The Mercury Prize

An Argument Against

Choosing a Winner

By Logan Lockner

 

The Pulitzer Prize jury shocked readers in 2012 by refusing to name a winner for the annual prize for “distinguished” American fiction. From the outcry this event caused, it would appear that the passage of seasons had been denied, as if withholding a prize were nothing short of unnatural.

Given the shortlist for this year’s Mercury Prize, the jury for that award — given to the best album produced in a given year in the United Kingdom or Ireland — might do well to follow the precedent set by last year’s Pulitzer refusal.

Instead of being unsettled by the refusal of annual prizes, we should question why we are so attached, as consumers or critics or artists ourselves, to the process. Despite what nuanced qualifications are offered or
assured, the larger cultural project behind prize-giving is one of canon-building.

This notion, already problematic enough on its face, is made even more so by the nature of the Mercury Prize, which was devised in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry and the British Association of Record Dealers to reward artists and albums that would be overlooked by the Brit Awards, the Anglo counterpart of the Grammys.

The intended connotations are obvi-ous: this is an award meant to recognize the sort of music described with the battery of ill-conceived adjectives like alternative, underground or — the current favorite — indie. It’s too easily neglected that these categories have almost nothing to do with the music itself; they describe systems of production and patterns of consumption.

What, then, is the aim of the Mercury Prize? To construct an alternative canon, to challenge the establishment by pursuing procedures parallel to its own?

Every artist on the 2013 Mercury shortlist who did not release their first album this year — five of the 12 nominated albums are debuts — has been nominated for the Mercury Prize before, and the Arctic Monkeys, who received their third nomination for this year’s AM, won for their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not in 2006.

David Bowie was acknowledged for The Next Day, a tribute likely deserved but somehow appearing as deference to an elder statesman, someone whose career helped define what
it means to be alternative. James Blake’s Overgrown, perfectly
competent but hardly canonical, might be on some listeners’ lists of favorite albums of the year, but is it really the best?

PJ Harvey, whose sublime Let England Shake triumphed over Blake’s debut album in 2011, is the only artist to have won the Mercury twice. (She also won for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea 10 years earlier.) Consequently, it’s nearly impossible to think about the prize without considering Polly Jean, reigning queen of the Mercury. It’s laughable to imagine any album this year is as prophetic — or as deserving of a place in cultural history — as either of these.

Canon-building is a suspicious project, but we must believe that Eliot and Woolf belong in the canon of English literature, just as Harvey belongs in the canon of contemporary music. These are artists whose work speaks of its time and yet transcends it, who challenge tradition and earn their place in its annals.

It’s not only that none of the repeat nominees deserve to challenge Harvey’s distinction of being the Mercury’s only multiple honoree — this year’s debuts actually surpass their more seasoned competition.

Nineteen-year-old Jake Bugg sings more like a young McCartney than anyone I’ve heard in years, and fans of Corinne Bailey Rae and Lianne La Havas (both of whom are also past nominees) will be delighted by Laura Mvula.

Electronic duo Disclosure deserves a degree certain recognition for producing the most eminently danceable track of any nominee, “Latch.”

I doubt that the Mercury jury will refrain from awarding a prize this year, and despite my reservations, I can say without any hesitation that it is one of these newcomers who most deserves it. These artists are at the beginning of their careers, however, and a more exciting year will be the one where one of them — with luck and skill and vision — joins PJ Harvey on the short roster of multiple Mercury winners.

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