Mercury’s gold (doesn’t always shimmer)

Award ceremonies present quite the uncertain prospect for most observers; the general population either adore or ignore, tabloids subject the most meaningless to disproportionate hyperbole, broadsheets offer disproportionate analysis. It’s not just the self-promoting ridiculousness of them all (although, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, there is not yet a trinket out there for attempted physics).

If ever there’s a gong show with contentious decisions written all the way across its history like a hipster’s arm, it’s the Mercury Prize for….well….best album? Greatest? Most beloved Alexis Petridis?

This year’s shortlist is the usual eclectic, eccentric muddle of commercial and deliberately obtuse leftfield choices (oooh, jazz, mmmm), makes the already difficult task of comparing different artists collections of work almost laughably impossible. There’s a reason why “What kind of music you into, then?” stops attracting meaningful responses after the age of 15. Unless you’re talking to your gran (Choice quote from my gran, now sadly deceased. “I like that ‘soul music’, but not his face”, she said of the Prodigy album “The Jilted Generation” upon seeing the album art and the words “sole CD” on the price sticker).

Mercury Prizes are subject to more chin-stroking than most because they have always posited the reputation as being above, higher, and somehow plainly more than commercially minded rivals. They are not the brash Brits, they are not the sell-out NME awards. In truth, natch, their position accurately moves around with the whim of the audience they court, one eye on a mature, world-wise audience (Jesus and Mary Chain nominated in 1992, Radiohead in 1997, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996), and another on promotion and advertising kudos (Spice Girls in 1997, Mark Morrison in 1996, Sting in 1993, arguably every time post-1997 that Radiohead have ever been nominated.)

Famously, now, the judges considered M People’s “Elegant Slumming” over Blur (“Parklife”), the aforementioned Prodigy, and Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood”. Plainly bonkers – it’s not worth saying, really, that track-for-track, Blur kinda just sorta do beat Heather Small into a mush of smug self-help sludge, even accounting for “Trouble in the Message Centre”, which is awful.

Nobody explicitly awarded the Mercury’s with a high pedestal from which to sprinkle “indie” stardust on the chart albums below. Partly the responsibility of the panel itself, mostly due to the journalists it feeds so well, the value of its currency is somewhat euro like in its widely unsustainable level. It has blatantly turned to an unwritten rota from which awards are seen to be fairly handed out, such as occurred in right-on trendy comprehensives at sports days. One year, it’s an obscure winner (Talvin Singh’s “OK” in 1999, which I bought, incidentally), and then follow that up with something a bit more mainstream (2000 was Badly Drawn Boy, beating Leftfield themselves, ironically enough).

“Obscure, mainstream, obscure, mainstream” has turned out to be more of an obvious seating pattern than Tony Blair’s “gay, straight, gay, straight” Cabinet seating arrangements. Bloc Party or KT Tunstall count not win in 2005, for that was an obscure year. The xx triumphed last year, the year of the mainstream, which may seem like a rule proving exception were it not for Speech Debelle triumphing 12 months previously.

Assumption and half-remembered memory has not helped the Mercury’s laudable attempt to move away from being an unofficial badge of approval from ‘proper’ critics. It’s “indie” credentials only grew on the back of its inaugural winners and subsequent follow-up – had Primal Scream (worthy) and Suede (worthy) not succeeded, its value today would be less than a Greek stocktrader.

This year – the year of the Obscure Winner, betting folks – the commentariat have clucked their collective tongues at a somewhat uneven shortlist, from Adele and Elbow to Anna Calvi (and no, I was unable to whistle anything by Gwilym Simcock until I hit YouTube ). Betting money might be going on Adele (she’s no chance). I would suggest Katy B is where the money should be going (she’s the Speech Debelle voting option without the chance of a post-award strop two months later).

To leave, not a Mercury performance but from a nominee which still gets me giddy. Who needs a band? And, yes, Antony and the Johnsons beat her in 2005.

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