to make you cry

I’m reading Lynn Hirschberg’s long profile of music producer Rick Rubin. I like Rick Rubin — who doesn’t like Rick Rubin? — and I am surprised to learn that he’s crossing to the other side of the desk and becoming a record-company executive. No, not a record-company executive, the record-company executive, co-president of Columbia Records. Columbia Records! Jiminy!

Anyway, the article is a great read and a fascinating glimpse into the mind, or the acts anyway, of a true weird genius. Rubin going from LL Cool J to Def Jam to the Geto Boys to Johnny Cash and on and on is a pretty staggering story, and I’m always interested to know what he’s going to do next. Him getting a boat as big as Columbia Records to steer is a big story indeed.

And he says one of the first acts he will sign is this guy he saw on the UK’s version of American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent! (which is a wonderful, self-conscious, defensive title if I ever heard one). The guy’s name is Paul Potts, and Rubin says his appearance on Britian’s Got Talent! makes him cry every time he watches it.

Well, I think, Rubin’s a sensitive soul, isn’t he? But I’m curious, so I bop on over to YouTube and check the guy out.

Oh. My. God.

After recovering my wits, I show this to my wife, to see if I’ve been genuinely moved or have merely been set up for a sucker-punch. She tries to remain calm, says that she doesn’t know anything about opera, has no idea if the guy’s “any good” or not, doesn’t know if she’s reacting to the quality of the guy’s voice or the situation he’s been placed into. But yeah, she’s floored too.

Me, I say it’s only partly his voice and it’s only partly the situation. For me it’s his face. Look at his face before he goes on, and as he stands there before his judges. “Judges” being a loaded word here — he looks like he’s facing his executioners.  He looks like a beaten man. He looks like a man who’s had every ounce of hope beaten out of his soul by life, by Britain, by whatever dead-end grind he’s required to endure in order to make ends meet. He looks like he doesn’t even want to be there. Hell, if I had music like that going around in my head, Britain’s Got Talent! is probably the last place I’d want to be. Who with music like that going around in his head would choose to seek the approval of Simon Cowell? And yet here he is.

Then he starts singing, and his face completely changes. First it gains a sense of power, something he controls. My guess (projecting here, obviously) is that he feels very little control over anything in his life, but God Damn It, he knows how to singthis goddamn aria. Then, as the tune builds to its climax, something else  comes into his features. It’s not just power, or control, or happiness — it’s defiance. Paul Potts has looked at the dawn of the 21st century and said “You know what? Not everything has to be crappy and ugly and shiny and cheap and brutal. People don’t know that beauty and truth are still possible in this world, and damn it all, I’m going to do something about it.

When he takes the stage he looks like the cell-phone salesman I would cross the store to avoid, but the look on his face as he sings the climax of this aria is one of a general leading his troops into battle. This is madness? THIS! IS! OP-ERA!!  Then he finishes and becomes that shy young man again.  Incredible.

The fact that he chose a venue like Britain’s Got Talent!, a show dedicated to the idea that art is a competition to be “won” or “lost,” to launch his tiny cultural offensive, makes him a kind of cultural suicide-bomber. Into the temple of the cheap and shiny he has smuggled his brave message of defiance and hope.

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25 Responses to “to make you cry”
  1. dougo says:

    Coincidentally, just last night I skimmed through “Fade to Black” on MTVHD, Jay-Z’s farewell performance at Madison Square Garden interspersed with documentary scenes during the making of The Black Album. The coolest part was when he goes to Rick Rubin’s studio to record “99 Problems”, also meeting up with Mike Diamond from the Beastie Boys.

    Wait, wasn’t American Idol a version of a British show to begin with? Also starring Simon Cowell?

    • popebuck1 says:

      Wait, wasn’t American Idol a version of a British show to begin with? Also starring Simon Cowell?

      Yes – Pop Idol (also starring Simon Cowell and created/produced by Simon Fuller) is the original version of American Idol, and Britain’s Got Talent is the original version of America’s Got Talent, which I think just wrapped up its latest season by picking a ventriloquist as the most talented person in America. At least they didn’t go with Boy Shaqira.

