IN THIS PHOTO: This year's favourite, Kate Tempest (for Let Them Eat Chaos)
Dispelling the ‘Curse’ of the Mercury Music Prize
MANY articles have been written about the so-called ‘curse’…
of the Mercury Music Prize. For a start: curses do not exist. You’d have to be a credulous idiot to buy into such mythology and superstition. Anyone who, after receiving a nomination/prize, experiences a downfall in fortunes – that is nothing to do with the Mercury itself. Over the years, bands like Kaiser Chiefs and The Klaxon have sighed with relief having avoided the Mercury ‘curse’. I think this is nonsense and, in an age where we need to celebrate British music, pouring any scorn on an honour is disrespectful and foolish. I will look at the merits of the Mercury Music Prize but, before then, some evidence for the ‘defence’ (or the prosecution: I am not sure which side is which!). In 2006, The Independent ran an article investigating the ill fortunes artists faced – when they won or were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
“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”.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Klaxons in 2006
The piece charted the event and some more-recent winners whose careers have taken a steady nosedive since winning the Prize:
“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)”.
I agree with some of the findings there. I can’t argue against sales figures and subsequent reviews. That cannot be blamed on the Mercury panel but the artists themselves. Another point raised – regarding celebrating minority artists and going against corporate acts – is contentious and something I will pick up on later. The piece mentioned M People’s bizarre and unexpected win in 1994 – in a year when Blur and Pulp released stunning, sign-of-the-times albums. That, to me, is an anomaly that was based on a rather poor casting – one cannot see that as a common recurrence and much-repeated mistake. There are other articles that bring up the curse element and how certain acts have been scarred by the honour of winning a great music prize.
The Guardian, back in 2007, highlighted The Klaxons as a particular example:
“In their acceptance speech on Tuesday at the Mercury prize, The Klaxons told a story about how we watched last year's awards while recording the album [which Ford produced] . It's true - we were thrilled that the Arctic Monkeys won it, and jokingly declared that it would be our turn the next year. When we finally finished the record we had a great sense of achievement, and knew we had captured something in those few weeks. But, as is always the case, we didn't have a clue what would actually happen.
Jamie (Reynolds, singer and bass player) mentioned to me that very few bands who have won the prize in the past have gone on to make a better album than the one which won it for them, and looking at the evidence, he certainly has a point.
Primal Scream, were the winners of the first prize in 1992 with Screamadelica, and although they've produced consistently good albums ever since, it would be fair to say that none have been era-defining like that fantastic record. Suede, the next year's winners with their eponymous debut, would be the first to admit, I'm sure, that nothing that came after was its equal.
Elegant Slumming, M People's winning effort in 1994 is hardly noteworthy enough to use as evidence, but it is worth remembering that it somehow beat, among others, Blur's Parklife and Pulp's His 'n' Hers. Blur's career certainly didn't suffer by not winning the award, and they've become one of our most enduring and important bands - but who knows what would have happened if they'd won it ...
When you look through the rest of the roll call of winners right up to the Klaxons' win, then, there does seem to be a strange consistency to the argument: Portishead's Dummy in 1995; Gomez's Bring It On in 1998; Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast in 2000 ... after this point in the timeline you have to be wary I think, because it's the recent past, and you wouldn't, for example, bet against Franz Ferdinand's third album being an absolute gem”.
