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Album Review

The biggest music story of 2009? Susan Boyle.

In April, an unassuming 48-year-old Scottish church volunteer wowed England with her show-stopping performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" (from Les Misérables) on the TV show Britain's Got Talent. In the days that followed, 120 million people around the world viewed the performance on YouTube.

Boyle's instantaneous rise from obscurity to white-hot celebrity paved the way for her debut album's massive success. I Dreamed a Dream was the year's biggest debut, with first-week sales of 701,000 copies in the United States alone. Since then, it's become the second biggest album of the year—3.1 million copies sold domestically and a 6 million worldwide—in just six weeks. (Only Taylor Swift topped Susan's U.S. sales, and she needed an 11-month head start).

Song-wise, Boyle's debut is a sometimes whiplash-inducing collection of covers that includes hymns, a Christmas song, show tunes, classic oldies and big hits by The Monkees, The Rolling Stones and Madonna.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

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Pro-social Content

Boyle has been outspoken about her Christian faith, which is evidenced by her inclusion of "How Great Thou Art," "Amazing Grace" and "Silent Night." She also sings Patty Griffin's 2007 gospel-esque tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., "Up to the Mountain."

Juxtaposed against those spiritual tracks are melancholy, melodramatic odes to determination from The Stones ("Wild Horses") and Madonna ("You'll See"). A deep desire to please (perhaps one's parents?) comes through on "Proud" (a song from the U.K. television show Britannia High). On it, Susan sings, "One day if I'm allowed/ … One day I'll make you proud." Likewise, "Who I Was Born to Be" bursts with Broadway-like gravitas ("Though I may not know the answers/I can finally say I am free/And if the questions led me here/Then I am who I was born to be").

Objectionable Content

Ironically, Boyle's signature song, "I Dreamed a Dream," tells a story of anguish and dashed hopes. It's not negative, per se, but it certainly doesn't end on a happy note: "I had a dream my life would be/So different from this hell I'm living/ … So different now from what it seemed/Now life has killed the dream I dreamed." Ouch.

A stanza on "Wild Horses" could be negatively interpreted: "I know I've dreamt you a sin and a lie/I have my freedom but I don't have much time/Faith has been broken, tears must be cried/Let's do some living after we die"). One could also say that Madonna's boot-straps determination on "You'll See" is a tad unhealthy ("All by myself/I don't need anyone at all").

Summary Advisory

Many inkwells have already been emptied parsing the significance of Susan Boyle's story. My comment is simple: It's a remarkable illustration of what happens when you intermingle reality TV, the Internet, a Cinderella-like narrative and a heaping dollop of real talent.

Listening to the album, I was surprised by what it was like to hear Boyle's voice without watching Simon Cowell raising his eyebrows. Her voice—isolated from the circus that's surrounded her—packs a powerful emotional punch. So this release isn't just the continued packaging of the month's celebrity flavor. It's truly good music in an amalgamated genre that's stood the test of time for a good many decades.

Lyrically, there are no significant problems and few minor ones. Much of the album feels more than a little Dickensian as Susan dutifully trudges through the emotional fog of life's hardships. But just as Dickens did, she reminds us—every two or three tracks—of the faith and hope that sustains and guides her.

Plot Summary

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I Dreamed a Dream topped the charts for a month and a half, selling 3.1 million copies in the process.

Record Label

Syco Music,Columbia




November 23, 2009

On Video

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

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