Being a pop star is no job for dolts


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The Independent Online

While North Korea threatens war, the South offers the world a chance to party. Psy released "Gentleman", his long-awaited follow-up to "Gangnam Style" at midnight on Thursday in 119 countries, and performed it for the first time in concert in Seoul yesterday. Check out his new dance moves on page 5. These days, the chubby South Korean popster is managed by the same people as Justin Bieber, so is his follow-up a sell-out? Psy's "Gangnam" video racked up a whopping 1.5 billion hits on YouTube, the most-watched video in the history of the internet. That makes him a cultural phenomenon, well worth an in-depth analysis by Mr Imagine, Alan Yentob. Sneer not, Psy and his bonkers dancing have made a lot of people very happy – not a lot of popular music crosses this many frontiers. Which must be why the Today programme took a break from analysing Baroness Thatcher's legacy, and the parlous state of banking in the EU, to debate one-hit wonders last Friday morning.

Evan Davis asked Debs Wild, (described as a "music industry consultant") what she thought of the song. She offered: "It's formulaic … more house than pop." The other participant was Boff Whalley, former lead guitarist of the agit-prop band Chumbawamba, who had a massive hit with "Tubthumping" in 1997 and who gained a lot of fans when their lead singer chucked a jug of water over John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards. Although now disbanded, Chumbawamba are putting out an In Memoriam Maggie Thatcher CD, recorded four years ago (they announced it would be released "as part of the celebrations" on her death) and which had to be prepaid for online at the time. Did Evan realise that a hard-core Maggie-hater had penetrated Radio 4's heavyweight discussion about Korean pop? In the event, Boff didn't plug his Maggie music, but managed to make some of the most fatuous remarks about culture I've heard in the long time. His main complaint about Psy's "Gentleman" was that "it sounded the same" as his previous hit.

Boff went on to complain he'd visited the Roy Lichtenstein show at Tate Modern and was disgusted because "every room was exactly the same". According to him, "great artists should do different things" – and he boasted how Chumbawamba had gone to great lengths to "lose" fans, relentlessly changing their style with every song until they finally split in 2012. Boff rated The Beatles and The Clash, because "they constantly changed".

Have you ever heard such drivel? Change for the sake of it, as a measuring stick for cultural significance and great art? Well, that's Francis Bacon, Jenny Saville, Lucian Freud, Jane Austen and the Pet Shop Boys all gone down the dumper. Psy makes pure celebratory pop. Why should he change a formula that appeals, no matter what language you speak or what god you worship? Being lightweight, frothy and fun is an artform. Never fall into the trap of thinking that being a pop star is a job for dolts. Only intelligent men and women sell records by the million. Sorry Boff: your philosophy might read like an anarchist's handbook, but you're destined to remain a footnote in pop history.

Feeble Beeb

The BBC dithers over "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz, which is heading towards the top of the charts after anti-Thatcher campaigners urged people to buy it. Tony Hall, the new director-general, thinks the campaign "is rather tasteless", distancing himself from the controversy, saying that the inclusion of the song in the Official Chart Show today "is an editorial matter". Ben Cooper, head of Radio One (salary £168,000 a year) has decided to play "up to five seconds" of it.

Has the BBC learnt nothing since refusing to play "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols in 1977, even though the single was at No 2 in the UK singles chart and topped the NME chart? The Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the record from commerical radio, as if listening to it would corrupt an entire nation. The result? It is perennially listed as one of the greatest songs of all time and one of the most important political songs ever. Bans never work, even if they're as half-hearted as this one, which annoys everyone. Can the BBC stop nannying us? John Lydon said he deplores the tasteless scenes celebrating Maggie's death, and didn't want "God Save the Queen" re-released. The BBC has made the wrong decision.

Danse macabre

Tonight is the last night of the first UK run of the controversial ballet based on convicted drug smuggler Billy Hayes's memoir Midnight Express at the London Coliseum. This brash production, first staged in 2000, received mixed reviews, but 20-year-old Johan Christensen, who took over the lead at a few days' notice when Russian bad-boy Sergei Polunin stormed back to Moscow, performed brilliantly and received a standing ovation the night I was there. Polunin was rumoured to have fled because he couldn't stomach the scenes of male rape. What was he expecting? The story is set in a men's prison and Peter Schaufuss is a famous controversialist whose attempts to attract a wider audience to dance include a 2003 ballet based on the life of Princess Diana. Next month, his Hamlet (starring Christensen) opens at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. It's guaranteed not to be boring. Shauffuss seems to resonate with audiences, even if the critics sneer.

H M Helen

Does an extraordinary impersonation make a great play? I wonder what draws a sellout crowd to The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as the Queen receiving a roster of our prime ministers for their weekly chat. I've met several of our prime ministers, sometimes informally. Callaghan invited me to the first Downing Street party to celebrate women's achievements. Sadly, in The Audience, I found Peter Morgan's version of John Major insufferably lightweight, and his Gordon Brown equally unconvincing. It's easier to warm to Mirren's role, because we know less about what Her Majesty thinks, and hardly ever hear her say anything that isn't heavily coded and scripted. This isn't a play, but a series of turns, and some are just a lot meatier than others. It's being "reworked" before it transfers to Broadway – I wonder whether Haydn Gwynne's acerbic Maggie will be toned down?

Punk Maggie?

Writing in The Spectator, David Cameron's "blue sky thinker" Steve Hilton describes Maggie as "thrillingly anti-establishment: as much of a punk, and as brilliantly British as Vivienne Westwood", and raves about how "she was Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Lady Gaga all rolled into one". I want whatever he's taking.