Following the release of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, Rebekah Rennick dissects the Barclaycard Mercury Prize to expose its highs and ultimate lows
Like “carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity” is how Damon Albarn described his Mercury Prize nomination for Gorillaz in 2001, before withdrawing from the running completely. This same man is no longer the curmudgeonly, growling Murdoc alongside his grotesque musical cronies, but now sits reticent on his stool, head bowed with grey hair and greyer anorak upon his debut album cover, which has nabbed another such nomination. Perhaps thirteen years has softened the tongue of this acerbic but beloved musician, or perhaps his animated counterpart was onto something.
Next month sees the Mercury Prize floundering into its twenty-third year. With the release of the lazily anticipated shortlist last week, it’s clear the judging panel have finally opened their eyes and disregarded genre constraints, silencing obvious contenders. However, their habitual inclination to showcase how “cutting-edge” and in-tune they are with today’s musical sphere obscures the prize’s original objective.
Amongst the seven debut albums and three jazz installments, Bombay Bicycle Club and Damon Albarn stand out as the only pair which popular audiences may recognise. A conscious effort by the judging panel perhaps, or possibly an airing out of the Mercury Prize closet; allowing fresh new hopefuls to become shrouded in the award’s elusive ‘curse’.
The twelve nominees include an array of unfamiliar and obscure faces, with not a single bellowing Guy Garvey or sniveling Sam Smith in sight. Brighton based duo Royal Blood are the first thrashing, invasive rock act to grace the award ceremony since Biffy Clyro in 2010, while bookies favourite, FKA Twigs, is a lady of shivering melodic charm, enticing you into her sensually sharpened underworld.
Similarly, the mysterious funk that shrouds Jungle has landed them a spot on the list alongside performance poet. Undoubtedly the most interesting act of the twelve nominees is Kate Tempest, whose album is a journey in itself between romance, class and society.
While the concept of this annual affair, celebrating the cream of the musical crop of the past twelve months, is outwardly a great thing, over the years it has transformed into a banal pat-on-the-back from an omnipresent judging panel. At the time of its inception, the early 1990s’ music world was a lackluster environment, struggling to come to terms with the dance revolution. Parasitic award ceremonies where music executives drained musicians dry of their humility and integrity were rampant and the Mercury Prize was a beacon of light.
Disregarding all other categories and focusing solely on Album of the Year, the prize shed any unnecessary media hype and allowed for a deserving band to receive an honest, on-point award that reflected accurately the talent of that year.
By creating an entire award ceremony out of the exclusivity of a lone category, it allowed all genres to compete on the same playing field. Pop was to now contend with it’s harsher older brother, rock, who in turn was to attempt to rise above not only its R&B, jazz and folk counterparts but its soul sister too.
However. over time the Mercury Prize has somewhat lost its footing and relevance in today’s dominant, sugar coated music industry. While the calibre of talent hasn’t waned, the curse which has fermented further with each passing year means that even if a well credited musician may win, it’s not long before they’re glazed over with the same plasticity; the scrutiny they endured prior to the win falls away, replaced by sickening indifference.
Those who win ultimately deserve to do so, but the consequences that follow are ones of crippling pressure and insulting disinterest from the general public. Music fans now cross their fingers not in the hope that their favourite artist will snatch the prize, but rather that they won’t and are able to continue on without the Barclaycard burden.
Similarly, the once level playing field has become mutilated and misshapen with the heavy footprints of more favourable sounds or plat du jour. This year sees the absence of a classical, punk or Irish contender. English post-punk has not been as visceral and snarling as Leeds quintet Eagulls who fail to make an appearance, while our very own James Vincent McMorrow has been left out in the cold without even a beanie to keep him warm.
The Mercury Prize has become the drooling, glutinous monster that is today’s music provider to the masses. What began as the leading award ceremony for the esoteric music groups has become another meaningless spectacle. Even an award that simply offers £20 to its winner holds more integrity amongst the musical underdogs today. That’s not just a hypothetical analogy; take a look at the Popjustice £20 Music Prize, the brain child of the music website Popjustice’s founder Peter Robinson in response to the pompous and elitist nature of the Mercury Prize. That prize offers a humble sum to the year’s best British pop single, and usually makes an indisputably sound call.
Perhaps it really was Murdoc speaking when Albarn dismissed his nomination all those moons ago, but at least it provided a bit of outrage in an otherwise placid award ceremony. The least we can hope for this year’s winner is that they’ll at least shout a few profanities to make the win memorable.