  2. dougo says:

    Also, seen this?

  3. mcbrennan says:

    I saw this. On The View. (“I swear to god I was just flipping by, I would never voluntarily watch The View,” etc etc etc.) And I was in fact moved to tears for all the reasons you mention. I’m thrilled he’s getting a real shot. God bless Rick Rubin.

  4. Jee-zus.

    I read the profile and had much the same reaction as you to that (I am a Rubin fan), and a mild interest in this Potts guy – didn’t really quite buy it.

    Read your comments, and was more intrigued to see it, but still didn’t really buy it, as moved as I was by the idea of what you were putting down. I wanted it to be true, but didn’t think it could be. Then I watched the video.

    I’ve gone through it four times now, and I think you got it dead on. By this last time, I’m just as moved by the reaction shots of the judges here (and to a lesser extent, the audience) — they seem to be steeling themselves for something hideous, then as he starts singing, they begin to loosen as they realize he’s not bad, then they seem to get they are in the middle of one of those moments when Art appears – this is more than a display of talent – and, its presence known, all you can do is give yourself up to it. Maybe because it did the same to me. Have to favorite this and watch it a few more times.

  5. moroccomole says:

    Potts’s backstory is a crock, apparently, according to the UK gossip site Popbitch:

    Ah, how Britain loves an underdog. Opera
    singing Paul Potts becomes a national TV star
    thanks to his back story of being a bullied
    phone salesman with a lack of confidence.

    Residents of Eastville, Bristol, were most
    surprised at his TV billing, as Potts has
    been a prominent local politician, confident
    enough to be elected a Lib-Dem Councillor in
    1999. Potts told TV judges that he’d spent
    several months at opera school in Italy in
    2000, which must have impressed the constituents
    who thought they’d voted for someone to
    represent their interests in Bristol.

    This plucky newcomer had also previously
    appeared on Michael Barrymore’s My Kind of
    Music, sung with Bath Opera and The Royal
    Philharmonic Orchestra and performed as
    soloist all over Northern Italy.

    • Todd says:

      Gee, a publication called Popbitch found something disparaging to say about Paul Potts? Imagine that.

      I could tell that the “story” being told in the context of the Britain’s Got Talent! segment was simplified at best and a total fiction at worst — I’ve worked on enough TV to know how that goes. It didn’t matter to me — his face told all the story I need to know.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Yes! My sis told me abotu this guy, and I didn’t believe her until she showed me the video. When you think about how many so-so singers have slid by because of their looks or the ‘personality’ on stage, whateverthehell that means, it’s even more impressive.

        I did this thing once where I went thru all the singers I liked and wondered who would have actually made it on American Idol (assuming they were all young enough again to compete). Nick Cave would have been pissing crack at that age, the Johns of TMBG’s nasal singing probably wouldn’t wow non-nerd audiences, Michael Stipe had no stage presence back then, Tom Waits . . . snowball’s chance. About the only one I could have seen making it was Danny Elfman, who is both techincally accomplished and was enormously charming on stage – and he was actually on the Gong Show, the 70’s version of Idol. Won, too.

  6. igorxa says:

    my girlfriend, who has no livejournal account but reads your journal anyways, showed me this post, and once again we’ve spent the night discussing this potts character. she and i both have our degrees in vocal performance, and have both performed in several staged operas and opera scenes. we can’t really explain it either, the appeal of paul potts. from a technical standpoint he’s fine, better than the average person trying to sing these songs. nessun dorma is a very challenging aria, mostly because of its range and emotional depth. it’s hard for us to remove ourselves from our own context, though. in our musical world EVERYONE knows this song, as if it were a beatles hit, and all of us have our own favorite performances, i.e. placido is better than pavarotti, etc., so what is it, what is the appeal to the general, non-operatically trained public, why does his performance of this song make such an impression?

