David Lister: Too many popstars, not enough singers

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Cultural events are taking place all over the country this weekend, and there is a plethora of arts programmes on BBC4 and Sky Arts. Yet there is no doubting that the finals of ITV's The X Factor over two nights will be the most watched and most talked-about arts event of the weekend.

I don't even put quotation marks around the words arts event, because an arts event is what it is, and it is a silly snobbery to deny that. It's light entertainment, but so were most of the television programmes now regarded as iconic. An entertainer, indeed several entertainers, will have been made by the end of the series.

And to get that far without using the word "star" is more than any X Factor programme that I have watched has managed. The contestants all want to be a star, a pop star or, as one of them said last week, "an international superstar",

Only one seems to have mentioned her art, and that's why if I were to bother to vote, that vote would go to Stacey Solomon, pictured. She said in last week's programme she had always dreamed about being a singer. Her mother too said that she wanted her daughter to be a singer. The word almost leapt out of the screen. All of the others wanted to be pop stars. Cheryl Cole, despite being only a step or two away from beatification, refers to one of the boys she has mentored as "my little pop star". Perhaps he and she would feel it demeaning to refer to him as "my little singer".

Stacey seems to me a modern-day Manuel. Just as every piece of madness by the Fawlty Towers waiter was explained by the phrase "He's from Barcelona", so Stacey's almost extraterrestrial geekiness and gawkiness are explained to viewers by solemnly informing them that she's from Dagenham.

But I hope she wins because she is in love with her art, not just with the fame it might bring. My bigger problem with all things X Factor is that it might just be the wrong art. Singing and interpreting the songs of others is, needless to say, a vital part of pop. But it is not the only, or even the most important, part. Roger Taylor of Queen, who made an appearance on the programme, said afterwards that his being there meant it was one of the only times musical instruments were seen on the show. The art of playing an instrument does not seem to figure in Simon Cowell's recipe for stardom.

Nor, more surprisingly, does the art of being a singer-songwriter. Great singers and entertainers from Elvis Presley onwards have defined popular music, of course, but so too have the great singer-songwriters. From Lennon/McCartney and Bob Dylan via The Smiths to Alex Turner and Lily Allen and thousands of others, they are the mindset as well as the sound of successive generations.

So why is Simon Cowell so wary of giving singer-songwriters the platform that he gives the wannabe singers? Could it simply be that as a breed they tend to be more challenging, more provocative and more downright bolshie than the interpreters of song? And for an X Factor impresario keen to control the careers of his charges, such people are dangerous.

Tick all the right boxes and get public funding

Now here's a state of the art, or rather state of the arts, press release. It has been sent out by the Pulse arts festival in Ipswich, calling for applications from companies and individual artists to appear in next year's event.

It says: "Festival Director Stephen Freeman is keen to see applications which promote cultural diversity, disability-led work, gay-led work, contemporary writing/production styles, site-specific work, multidisciplinary and/or cross-genre artists working in collaboration, work that promotes new ways of engaging its audience or aims to give the audience a unique experience and work which takes risks, pushes boundaries and challenges conventions."

That would seem to tick all the right boxes and then some. I suggest that the Pulse arts festival application form be placed in a time capsule. It perfectly epitomises the state of publicly funded arts in the Noughties. Future generations should gaze upon it and marvel.

Who could say no to Nelson?

Morgan Freeman gives, by all accounts, a first-class performance as Nelson Mandela in the new film Invictus, which premiered in Johannesburg last Tuesday and opens in the UK next February. Freeman, has met Mandela a number of times, and the two men have become friends. He told The New York Times this week that the commission to portray Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from Mandela himself. He told a press conference in 1994 that Freeman would be his actor of choice to play him in a movie. "He said he wanted me," Freeman recalls, "and so it became. That was the whole sanction, right there."

Actually, it's not the only invitation for Freeman to play a major role. The former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Adrian Noble, has told me that Freeman is the actor he would most like to play Othello on stage. I'm not sure whether he ever asked the actor, but I certainly agree that it would be a mouthwatering piece of casting.

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