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Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll : November 2012
Author: Benjamin Howarth
Published: 28/10/2012

Not for the first time, I feel moved to write about the Mercury Music Prize in this column. From the moment we all wasted our money on Roni Size’s near unlistenable ‘New Forms’ after it won the 1997 prize, the Mercury has been a source of suspicion and distrust. Mocking it has become an annual ritual. The Mercury is, of course, intended as pop music’s equivalent to the Booker Prize. Readers are often just as dismayed by the Booker Prize as listeners are by the Mercury, but – mostly – I feel that the Booker Prize does usually do a fair job of promoting literary fiction as a whole.

Not so the Mercury, which consistently satisfies nobody. The judging panels only have themselves to blame – no one has any idea how or why the winners are chosen, and absolutely no one thinks the judges are credibly selecting the year’s best album. Allowing Channel Four to outbid the BBC for the broadcasting rights has proven to be another Mercury misstep. They broke away from main programming for just five minutes to announce the winners, and even on Channel 4’s devoted music channel, a 90 minute documentary on the Kardashians was being shown while each of the nominees played live.

And yet, bands clearly want to be nominated. They may affect indifference, or – as the Arctic Monkeys famously did – suggest they’d prefer someone else to win, but each year they pay to have their albums considered by the judges. Most seem to see the Mercury as a rare opportunity to have their albums judged on something other than how many they sell.

I don’t believe pop music needs to be patted on the head by cultural critics or given coverage on 'Newsnight'. It already has a vibrant network of opinionated critics, a huge and genuinely engaged audience and a plethora of styles and genres. Every year, there is at least one new pop album made that will appeal to practically every single person in Britain. The same can
not be said of visual art or literary fiction. And yet, the responses of the bands – however modestly put – suggest they do want the kind of recognition a Booker or Turner prize winner gets.

If there is to be a prize, somebody has to win. Alt-J seem as good a choice as anyone (even if their student dress sense provoked immediate comparisons to the first victims of the ‘Mercury Curse’, Gomez). It’s impossible to imagine Alt J’s music being made a decade earlier. Its frenetic stop-start melodies, constant genre-merging, oblique references and studied vocal mannerisms are directly the product of a modern musical culture formed by MP3 blogs and 240GB Ipods. ‘An Awesome Wave’ is cut from similar cloth as the Fiery Furnaces’ ‘Blueberry Boat’, Animal Collective’s ‘Strawberry Jam’ and Dirty Projector’s ‘Bitte Orca’. All these albums have similar traits – dense and requiring multiple listens to make their point, yet with enough kinks to impress when downloaded bit-part from an MP3 blog.

The relics of 70's rock journalism will criticise Alt-J for much the same reasons as they did Gomez, and would doubtless have preferred the prize money to be spent on heroin than, as Alt-J plan, a holiday for the winning band’s parents. But, normal people won’t begrudge Alt-J’s victory. Not a single broadsheet newspaper even reviewed ‘An Awesome Wave’ when it was first released. Yet, online critics, message-boarders and bloggers championed the album, and audiences followed. Radio One would probably have ignored ‘An Awesome Wave’ if it had already seen saturation mass media coverage, but instead became the first to champion it as the work of an unusual new British band. Even before the Mercury win, it had sold 100,000 copies.

None of this validates the Mercury Prize. There are just too many unanswered questions. How can anyone possibly compare the soft tones of Michael Kiwanuka with the experimental jazz of Roller Trio? Why, if it rewards all genres, has no metal album ever been nominated? Why only one folk or jazz album each year? Why did they move it to November this year? Just how is the academic Simon Frith qualified to decide what is the best album of the year?

In fact, the only people who really benefit from the Mercury Prize are music journalists – because they give us something to talk about and, in my case, something to write columns about. So, thanks to Barclaycard for another Mercury Prize, and I’ll see you next year.

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