    in the opera world, paul potts would not be given any major roles, would not receive acclaim on nearly the same scale nor be thought of as anything more than another struggling tenor. opera is like a very, very exclusive country club, one where EXTREME but very specific talent is required for entry. neither i nor my girlfriend belong to this club. we are both well trained and talented in our own right, but neither of us have what our operatic peers would deem an operatic voice. we also both know singers with as much or more talent as potts, and certainly more training, who are at least ten years younger than potts, yet they will probably never have a successful opera career. i’m sure when potts’ performance aired there were opera hopefuls all over england thinking, “i can do that a thousand times better than that. i should be on that show!” so what is it? is it his face? is it his presence? he’s very awkward and stiff on stage. my voice teacher never permitted me to hold that much tension or shake my head in that manner. paul potts has beginner technique, and with training he could improve quite a bit, but would he ever be ready for the met? not a chance in hell. music schools in the u.s. alone pump out thousands of classically trained singers every year, yet the number of people that claim an opera career as their only source of income is, as told to me by voice faculty, less than 1000.

    so what is paul going to do? in another clip on youtube paul is singing con te partiro, a song made famous by andrea bocelli. is paul going to become another bocelli, or maybe josh groban? neither of these men have opera careers, they have pop careers. yes, they sing arias and other classical or pseudo-classical songs. bocelli has even recorded several operas, all in the studio, of course. josh groban wants to shift his career to musical theater. will paul try for the same thing?

    • Todd says:

      Wow, thanks for the perspective from the opera buff’s box seat.

      Then my comparing Potts to Leonidas is even more apt than I thought — his fighting technique might be good enough to get him in the door, but his decision of where to fight the battle elevates him to the realm of genius.

      I had the exact same questions as you do regarding his future career (yeah, he’s never going to compete with Domingo), but my question was more “How do you keep the power of this Britain’s Got Talent! clip alive over a whole career?” which brings us back to Rick Rubin and whatever the hell he’s going to figure out to do with him. Because yeah, outside the context of this clip he would require some very special “handling” to make it all work commercially. And the idea of him singing pop standards and mixing it with light opera pieces (which seems to be happening more and more lately, with David Byrne singing opera to beautiful effect and Anne Sofie von Otter collaborating with Elvis Costello, et al) would seem to be the way to go. But I will leave all musical decisions to Mr. Rubin, who seems to carry an almost mystical understanding of music in that beard of his.

      • Anonymous says:

        Don’t be too quick in thanking “opera people” for giving you another perspective. For every singer, for every actor, for everyone in the limelight there are multi-thousands of hopefuls who “can sing better,” “act better,” etc. etc. That’s the way of it. Few will ever step onto the world stage. Don’t let anyone reduce your genuine experience, your visceral response, to something else. Savor such a moment and don’t second-guess or let the rational mind come in with its neverending nagging questions. It’s a thing of the heart, and Paul Potts’ voice causes the same reaction on his other videos.

        I would hope no one would backtrack from the true emotions of the original experience because some professional or opera expert came along and told them their tears or chills were steeped in ignorance. “Opera experts” have come onto the video clips of Paul singing to try to convince the thousands of others that somehow they’ve got it wrong. Apparently no one is convinced and they continue to watch the clips over and over because they are so moved by them on so many levels.

        It is an astounding personal experience for every one of these viewers, and it is a seminal moment in television history. Savor it because these moments are few and far between. And whether he sings exactly the way the opera people have been taught to sing is irrelevant to me. Damn. Music is music. There’s good and there’s bad. He’s had little training and has not sung at all in the past four years. He’s an original with the voice of an angel. And I don’t care if it’s technically perfect yet or not.

        Mr. Potts is always being asked “What are you going to do next?” and he never fails to reply that he doesn’t know. That he just lives in the moment. Let’s all join him and let’s fully enjoy this moment together. C’mon opera people. Just enjoy it.

        • Todd says:

          I thank the opera-buff’s perspective because I wanted to know it and they magically showed up to tell me. My Paul Potts experience remains unchanged. Even I, who don’t know Puccini from Donzinetti, can tell that Potts is not meant to go 13 rounds with Pavarotti. His voice is what it is, but his courage and defiance are what make him special.