All of the examples listed there have nothing to do with winning an award and everything to do with the act not being able to better their finest album. If, say, Ms. Dynamite, Badly Drawn Boy and M People were unable to capture the magic and peak of their Mercury-winning moment then that is their own problem. It seems ungrateful to say the Mercury Music Prize is a curse and something that will kill a musician’s career. Taking M People’s 1994 win (for Elegant Slumming) and there have been few truly shocking decisions in its history. The reason we have not heard much from Roni Size (winner in 1997), Talvin Singh (1999) and Speech Debelle (2009) is because, when they won the award that year, there were quite unknown and under-the-radar. They were not huge acts like Radiohead who, being on such a peak, faded into obscurity – these artists were not huge and exposed so it wasn’t a big shock to see they could not ascend to the dizzying heights of superstardom. All the examples journalists bring in as ‘cursed’ are artists that were never hugely popular and well-known. That brings in another question: is the Prize more about niche artists and less about popularity?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Talvin Singh/PHOTO CREDIT: @talvinsingh
One could debate whether notable omissions – from Pulp and Radiohead through to The Prodigy – were excluded from the top honour because the panel wanted to embrace a less-recognisable act. This is a contentious point but I feel there needs to be a blend of commercial acknowledgement and underground championing. If one were to celebrate all the biggest acts every year that would not give smaller acts a chance to be championed. It is a hard balance to get right but one, I think, has been struck since 1992. Since Primal Scream scooped the first Award; very few of the artists nominated have disappeared and seen a huge stutter. The artists seen as part of this ‘curse’ were never destined for future greatness and huge prosperity. I feel a couple of reasons why certain acts disappeared quicker than one would have hoped is because of the direction they took on the follow-up album – and the way a career can go under natural circumstances. Artists like Dizzee Rascal (winner in 2003 for Boy in da Corner) took a more commercial route in future years and ensured he would survive and endure longer than many would have predicted - the fact his 2017-album, Raskit, is a return to his debut shows what one needs to do to keep relevant and unexpected. A few artists – Ms. Dynamite and Talvin Singh – won the award for great albums but failed to progress their music sufficiently. That would have happened with or without the Prize. It was not as if they won on that night, went back to their hotel rooms, and set out to destroy their careers.
IN THIS PHOTO: Previous nominee Gemma Hayes
Each of them could have kept a level-head and continued to make the music they felt best represented them. Ms. Dynamite’s Judgement Days (2005) contained a lot of anger and preaching – critics off-put by the aggression and harsh tones of the album. That is not a sound/direction that comes with winning an award like the Mercury. The panel did not stipulate any winner become the self-appointed voice for disaffection and scold everyone within sight. Maybe Ms. Dynamite felt an edgier and more attacking sound would be a natural evolution – again, that is her decision and not one mandated to her victory. The same goes for Singh who, on 2001’s Ha, stepped into a more detailed, experimenting direction – irregular time-patterns and two-step beat patterns meant many did not connect with the record. Maybe he, in zeal to distance himself from his previous album and do something different, made a bad decision but, again, that is down to him. Bigger artists – who have a lot more pressure on their shoulders – made better choices and managed to survive and grow. Suede, Pulp and PJ Harvey all took the Prize in their stride and crafted many more great album. We can put to bed the nonsense that is the ‘Mercury Curse’ because, quite clearly, a few minor artists taking a fall do not warrant truth or any real shock. What I wanted to talk about is why it is a prestige and honour winning an award.
IN THIS IMAGE: Gorillaz
If Gorillaz and The Klaxons felt they avoided a curse by dodging the Mercury then that is their ingratitude – The Klaxons are all-but-done and Gorillaz have struggled to rekindle the epic quality of albums like Demon Days. I look at some modern success stories such as Benjamin Clementine and Ghostpoet – his album, Shedding Skin, was his second nomination – and the confidence they acquired after being nominated/winning. Both artists could be considered, at the time, underground and not normally named at award shows. One of the things that impressed me about the Mercury Music Prize is the recognition of different genres. I will end by looking at this year’s list but, by the year, they have steered away from the big commercial successes and tipped their hat to acts who perform in less-exposed genres. From Grime and Rap through to Experimental: artists one might not have normally known about are elevated and brought into the public sphere. That is great as it makes people aware of music’s full range and rebels against award ceremonies that celebrate Pop and Rock – offering no diversity or interest. There are some that say the Mercury Prize does not go too far. They claim genres like Metal, Trance and Folk deserve more of a say. I agree regarding Folk and one of the biggest mistakes of this year’s Mercury nominations is the exclusion of Laura Marling – surely Semper Femina is among the year’s best albums?! Folk artists have chances to claim merit – there are Folk award shows and prizes – and there Metal acts have time to shine. One cannot recognise every genre - as that would not work.
