If they gave prizes for snobbery…

Let’s be honest: who really cares about the Mercury Prize?

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

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Where were you when the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2013 shortlist was announced last week? Doubled over your laptop, nervously hitting the refresh button while live-tweeting your uncontainable excitement? Of course you weren’t. Because you, like most of the British music-loving public, don’t give a monkey’s about this increasingly meaningless award.

But some people do, and when the list of British and Irish-made albums in the running for the notoriously skimpy prize money surfaced, it kicked up a right old stink.

The Mercury Prize was set up in 1992 by then-MD of Virgin Records Jon Webster as an ‘antidote to the Brits’. ‘There was no debate about music or an attempt to broaden peoples’ tastes with those awards’, said Webster, in an interview years later. ‘This was different: it was about bringing really good records to people’s attention that would otherwise have never had a chance.’

However, these words seemed to ring hollow this year as pontificating journos and bitter ‘slighted’ artists, have sounded off about how ‘mainstream’, ‘safe’ and ‘establishment’ this year’s choices are.

David Bowie’s The Next Day is the bookies’ favourite, but while it is a glorious comeback, boundary-pushing and low-profile it ain’t. The rest of the list is made up by somewhat more fresh-faced veterans as well as some veritable chart-toppers: from the Arctic Monkeys (nominated for their saucy No.1 LP AM) to producer ensembles Disclosure (Settle) and Rudimental (Home), whose infectious dancefloor-fillers dominated the summer charts before the invasion of the all-conquering Avicii and Robin Thicke. Plus, other than Jon Hopkins’ startling Immunity, an ambient, textural and slyly devastating dance album, there’s little here that was truly inventive. Even the usual token jazz bands are missing in a list that reads like any old consumer mag’s ‘best of the year’.

But the only thing as unsurprising as the selections is the criticism itself. Indeed, calls of ‘bullshit’ have dogged this award since the very beginning. In 1994, many sneered when the markedly mainstream M People took the prize for Elegant Slumming. Meanwhile, ‘authentic’ indie winners like Suede and Primal Scream were hardly lacking in buzz or media attention when they were given the nod. Ever since its beginning, the prize has been little more of a stamp of cumulative critical acclaim, and, to a lesser extent, market success – insisting entrants have formal distribution online and off (in other words, have the backing of a reasonably sizeable record label) to even be considered. One had to scoff when some cheered the triumph of Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave last year, citing the fact that this album barely cracked the top 20 as proof that the Mercury was returning to its roots.

Even when the panel – an anonymous bunch of industry bods and journalists – have thrown the award the way of a relative unknown, it’s felt like a lame one-off stab at validity, a championing of unremarkable musicians for the sake of bolstering their faux-alternative cred. Some talk of the ‘Mercury curse’, when a win for an up-and-comer, like 2009 winner Speech Debelle, usually means a short-lived career blighted by having peaked too early. But these never-to-be-heard-of-again winners were usually unloveable rather than unpalatable, failing to crack the big time because they were terminally bland.

The truth is that while conceived as a pious alternative to the body glitter-spattered tackiness of the Brits, the Mercury has always been something much worse. Unremarkable in its chosen winners, with a mainstream bent since the beginning, it’s a pop-music award that strangely loathes the popular audience. For them, these Chris Brown-obsessed plonkers, used to having James Corden dictate their tastes from his vajazzled pedestal, need educating in ‘real music’ – ironically, music that they’ve probably already heard.

For my money, the trashy, O2 Arena-set carnival that is the Brits is far more authentic than any cloyingly low-key Mercury ceremony. It may be trashy, a parade of lurid here-today popstars, but it’s a natural, unabashed extension of the music-industry machine – designed to buck up album sales in the winter months. What’s more, it’s still a real pop event that rightfully grabs our attention, whether it’s eight-year-olds staying up late to catch Taylor Swift bag a gong, or cynical musos sneering at the dankness of it all on Twitter.

Meanwhile, mired in contradictions, incurably snobby and ultimately pointless, it’s no wonder no one cares about the Mercury.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked.

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Topics Culture


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