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X-factor: Singing in the name of quality?

What makes a truly great performer, and who can be expected to judge?

From SuBo to Jedward, talent shows have been the must-watch TV of the past decade. Overnight superstars have been made of Cheryl Cole, Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis, while ‘nasty’ judges Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan have been lauded by some for bringing an element of frank criticism, professional expertise and judgement back to popular culture. Yet even as light entertainment shows, they are not without controversy, criticised for everything from being modern-day freak shows to killing creativity and originality by turning popular music into karaoke. Last Christmas an internet campaign saw Rage Against The Machine beat X-Factor winner Joe McElderry to the Number One spot, consumers sending the message to Simon Cowell, that, ‘I won’t do what you tell me’.

Yet the apparent success of ‘pop-opera’ singers such as Paul Potts, G4 and Rhydian on such shows suggests a popular appetite for more serious forms of singing, which the arts world could perhaps exploit. West End musicals have already started to recruit (and create) stars through How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and Over the Rainbow. This year, BBC Radio 2 launched its own ‘Opera X-Factor’ in the shape of the Kiri Prize, and ITV offered talent show alumni and pop musicians the chance to go From Popstar to Operastar. Young musicians point out that classically-trained Myleene Klass was able to use her Popstars fame to become a public arts ambassador, whilst the likes of Katherine Jenkins and Rolando Villazón have used such formats to reach an audience far beyond the rarefied confines of the opera house. But Dame Kiri Te Kanawa herself has raged against the ‘whizz-bang’ of such popular crossover artists, contrasting their instant success to the years of discipline and training required to become a great artist with stamina and longevity.

Do such shows offer the opportunity to tap a gold mine of talent excluded from elitist cultural institutions, or do they reduce serious singers to the same level as dancing dogs and warbling bin men? Is the popular success of serious performers an important way for niche artforms to reach a wider modern audience, or are they simply trading artistic credibility and value for the trappings of celebrity? Are there other routes available, such as imitating the online media success of pop acts like the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, or are these equally problematic? What makes a truly great performer, and who can be expected to judge?


Sarah Boyes | talks
Mark Frith | talks
Barb Jungr | talks
Norman Lebrecht | talks
Michael Rosewell | talks
Peter Whittle | talks
David Bowden | talks


Date and Time:

14 October 2010 at 7:00 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



Royal College of Music
Prince Consort Road
South Kensington

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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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£7.50 (£5 concessions)

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