You are invited to the Mercury Music Prize. Dress: tux. Behaviour: rock and roll. Nick Coleman is thrilled to bits

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This year's identity branding of choice is the luminescent hospital wrist-tag you can't get off. It has supplanted the dangly laminate as the ligger/consumer's badge of honour. If you went to the Rolling Stones's "secret" Brixton gig you got a yellow hospital wrist-tag, which the committed ligger/consumer could then accidentally forget to remove for days afterwards, letting it slip casually from under his cuffs on tube trains as a token of social prestige.

"Look at me," the wrist-tag insisted brightly, even in the dark. "I was up all night queuing outside the Virgin megastore so that I could then queue for several more hours outside the Brixton Academy in order that I might then demonstrate that I saw the Rolling Stones from a distance of less than 400 feet." The pervading dynamic of rock in the mid-Nineties is not one of hip elitism but of social exclusivity.

Wrist-tags at the Savoy for Tuesday's Mercury Music Prize awards ceremony were petrol blue. They went startlingly (rather than startlingly well) with the black-tie tackle of the assembled music biz giterati, and felicitously with Tricky's Wee Willie Winkie outfit. The wrist-tags were bright, plasticky and the excess fabric of the fastening stuck out like an uncontrollable limb. The general effect was to make everyone in the reception area look like the inmates of an institution. Which is exactly what we were.

However, only Oasis had their own enclosure. They lolled around in their bear coats gurning under a cardboard "Oasis" sign, roped off from the black ties and utterly pleased with themselves. "We're fookin' royalty, we are," announced one friend of the band. "Burrrrp," went a bandmember.

Upstairs in the Wedgwood baroquery of the prize-giving chamber, dinner was to be served after a presentation of trophies to all 10 nominees, some of whom were present, some of whom weren't, and some of whom actually played music in between times. A funkily be-stubbled James MacMillan got up with some string players and a mini-choir to do bits from his Seven Last Words from the Cross, which was not the comfiest moment of the evening. The large black speaker bins on either side of the stage were a boon in the circumstances. They enabled this attenuated, deeply solemn music to achieve sonic parity with the drizzling headphones of the TV people and the belches of Oasis.

Rather more appropriate to the general tenor of the affair was Guy Barker, who accepted his trophy with modesty in a tiny, soft voice, and then did a loud bop march with his quintet that shut surprising numbers of over- excited pop stars up. Then Van Morrison, togged out in a gaucho hat and sunglasses, joined them to sing "Moondance" and "That's Life", Georgie Fame pulling faces on organ. Only Van Morrison can make the perfunctory sound heroic. Only Georgie Fame can make a face like a cross between Angela Rippon and a toad.

Oasis, meanwhile, collected their trophy from a judge without even looking at her. "Congratu... " said the judge, by which syllable Oasis were lolloping down the steps to the floor and doing V-signs at the photographers. Tricky was sweet, however, as befits one who knows he's made the best album of the year.

As if to affirm the accumulating prestige of the Mercury Music Prize, the assembly then gorged itself on steamed sea bass. Last year it was salmon en croute, apparently, and black ties were not required. So, clearly, the Mercury Music Prize knows where it's going. Then the all-important VCG (visible charitable gesture) was made in the contrasting shapes of Marijne of Salad (pronounced "Marianne" by compere Richard Jobson, who then got the finger from Marijne), and Terry Hall out of the Specials. They did their "Dream a Little Dream" track from the Help album really quite nicely. Baleful Terry even had the temerity to shush a tableful of stage-front revellers. You felt the assembly draw in its breath and collectively sigh. "Terry Hall... what a guy." And they were right, too. Hall has down pat that untucked gloomy self-deprecation that befits all such trough-orientated celebrations of our culture.

Indeed, gloomy self-deprecation is the only dignified way to handle pop awards ceremonies. Instead of saying "black tie" on the invitation, it should say "untucked gloomy self-deprecation" in the bit where they tell you what to wear. But it never does, and so groups like Oasis continue to behave like the excitable pop stars they are and embarrass all hell out of the grown-ups who'd rather be at home in bed anyway. It's a full- time occupation, being the quintessence of rock 'n' roll, and there is no room in that occupation for a moment's doubt or distraction from matters in hand. You just put your head down and act the way you're supposed to act, like a goat.

Which important fact was tacitly acknowledged by the man in Portishead, whose winning address to the press was so larded with "four-letter words". What poor, tired, emotional and disorientated Geoff Barrow actually meant, of course, when he said that you can't judge music, was: "get me out of here - I think I'm going to be sick".