        • Anonymous says:

          I am the “opera-buff’s” LiveJournal-less girlfriend. Of course and I don’t mean to reduce your experience to anything less than what it is. We just want to understand what it is that you experience since we are so very steeped in our own over-educated perspective that it is difficult for us to imagine what an amateur is going to do in a world where technical training and stage presence are pretty much all that matter to the guys in charge.

          And come on, it’s TV for God’s sake! It’s entertainment on the most accessible level. But for me the emotional response it elicits is more closely related to the sentimentality represented in insurance commercials. It purposefully aims to get you where you’re vulnerable, and in this case, it really, really worked.

          I suppose that it is a bit of professional jealousy that makes us wrinkle our noses and go, “WTF!” when we hear this guy, a perfectly good singer but not great, get this much attention. I worked long and hard on my musical dreams, but because I have an unusual voice have had to put my dreams aside. Seeing this makes me think that if I’d just been able to find that venue, the right moment would come and I’d at least have a job in music that can put food on my table. (I do live in Tennessee where classical entertainment jobs are few and far between.)

          So anyway, I started coming here for Mr. Alcott’s Venture Brothers essays, stuck around for the McCartney and Elvis ones, and now read it pretty much every day! Thanks for writing such a cool blog! (And I hope that maybe your Paul Potts experience will lead to a further exploration of opera and classical music in general..? Then you’d have an essay about absolutely EVERYTHING I like!)

          • Anonymous says:

            I wanted to clarify my “insurance commercial” remark. I don’t deny that I had a visceral response to Mr. Pott’s performance. I mean, look at the guy… he looks like a schmuck, but then he sings possibly the most beautiful aria Puccini ever composed, and everybody’s clapping for him (a big no-no in regular opera… outbursts like that in the middle of a piece will likely get you booted out of the theatre), and there’s explosions, and that bastard Simon is smiling at him, and he doesn’t seem like a loser anymore. But for me, it didn’t feel genuine. I felt like I’d been manipulated into rooting for him by the producers of the show. Granted, I haven’t seen him in any other context. Maybe if I could watch him in person i could ignore all the little technical flubs that I’ve been trained to listen and look for.

          • Todd says:

            And come on, it’s TV for God’s sake! It’s entertainment on the most accessible level. But for me the emotional response it elicits is more closely related to the sentimentality represented in insurance commercials. It purposefully aims to get you where you’re vulnerable, and in this case, it really, really worked.

            It is, indeed, TV for God’s sake. And the trained eye can tell that the performance and the audience’s response have been edited to achieve the desired effect — in a rather crass and ham-handed fashion, I might add. However, something obviously did happen in that room, the TV wizards didn’t just create the effect out of nothing. They punched up the sentimentality of the moment for the effect they were looking for, but the “story” of Potts and his triumph were already there.

            And I hope that maybe your Paul Potts experience will lead to a further exploration of opera and classical music in general..?

            I’ve kept mum about my interest in classical music so far. My faves are mostly 20th-century, usual-suspects Glass, Reich, Adams, Kronos, etc. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould got me interested in Glenn Gould, which led to an interest in Bach piano music in general, which led to an interest in piano music in general, including Mozart and Beethoven and ragtime. I have never seen a classical opera and, sadly, only started buying them on CD after I heard David Byrne sing a couple of arias on his last album. Talk about venue being important — David Byrne’s voice is utterly unsuited to opera, which makes his performances raw, earnest and startling in their emotion.

