Last Friday saw indie-youth heroes Wolf Alice claim this year’s prestigious Hyundai Mercury Prize, following in the footsteps of a diverse range of British musicians such as PJ Harvey, Skepta, Primal Scream, the xx and last year’s winner, Sampha. Their album Visions Of a Life is a maze of different sounds and styles, and a shining example of how rock and roll has continued to blossom in diverse, creative directions without losing the authenticity of a genre that Britain is so famous for. Considering Ellie Rowsell is a goddess in my eyes, it was a (somewhat biased) yes from me.
However, despite The Mercury Prize having been such a well-respected award since 1992, music critics and trolls of the twitter sphere take to the battlefield every September when the 12 short-listed albums and their creators are announced. Their reasoning? We range from @Roydsterdoyster tweeting ‘Who the f**k is Wolf Alice #Mercury Prize’, to The Guardian questioning the award’s focus on ‘pleasing the masses’ with its mainstream nominees. Of course, the music world is always going to be rife with conflicting opinions (how would Twitter or Kanye West survive without it?). But considering all the confusion surrounding the award, perhaps the better question for Roydster to be asking is ‘What the f**k is the Mercury Prize?’.
Let us begin with the primary material. The Mercury Prize defines itself as ‘the music equivalent to the Booker Prize for literature and the Turner prize for art’, a promotion of ‘the best of UK music and the artists who produce it…across a range of contemporary music genres’. All fine so far. But although it strives to celebrate artistic achievement, The Mercury Prize stands out from other music awards for its self-proclaimed ambition to ‘introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience’. This is where the critics come rolling in and Roydster gets a bit of a bashing from the indie kids.
But can you blame them? Half of this year’s shortlisted albums made it into the top 5 in the UK Album Chart and were murderously overplayed on Radio 1. Let’s be real, do Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds need ‘introducing’ to a wider audience? Furthermore, along with Wolf Alice, they all fall under the umbrella of alternative rock (as broad as that genre seems to be becoming). These nominations seem more like a gesture of respect towards such esteemed artists as well as an attempt to prevent the public from losing interest in the award. Was Tom Misch’s debut album Geography not quite funky enough? What made them choose Lily Allen’s monotonous tones over Superorganism’s adventurous delve into electro-pop?
Of course, you will always find a selection of more unconventional artists within the shortlist, such as Nadine Shah and her politically-charged punk album, King Krule and his whatever you want to call the noise he makes, and, by far the most distinctive nominees on this year’s shortlist, experimental jazz group, Sons of Kemet. Yet, as pointed out by The Guardian, these “token” acts never win. They appear as more of the panel’s way of showing inclusivity and diversity, even though they are the ones who would benefit the most from the award’s £25,000 cash prize and a boost in profile.
As I continued to browse through the Mercury Prize website, I found an interesting statement straight from the judges’ mouths regarding this year’s shortlist:
‘This year’s Hyundai Mercury Prize celebrates albums…with a shared belief in the importance of music for navigating life’s challenges. The music here is funny and inspiring, smart and moving. Twelve amazing albums!’
Last year it was ‘the power of British music’ and the shortlist’s ‘infectious pleasure in music making and an arresting sense of urgency’. As porous as these justifications may sound, it does suggest that each year the Mercury Prize nominates albums based around a theme, giving us some thread of commonality through those nominated.
However, instead of bringing peace to the land within my mind for finally understanding the panel’s selection process (kind of), this discovery cemented a different, perhaps controversial conclusion in my mind – does it really matter who wins The Mercury Prize? If the focus is on celebrating ‘twelve amazing albums’ and bringing them ALL to a wider audience, surely the real achievement comes in making the shortlist? Of course economically, winning is pretty great, and if you care about your Wikipedia page or your CV (if such a thing exists for famous people) it’s a title to your name. But just thanks to their nomination and being brought to the public’s attention, most of the artists will see a rise in album and ticket sales, an increase in streams and generally a much wider fan base.
So although winning may taste good, the Mercury Prize has created a twelfth place that is just as appetizing. Everyone’s a winner, everyone’s happy, everyone can now stop laying into Roydster.