Unless you’ve been living under a rock, two events have leapt into America’s consciousness this week. The first was the Tea Party protests involving hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans in hundreds of cities all around the country.
The second was the sudden and stunning success of previously unknown church choir singer, Susan Boyle, who wowed judges and the audience in an audition for Britain’s Got Talent, the Anglican version of American Idol. Since Saturday night when her first song was broadcast to a British audience, Ms. Boyle’s televised appearance has been viewed by no less than 40 million people, a population eight times that of her native Scotland. In just the last 24 hours she has been mentioned, complete with a color picture, on the front page of the Washington Post, was interviewed live on the CBS Early Show, and has been booked for an appearance on Oprah.
What these two seemingly unrelated events have in common is the internet.
Courtesy of Jonah Goldberg, I first became aware of Ms. Boyle Tuesday morning. My wife discovered her two days later when she appeared on the CBS morning show. I mention this because the timing is important. In an era–even just a decade ago–before YouTube, Ms. Boyle’s audition would have been the subject of the conversations of only those few UK viewers who happened to see her this past Saturday. In other words: water cooler talk.
“Hey, did you see that dowdy church lady really belt one out Saturday night?”
“Uhh, no. I watched Manchester come from behind against Sunderland.”
And that would have been it. Without the internet Susan Boyle might still go on to win BGT. Now, because of the viral nature of the new media, instead of wishing to be as famous as Elaine Paige, which the unknown Boyle said she wished to be, it’s quite possible that some day very soon, Elaine Paige, the Sir Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress, will be wishing that she was as famous as Susan Boyle.
Hours before Oprah, the Post, and Mark Phillips had ever heard of Susan Boyle, I did. And so too did millions of others. Ms. Boyle was already an American sensation before the American media ever arrived.
Which brings me to the Tea Parties. . .
In the last few days before Wednesday, I began to hear rumblings that the virtually-0rganized Tax Day protests had finally grown to such an extent that the Republican Party wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It was too late. Even the head of the RNC was denied a speaking role. This was a movement that had already grown outside the mainstream of American politics.
Oprah Winfrey, accustomed to giving unknown authors a portion of her prominence by featuring their works, felt compelled to jump on the Boyle bandwagon after only one song. It was only two years ago when, it took until Paul Potts that years’ BGT winner, was already crowned, before Oprah, then still ahead of the new media curve, introduced him to an American audience. Now, Oprah has to make the introduction early–or at least as early as she can, since millions of Yankees have already seen Ms. Boyle, even though her singing career spans a grand total of two minutes and twenty seconds.
This is the speed of the modern internet. Instead of needing the establishment to give credibility to a movement–be it political or cultural–the establishment needs those movements to keep them relevant.
Let’s be bipartisan here. Before there were Tea Parties and unknown divas, there was Barack. He, himself, is a new media creation–a man, who only five years ago was a back-bench state senator, who was thrust upon a stage long before the establishment would have ever deemed him ready. But the internet didn’t wait for the establishment to lead. The establishment followed them–eventually dumping Hillary, the one on whom all their bets were originally placed.
This is a new era. No more do Susan Boyles need Oprahs to give them an American introduction, and no longer do Americans themselves need political parties to make a political movement. The days when movements require an imprimatur are past. Water cooler talk, which not too long ago, followed where the establishment wished to lead, now leads where the establishment has no choice but to follow.
An example of how slow word, or rather song, travelled in the era before YouTube, here is a Susan Boyle recording of Cry Me a River from a charity CD produced in 1999. It may even be better than her BGT audition.