        • igorxa says:

          life is a little too unstable to simply throw reason out the window. i’m not saying you should diminish your experience in any way, but let’s not make it out to be more than it is. i am “one of these viewers” and i did not have an “astounding personal experience.” a seminal moment in television history? do you think aretha franklin’s performance of the same piece several years ago was also worthy of such accolades? what makes a single performance of an old opera top 40 hit by a guy with a sympathetic backstory so groundbreaking? this happens on tv every day.

          and sure, music is music. there are plenty of pop stars who can’t sing that have gone on to have incredibly successful careers. leonard cohen, bob dylan, tom waits, etc. or how about paula abdul, madonna, paris hilton or britney spears? the point of my previous comment was not to denigrate your reaction, but to try and understand why you had that reaction. i know why i like bob dylan. i know why i like leonard cohen. i know why i like placido. but there is nothing about paul potts that really stands out to me. i have heard hundreds of performances of nessun dorma, and most of them were better (let’s not talk about aretha franklin, or michael bolton for that matter). but does paul’s performance make you want to find out more about opera? does it make you wonder what else is out there to enjoy?

          what i can’t do is “just enjoy it” on the same level you do because i’m coming from an entirely different vantage point. my girlfriend says she’s just figured it out. if we saw paul on the street we wouldn’t hate on him. we wouldn’t tell him he sucks or anything of the like. he didn’t do a bad job. what needs to be understood is that opera is an art form that is far removed from the average person’s experience. it seems unreachable and over our heads and when paul potts, this every day average guy, brought that art form to the public in a way that showed he really loved it, really cared about it, it opened up a connection between this so-called “high art” and the viewer at large. paul is awesome for showing people that they could enjoy opera.

          my biggest issue is not paul, is not his performance, but the reality show aspect of this “talent competition.” i don’t understand overwrought sentimentality over a tv show. if this were a talent contest at the local theater you’d never know anyone’s backstory. all you would ever know is whatever they presented on stage. but now, with the magic of scripted life on tv we can get a whole new angle on things. i personally don’t really care about paul’s story, not in the context of the competition. outside of that, sure, it’s nice to see a guy love opera that much and try that hard at it and do a decent job. but what does that have to do with my experience of the music? what does that have to do with the technical merits of his performance? paul has talent. what he needs is training, or rick rubin. and rick rubin he has. if we all had rick rubin, we’d all sell a million records.

          • Todd says:

            do you think aretha franklin’s performance of the same piece several years ago was also worthy of such accolades?

            I do indeed. I saw that and was blown out through the back of my living room. And what does it, of course, is that we were not expecting it from Aretha Franklin. If your Jesse Norman or Joan Sutherland got up to sing the piece I would have changed the channel — we fully expect excellence from a highly-trained, well-publicized opera star. It’s when “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” Aretha, known for her bluesy shout and sassy attitude, gets up and shows that, Jesus Christ, she’s got the chops! that makes electrifying television. Personally, I don’t know why she hasn’t gone on to capitalize on that performance.

            there are plenty of pop stars who can’t sing that have gone on to have incredibly successful careers. leonard cohen, bob dylan, tom waits, etc.

            “Songwriters who can’t sing” make up, by far, the biggest portion of my music collection. I’ll add Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Steve Malkmus, Andy Partridge, Brian Eno, Keith Richards, David Byrne and Kurt Cobain to your list for starters.

            but does paul’s performance make you want to find out more about opera? does it make you wonder what else is out there to enjoy?

            Urbaniak came over last night and complained that ever since he watched the above clip on my blog, he can’t get that goddamn tune out of his head. I did not have that reaction, because it’s not a familiar tune in my household. I’m more likely to become interested in opera because a singer I’m familiar with points me to it. If Bob Dylan suddenly did an album of arias, you bet that would get me interested — and oh man, what an album that would be.

            The context of the event is everything. Seeing the power and majesty of that music brought to the crassest of possible venues is what makes it such powerful television. It couldn’t be made any more clear than in the choice of “outro” music as the show goes to commercial — the overwrought arena-ballad by whoever crashes in like an obscenity after the Puccini.

            if this were a talent contest at the local theater you’d never know anyone’s backstory.

            But that’s not true — if your town were small enough you’d know a lot more about everyone’s backstory. I think TV’s sin is not providing backstory but by, as you suggest, over-sentimentalization.

