The Mercury Prize: Appeal through Failure

On the official website, The Mercury Prize (or the Barclaycard Mercury Prize as we apparently have to call it now) is directly compared to the Booker. Some might regard this as a deluded overstatement but I think there’s some honest grounding to it, at least if you’re talking about controversy. The difference there however is that while Antony Burgess withdrew from The Booker because he wasn’t guaranteed to win, musical luminaries like Gorillaz pulled out of The Mercury because they didn’t want to.

James Blake
James Blake

The Mercury Prize (this year awarded to the post-dubstep nightingale James Blake) is by far and away one of the most slammed, denounced and derided music awards active today, perhaps even more so than the Grammys, but why? What singles this prize out as more asinine, more biased and less desirable than any other? Much of the past complaints have centered around the murky adherence to the award criteria, the Prize purports to celebrate the best of British music and therefore doesn’t include anything that doesn’t have some kind of distribution deal based in the UK, which is what kept My Bloody Valentine and their self-released title out of the running this year.

As dodgy as it is the snub a band simply because they weren’t signed to a record label, the ethos is clear-cut. That’s what I’d say if it weren’t for the fact that the US-based Antony and the Johnsons won in 2005, although perhaps they were afforded leeway due to being born in the UK, so maybe that’s fine. Then you find out that Mark Lanegan was a previous nominee alongside Isobel Campbell, she might be Glaswegian but anyone who knows Lanegan or his work can testify to the fact that he is very, very American. There certainly seems to be an amount of pick-and-choose going on here with the nominations, which makes the picture a bit clearer but as far as I’m concerned doesn’t go all the way to explaining why The Mercury Prize is so despised by some. The Academy Awards enjoy Olympian viewership figures that only climb with each passing year and they’ve been accused of slights similar and worse.

No, for my money the reason The Mercury Prize is such a worthy candidate for effigy is because of the principles it appears to have, rather than the ones it actually has. The only real parameters stipulated on the official page are all the ones regarding the national status of the albums, nothing about independent artists, nothing about there having to be a broad generic spread (though there often is) and crucially nothing about artists being nominated or even winning twice. Yet I distinctly recall a certain underlying disdain when P.J. Harvey won for the second time, some unspoken rule that it has to be someone new every year. That’s the problem, The Mercury Prize is a mainstream wolf dressed like an underground sheep, the broad spread of genres, the lack of categories, the muted, understated affair of the actual ceremony, The Mercury Prize exudes hipster. Unintentionally, it has created expectations that were never anticipated, elevating smaller artists, going against what’s popular, but then you look at past winners: Primal Scream, Dizzee Rascal, Artic Monkeys, Klaxons, Elbow, every one of these could fill a stadium.

Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys

That’s not to say that The Mercury Prize is in any way a good award, it’s not, it’s a complete farce. Most awards are. I remember a big stink being made over the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio still hasn’t won an Oscar and I still legitimately can’t understand how that’s detrimental to his talent. Sports are competitive by nature, there are and always will be winners and losers so prizes are completely justified. Music, writing, acting, film-making and whatever else are forms of art and thereby they are modes of self-expression. Imagine if one person out of everyone in the world was named the best at expressing him or herself. The personality champion. Utterly, utterly ridiculous, but on some level that’s what we’ve been reduced to.

Every year people watch in their millions as the biggest names from throughout the world of art and media gather to pat each other on the back and parade around in pretty dresses before declaring who’s the best of the best. I’m thankful that at least people like Ricky Gervais exist, people brave enough to be able to stand up and shed some light on how stupid it all really is. The light at the end of the tunnel is that through what ends up getting nominated some really high quality material might get some much deserved exposure and that’s the saving grace of the Mercury Prize.

Ricky Gervais
You know who this person is.

The lack of generic distinction means that you get some really diverse and interesting nominees, all mere token nods with no chance of winning, but if say a million people tune in and see their name on that list and even one percent of that figure take the time to check their music out properly, that’s a victory. Through all the pointless self-gratification, elbow rubbing and grotesquery that comes with award ceremonies, knowing that amazing artists like John Tavener, The Portico Quartet, Asian Dub Foundation, 4Hero, Nitin Sawhney, Floetry, Roots Manuva, British Sea Power and many more will get the opportunity to enrich more people’s lives makes it all that little bit more bearable.

Article by Callum Davies

Callum is an up and coming name in the creative writing field and is without doubt, one to watch on the back of this brilliant piece.

His collection of superb works can be found at:

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