X-factor: Singing in the name of quality?

Thursday 14 October, 7.00pm until 8.30pm, Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2BS

Venue: Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2BS

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

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?

This event will be introduced by Mary Cosgrave, Professional Relations Manager, Royal College of Music

Sarah Boyes
freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010

Christopher Cook
visiting professor, University of the Arts London; convenor, pre-performance season with ENO’s, Join the Conversation

Mark Frith
editor, Time Out London; former editor, Heat and Smash Hits; author, The Celeb Diaries

Barb Jungr
singer, writer and performer; CDs include, The Man in the Long Black Coat and From Stockport to Memphis

Norman Lebrecht
writer, cultural commentator

Michael Rosewell
director of opera, Royal College of Music

Peter Whittle
culture spokesman, UKIP; director, New Culture Forum

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
X-Factor's Auto-Tune row strikes the wrong note

We know we can't trust reality shows – but if we're not allowed to hear people's real voices in a singing competition, what's the point?

Luke Lewis, Guardian, 23 August 2010

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 'not interested' in Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle's version of I Dreamed A Dream may have turned her into a global star, but Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the soprano, is less than impressed.

Daily Telegraph, 19 May 2010

Take That star and Cameron back school talent search

David Cameron has backed the idea of a UK-wide school talent contest based on popular shows such as X Factor.

BBC News, 17 April 2010

Popstar to Operastar makes me sick

Those who attend a real opera would be shocked by a comparison with the atrocious talent show Popstar to Operastar.

Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph, 19 January 2010

Popstar to Operastar: Call that opera?

As celebrities are taught the basics in ITV's latest reality show, devotees say the programme cheapens and exploits the genre

Andrew Johnson, Independent, 18 January 2010

Session partners

in association with