            • igorxa says:

              i remember the day after aretha’s performance i had a voice lesson, and my teacher and i talked about it quite a bit. if i remember correctly, pavarotti was supposed to sing that night, but he was sick, and aretha was in town for some benefit, and she knew the song, so she got the nod. terrible, awful italian pronunciation aside, it was an interesting performance. besides the italian i can’t say it was bad, but i still don’t know if it were good. i think it’s good she didn’t capitalize on her performance because i think a soul diva singing an aria beyond one time would become too much of a gimmick.

              but holy crap, a bob dylan opera album? yeah, i’d buy ten copies and give them to all my friends. good or bad, that would be an instant classic.

              “the context of the event is everything,” and that is exactly why i don’t like “reality” television. the context is always tweaked to deliver ultimate effect, instead of actually being real. then again, i watch lost, so what does that say about me?

              • Anonymous says:

                You can tell it was meant for Pavarotti because it’s a few keys too low for Aretha. The orchestra didn’t have time to rehearse in a new key, so she was game and went for it. More power to her, I guess, but that’s one reason I didn’t really like her interpretation of the piece, because it was so obviously straining her low register while never getting to show off her high notes. Maybe I’d be happier with it if she had sung in the right key.

                I think the more folks like and I quibble over stuff like this, the more we seem like outdated old fogies (neither of us is over 30). Why shouldn’t everyone be able to enjoy what Paul Potts has given them? He’s not competing with us for jobs, but looks like he’s singing just because he loves to do it. Maybe his newfound fortune will buy him top-notch training, something I bet he’s always yearned for but could never afford. (cue violins) And then maybe he’ll be really good, and people like you and me won’t turn our noses up at him anymore.

                Maybe the way we were taught to appreciate classical singing is outdated. Maybe it truly doesn’t matter whether or not his technique is good (and I’m not talking about healthy singing and the damage he’ll do to his chords in the future, that a totally different discussion), as long as he connects emotionally to the audience though the music, which I bet is all Puccini himself was going for when he wrote the aria in the first place.

            • Anonymous says:

              I cried like a wet baby at Aretha Franklin’s rendition of Nessun Dorma. Amazing.

              “Personally, I don’t know why she hasn’t gone on to capitalize on that performance.”
              Considering Ms. Franklin’s status, do you think she simply doesn’t need to?
              Besides, the performance stands so brilliantly as a once in a lifetime event people are still talking about years later, perhaps that’s capitalization enough.

  7. teamwak says:

    Wow. Interesting talkback developing.
    Paul Potts has been a revelation in the UK. I didnt watch the show; would rather pull my eyes out than watch a show called Britains Got Talent.

    But I saw Paul perform on a popular chat show. They showed the clip of his audition. I too was blown away. The female judge, the lovely Amanda Holden is in bits after, and hte 2 pitbulls of British TV Cowell and the maddening Piers Morgan who was the ultimate tabloid editor/scumbag in his day (lost his job after buying shares his financial journos then tipped for sucess and sold of a huge profit) both look genuinly stunned. It is top TV story and I wish Paul nothing but sucess. We all love an underdog!

    And screw the opera world. I suspect Paul will end up doing more their world than any of the current Divas or superstars ever will.

    • igorxa says:

      did you mean paul will be doing more real opera than opera people?

      • teamwak says:


        I was on about anything that brings opera to the masses. Worlds like opera and the literature are always condescending of anything that becomes too popular. Yet it is populist who keep them going by making new people discover them.

        Thats what i tried badly to say


  8. I can sympathize a bit with the opera-world types on this one. It’s the curse of any kind of performance.
    For example, I’ve been in various bands and whatnot, and it’s always a bit annoying when people’s favourite bits of your set are the bits that are easiest to do.

    Similarly, I used to write for a humour website based in China, and the single feature that people consistently mentioned they found “hilarious” was The Month in Pictures — a section that consisted of looking through photos we’d taken that month of everyday scenes and spending 10 minutes making silly captions for them. But that’s life.

    That’s the disconnect between performers and audiences, and it’s also why it’s important to remember what your job is – you’re not there to entertain yourself. Music for musicians is a niche market (though luckily for Steve Vai, there are enough guitarists in the world to buy his albums).