Curse of the Mercury

The shortlist for Britain's most prestigious music prize is announced next week. Avoid being on it, warns Andy Gill

Friday 14 July 2006 00:00

That loud sigh heard at last year's Mercury Prize award ceremony was the Kaiser Chiefs, gasping with relief at having so narrowly dodged the bullet that for weeks beforehand seemed to have their name indelibly inscribed upon it.

Installed as favourites early on, their position was only seriously challenged in the later stages by Anglo-Tamil rapstress MIA and the eventual "shock" winner, Antony and the Johnsons - a shock mostly because, to all intents and purposes, this was a US act whose only connection to Blighty was by accident of birth. Still, if it helped save the Chiefs' skin, so much the better for this parochial example of the special relationship. Their revenge will surely come via a follow-up album that should sell by the lorry-load.

Because for all attention lavished upon it in the media, the Mercury Prize has acquired a well-established reputation for destroying its winners' futures. Of the previously triumphant, only 1992's inaugural winners, Primal Scream, have managed to make anything like a go of their subsequent career. Since then, the Mercury has become the Cenotaph at which is mourned the loss of a musical generation. Indeed, so deadly has the prize become, that it even managed to kill off its original sponsors. What this portends for current sponsors Nationwide, I know not.

It all started with the best intentions. At its inception, the Mercury Prize was floated as a more reliable guide to the current state of Anglo-Irish music than any of the other awards then up for grabs. The early 1990s were dark days for the music business establishment, which had not come to terms with the dance revolution that began a few years earlier. The industry's annual event, the BPI Awards (later to become the Brits), was considered to have lost touch with popular music - no surprise for an organisation with such an antediluvian name as the British Phonographic Institute. By 1992, the ceremony had become an irrelevant beanfeast regarded with nonplussed bemusement by music fans, critics and large sections of the industry it purported to represent.

The Mercury Prize, it was claimed, would be different. There would be none of the horse-trading between labels that appeared to be rife in the BPI Awards. There would be no plethora of categories, just a single award for Album of the Year. And it would be voted for by a disinterested panel of industry insiders, musicians, pundits and producers, rather than being bestowed by some invisible, omnipotent power.

It would also seek to establish some sort of equality between genres, with folk, jazz, world and classical albums nominated alongside pop, rock and soul; the panel being deemed intelligent enough to compare musical apples and oranges without allowing their preferences to affect the decision - a fanciful canard that was finally abandoned when the panel ceased allotting an automatic nomination to classical music. Since 2000, only one classical album - Joanna MacGregor's Play, in 2002 - has been nominated; and even then, the collaborative presence of former winner Talvin Singh suggests it may have been more of a crossover effort.

For a few years, things seemed to be going well for the Mercury. Primal Scream's Screamadelica was a worthy inaugural winner, which bore out the Mercury's intention of highlighting the pop zeitgeist. The following year, Suede's winning self-titled debut likewise again reflected the tenor of the times, as the band became midwives for what would become known as Britpop.

So far, so good. But 1994 saw the Mercury panel stumble into what would be a recurrent problem. Rather than simply try to gauge what was the best album, it appears to have become frightened of being branded a white, élitist institution only interested in indie music. In trying to demonstrate otherwise, the obvious claims of Blur's Parklife and Pulp's His'n'Hers were overlooked in favour not of The Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation, which would have reflected the direction popular culture was headed, but M People's Elegant Slumming, which was more redolent of its past. It seemed like a deliberate attempt had been made to steer the Prize towards chart pop, or more likely, vice versa. Perhaps stung by the ensuing criticism, the following year's shortlist contained no out-and-out pop acts - and as if keen to confirm its seriousness, the panel chose to ignore the hugely successful debuts of Oasis and Supergrass in order to reflect the current hip trend of the trip-hop "Bristol Sound", plumping for Portishead's Dummy over Tricky's Maxinquaye.

After years of pointedly ignoring Britpop, in 1996 the jury relented and awarded the prize to Pulp, for Different Class. It was widely considered the correct decision but it captured the band at the exact point at which their career see-saw tipped over into more hardcore - but soft-selling - interests, triggering the first suggestions of the "Mercury curse". Having done their duty by the indie contingent, however, the following year the Mercury pendulum swung back with a vengeance as they chose to mark the passing phase of drum'n'bass by awarding the prize to Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms.

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This was, perhaps, the single most ludicrous decision in the history of the Prize, a victory for ill-advised PC trendiness over taste or sense. I still have yet to meet anyone who has played this album more than once - unlike, say, those of fellow nominees Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers, Spice Girls and The Prodigy, all of whose nominated works captured them at the peak of their careers. Clearly, the Mercury had become something other than a search for the Best Album of the Year; the judging panel seeming far more concerned with demonstrating to the world how cutting-edge they were. In so doing, they rendered the Prize a laughing stock.

Meanwhile, poor old Roni Size and his chums vanished virtually without trace, the first victims of the curse. It was hardly unforeseen and the Mercury judges' fault: awarding a prize to something necessarily sets up expectations about the work in question, and, in this case, there was no way that the marginal appeal of Roni's brand of jazzy drum'n'bass was going to be able to fulfil the expectations.

That is one form which the curse takes. Another was demonstrated in 1998, when young newcomers, Gomez, were chosen from a notably poor shortlist for their eclectic debut Bring It On. This time, it wasn't so much a case of arousing public expectations as, perhaps, of the band themselves being fooled into believing the hype, and growing prematurely lax and over-confident. Whatever, Bring It On became the early apex from which their career tumbled into a ceaseless attempt to be as boring as the Grateful Dead. They would only show signs of reawakening with this year's How We Operate.

And so it went on. In 1999, those who bought Talvin Singh's OK on the strength of his victory didn't bother to buy the follow-up. After Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast won in 2000, cynical observers were left to reflect that if the judges had shown a little more taste and courage, we might have been wondering what happened to Coldplay, rather than poor old Damon Gough. Oh frabjous joy, etc. Then in 2001, the oft-shortlisted P J Harvey finally won with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, her Patti Smith-soundalike album. Until that point always the bridesmaid, Polly is now apparently off on a perpetual honeymoon somewhere they don't make albums.

Ms Dynamite's win in 2002 instigated another example of over-exposure reaping the whirlwind of public indifference, when her follow-up album was a disastrous failure. Bookies' favourites The Streets, meanwhile, went from strength to strength. Dizzee Rascal's triumph the following year - clearly the result of the judges' desire not to reward such corporate white-boy rock types as Radiohead, Coldplay or The Darkness - was another case of prematurely raising expectations about an act of somewhat restricted appeal (what the Mercury website refers to as recognition of "brave, challenging music", now apparently a big part of its once simple remit).

It's too soon to know how recent winners Franz Ferdinand and Antony and the Johnsons will fare, but the signs are not good. Franz Ferdinand will need all their smarts to survive a follow-up album as lacklustre as You Could Have It So Much Better, while Antony sounds too much of a one-trick pony to sustain the kind of reputation draped around his shoulders last September. The prospects of last year's also-rans Hard-Fi, K T Tunstall, Kaiser Chiefs and The Magic Numbers all seem far more robust.

As for this year, the shortlist has yet to be announced, but given the damage it can inflict, I could perhaps be forgiven for musing upon a dream collection that included Keane, Jamie Cullum, Robbie Williams, Snow Patrol, Charlotte Church and Athlete. I'd imagine the actual contenders will include some or all of the following: Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys, Kate Bush, Goldfrapp, Richard Hawley, Morrissey, Muse, Plan B, Scott Walker and Paul Weller. My own alternative shortlist appears below, although I hope that none of them wins it.

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