distribute pleasure and joy...

    It is as well that Will Gompertz's income is funded by compulsory taxation (the BBC licence fee) because I fear that reliance upon payment from appreciative consumers would be inadequate to fund his lifestyle.

  • Comment number 23.

    why should we compare the beatles with susan boyle? completely different in every way susan is a beautiful singer, she is using her God given talent to the very best of her ability and I could listen to her lovely singing all day.
    she deserves the credit for breaking records I think she is a down to earth genuine lady and good luck to her

  • Comment number 24.

    I saw Susan Boyle on Britain's got Talent, and she surprised me along with everybody else, but since then I have not been much taken with her.
    Hearing her on Children in Need I found her average. She put no feeling into the song, she made it utterly boring.
    As a person, I think she has done well, but as a singer I think she'll soon fizzle out.

  • Comment number 25.

    You didn't want to talk about the comparitive merits of Susan Boyle and The Beatles, you wanted to talk about Mark Leckey and paint. I wonder, and I'm sure Leckey might agree, if artists are better seen and not heard - which is, probably, undoubtedly the opposite of Susan Boyle (as artist). Horses for courses, as always.

  • Comment number 26.

    Well here is an idea for you, We currently have the Indie charts ext. lets scrap all the charts and have 2 very simple ones. 1 The UK Singles Charts (Consisting of ORIGINAL MATERIAL & The UK Covers & Karaoke Charts (Consisting of Tosh some record companys are flooding the market just for the money)

    Maybe then there will be a little more money spent for the Amazing artists in the UK working there fingers to the bone playing pub after club after pub rather than standing in a line for 6 hours to change there life to do Karaoke! I sure doubt that Susan Boyle would have made it if she was putting the "Hard Work In" just like many others who have made fame via so called Talent Shows!

    Gone are the days of the UK being the worlds greatest exporter of music, Pitty when the UK has some of the worlds finest acts that will never get close to any kind of deal!

  • Comment number 27.

    Oh and PS, surley this is an easy topic to kill off anyway? Boyle changed a few songs a little and with here voice did a good job, but on reflection The Beatles changed music as we know it!


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