The Susan Boyle Effect

Yes, that is a frog rasp sitting on my head, and we're both happy to see you. Photo credit: Colleen Dommerque.

Yes, that is a frog rasp sitting on my head, and we’re both happy to see you. Photo credit: Colleen Dommerque.

Some of you might be wondering: what possessed an autistic woman, at the age of 50, to get serious about the craft of songwriting and singing and making music for the first time in her life?

That isn’t supposed to happen, right?  I’m not supposed to be better at this by orders of magnitude at 51 than I was at 31 or 25 or whatever age musicians are expected to hit their peaks.

Not if you believe the allistics.  But maybe it’s different for our kind.  I think of Susan Boyle, a woman close to my age, whose otherworldly theatrical mezzo-soprano wasn’t heard by the public until she was in her late forties and blew away the audience on a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent.  First they laughed at her because she didn’t “look like a singer,” and she had them on their feet giving her a standing O before she was even finished with “I Dreamed a Dream.”  (Seriously, if you’ve never seen this performance, click on that link, you’ve gotta see it.)  Turns out she’s one of us; could that have something to do with her voice hitting its peak in her late forties and fifties?

Of course I sound nothing like Susan; she’s a traditional pop/musical theatre singer, with a voice as pure as a mountain stream.  My voice is, ahem, a little more impure, and that’s the way I like it; it suits what I do.  But like me, she didn’t know the way in.  She had to have been practicing in her mirror and in her shower for a long damn time to be able to do what she does now.  She didn’t wake up one day and boom, there was this voice.  It was there all this time, waiting until she just couldn’t stand it another minute and she had to have that microphone right now.

When I heard Susan five years ago, I knew what she did would have an effect on me one day, but I didn’t know how.  I figured I had already tried and failed to impress people in my first go-round as a singer-songwriter 20 or 25 years ago, so what was the point? (In the years after that, once in a while I’d write something, but then I’d give up on it just as quickly, when I heard the sound of my own voice played back and thought I sounded like a singing nose.)

But at that time, many years before my diagnosis, I assumed that I was being snubbed for my lack of talent, when it was my social anxiety that kept me from developing that talent in the first place.

From my mid-teens onward, I read voraciously about music.  I went to libraries to look up articles on my favorite singers.  I spent innuerable hours in record stores and bookstores soaking in all I could.  And every time I did, I got that sinking feeling that I didn’t have what it took.  Back in the 1970s almost every musician I knew of was photographed holding a cigarette; I couldn’t smoke (because allergies), or even tolerate being in smoke-filled environments like concert arenas and music studios, so I drew the conclusion that I couldn’t be a musician.  The same went for getting drunk or high.  Or screwing everyone in sight.  Or having a skinny body. Or whatever it was that allistic musicians did to signal to each other, “I’m one of you.”  I knew that the people I most admired, be they musicians or critics, would consider me a pathetic nebbish, a total loser, if we ever met.  I knew.  I only knew one way in, and that was coolness, a quality I would never possess.

Was it like that for Susan, too?  When we were growing up, there were no home computers, no digital audio workstations.  You couldn’t do what I’m doing now; if you wanted to make music, you had to work with other musicians, get a record deal or raise thousands of dollars to produce a record yourself.  Now, for very little money, I can get the sounds in my head translated into something that can be listened to.  I can mess up over and over again and change my mind over and over again and fix it over and over again, and all it costs is time.  I can develop a signature style through endless experimentation, without anyone here to judge every little burp and fart.  I can make something I can hand to people and say, “This is what I do.”  I don’t have to convince them I’m a “real” musician or songwriter by the way I look or act; for the first time, I have tangible proof.  Good thing, too, because I’m too damn old to be a scenester anyway, even if I was allistic.

I have no idea if anyone but a few people will like the stuff I’m doing, but I like it.  And I never much liked anything I did before.

Delay does not mean permanent absence.

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