published: 23 /
In thnis month's edition of his Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll column, Ben Howarth questions whether the Mercury Music Prize has any real purpose
The Mercury Music Prize is here again, praise the Lord. The unnamed expert judges have handed the nation’s media another lovely list to fill both a summer unleavened with big name record releases and a promotional rack in each of the nation’s dwindling number of chain stores.
The eventual winner tends to be rotated annually between safe bet big sellers and the unknown and soon-to-completely-forgottens who win so that the papers can do a ‘who the heck’ story. So, given that the Arctic Monkeys waltzed off with the cash last time, this year is likely to be one for the outsider. The list as it stands, however, ticks every box it needs to. It isn’t a list of the best records of the year, which is no surprise, as I don’t think it ever has been.
Amy Winehouse is a tabloid friendly pop star, a multi-genre artistic icon, a weirdo and, I’m now reading in a freebie tube paper, the sexiest woman in London. I’m not convinced she’s any of these things, and I’m sure the last time she had an album out, she was being marketed as the new Norah Jones. Indeed, I wouldn’t be prepared to sleep with Ms Winehouse for less than £20,000 (and I’d deserve more, but it would be nice to be able to pay off my student debt). I certainly won’t be buying her album. But I wouldn’t bet against it winning.
The Arctic Monkeys would be the biggest surprise, in a way, because they won last year. Is their second album worse, better or pretty much the same as the first. Answers in an email, please. I’ve never heard it.
As for some of the others, well, the less said the better. If I had to pick one you should buy, I would say Fionn Regan. I saw him support Laura Veirs this time last year, and felt that he was out of the top drawer. But for folkies like Regan, just being nominated is like getting the golden ticket. Only in the wildest of dreams will he get the whole chocolate factory. But it’s a lovely record, so go buy it.
There used to be such consensus about what constituted true greatness. Look at the late 90's, when almost everyone (from voters in John Peel’s festive 50, the ageing Mojo/Uncut dynamic to the NME/MM axis) agreeing that Radiohead, Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips and the Chemical Brothers were the best. Now, nobody seems to have the faintest idea. The death of classic singles, and the mainstream pop world’s streamlining of itself into the sole task of providing songs for drunken clubbers to cop off to, means that almost anything goes. It is in this climate that there can be so much attention given to what seems to be such uncommercial music.
That shattered consensus probably explains why this year’s Mercury contains so many albums that I, a dedicated record purchaser, have no interest in so much as hearing once. Experience teaches me that time spent listening to an album I factor I probably won’t like is time I could have spent listening to one I’m certain I will.
But one album everyone does seem to agree on is Interpol’s. They can’t be nominated for the British Mercury prize, of course. But this is the album we’ve all been hoping they’d make, with some new ideas and enough that is familiar to keep us from panicking. Whoever wins the Mercury prize, this will be the album that I will remember summer 2007 for. And there is the real reason why the only prize that really matters is to be on our mental list of personal favourites.
The Mercury’s real quality is that it is a convenient peg around which to hang a column such as this. So to the panel, this writer - (looking at the ‘nothing’s happening’ month of August with blind panic in his eyes before he remembered the nominations were out) - can express nothing but deep gratitude.