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Boys voice their concerns about singing in public

Popular wisdom says all-singing, all-dancing reality TV is inspiring boys to pursue pop stardom rather than degrees in medicine or law. But, evidence shows the opposite is true: boys would like to sing but are deterred by the "public humiliation" inflicted on shows like The X Factor.

Boy performers are commercially marketed as "cute", when they want to be seen as grown up, says Dr Martin Ashley, a reader in education at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, in his paper Exploring Young Masculinity Through Voice.

Thousands of boys, he said, are afraid to sing because they fear it may damage their emergent masculinity. It is not just because singing is seen as girly, but also because television's most successful young male singers are not seen as grown-up and manly.

He cites the "gender ambivalence" of shows like Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Any Dream Will Do, and the marketing of "beautiful boys" in bands such as Westlife.

Celebrity culture has shifted attention from musicianship and artistry to parading the performer's body for the sexual gaze.

Part of the problem is biological: younger boys do not want to sing with their high, childlike voices; older boys are nervous about relying on their breaking voices.

"There is little doubt that the message from the commercial music industry that boys must grow up as quickly as possible in order to sing with low voices contributes to this melancholia, for it denies boys a significant form of self-expression," Dr Ashley found.

Researchers interviewed more than 400 boys. They also spoke to eight boys who had recorded solo albums for major commercial labels in their unbroken high voices. Terry Wogan once teased Aled Jones, the popular young chorister, for having "girlfriends over 60 years old".

And those boy performers interviewed admitted to having an audience of "grannies", rather than the boys and girls their own age who they might have wished to impress.

The solution, Dr Ashley suggests, could be a return from X Factor individualism, to chorus singing, where insecurities and vocal failings can be hidden within the group.

This year's X Factor opened the talent quest to boys and girls as young as 14. One contestant, Leon Jackson, 18, marked his arrival in the final by breaking down in tears.

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