IN THIS PHOTO: Laura Marling
Maybe the Mercury Prize will assimilate heavier artists down the line but, right now, they are as inclusive and varied as I have ever seen. A reason why the Mercury Music Prize does not include many Metal and Trance albums, say, is sheer quality. We do not see these artists reviewed and played on bigger stations; they are not creating albums that are among critics’ very best – therefore, they do not warrant a place on the shortlist. If a Metal band did release a year-defining album then, yes, they deserve a Mercury nod. It is pleasing seeing a lot more black artists being included on the Mercury minds. In past years – at the start when bigger, white artists made up the shortlist – it was seen as homogenised and too beholden to the biggest bands around. Now, fewer mainstream acts are included and there is a definite embrace of minority artists – playing in genres that are ordinarily consigned to the back of music magazines. Critics argue the Mercury Music Prize is too eager to give the award to niche acts in an attempt to show they are cool, all-encompassing and outsider. That is not true as, in the past five years, we have seen everyone from James Blake (2013’s Overgrown), Benjamin Clementine (2015’s At Least for Now) and Skepta (last year’s Konnichiwa) being given the gong. PJ Harvey and The xx are all winners this decade so one can see broadness. A lot of the nominees have been minor and ‘unique’ in terms of their sound and artistry.
IN THIS PHOTO: Benjamin Clementine/PHOTO CREDIT: Steven Pan (GQ)
That is good because we get to open our minds to music we would not have otherwise of heard. In an age where music is criticised for its lack of diversity and equality: how can we choose to criticise an award that embraces musicians of different genders, races and genres?! Some of the bigger award shows still go after the famous and commercial – that is not the case with the Mercury Music Prize, you see. On the point of the ‘curse’ and the falderal that follows that; one can argue bands who have won it have been given a boost and the confidence to create bigger work. When Elbow won in 2008 (for The Seldom Seen Kid); they were given an enormous boost and transcended to arena-sized titans who were elevated to the forefront – the fact they beat away competition as stiff as Radiohead and Laura Marling that years shows what a feat it was! The twenty-grand cheque that comes with the award, some say, should not go to acts who are wealthier and bigger. They cannot make exceptions based on bank balance but, for acts like Benjamin Clementine, it is a much-needed financial boost that ensures he can put that straight back into his music. The biggest positive regarding the Mercury Music Prize is the variety of albums it nominates. Last year saw an eclectic line-up that featured Radiohead, Laura Mvula and The Comet Is Coming; Bat for Lashes and Savages were all there! A broad and exciting variety of music and artists.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Comet Is Coming
I was interested to learn about The Comet Is Coming and Savages: two bands I was not overly aware of and, since, have become fans of. The same goes for 2015 when Wolf Alice and Eska were nominated – Wolf Alice are preparing a new album and preparing for a fresh assault on the music landscape. This year, if anything, the voting panel has taken the biggest sweep of music’s spectrum yet. When Ed Sheeran was announced as a shortlisted name this year; many, myself included, were miffed. His album, % (Divide), was not a huge winner with critics and many feel it is a further leap into the beige and boring. Again, with alt-J and Blossoms being nominated – Relaxer and Blossoms are two albums that gained plenty of mixed reviews and are not records that stay in the head. If one argues a pure quality-reception argument: should we exclude these three albums in favour of something stronger and more acclaimed?! I was confused and I saw all those pieces claiming the Mercury Music Prize had lost its way and edge. I disagree with that because, as we can see from the Shortlist, Kate Tempest (Let Them Eat Chaos is favourite), Sampha (second-favourite for Process) and Loyle Carner (Yesterday’s Gone) are all in the running – and are the three frontrunners. J Hus is out there and Stormzy is included – the second year a Grime star is among the chasing pack. The fact there are two, maybe three, less-than-edgy artists among the nominated is not indicative of a dumbing-down and a lack of awareness.
The perspicacity debate could be extended to ask why Sleaford Mods, Laura Marling and Jane Weaver did not get nominations?! The fact one or two more female musicians would have provided greater gender-balance – most of the nominees are men – might have been a wider choice. I have reviewed my initial scepticism and know it is another evolution for a Prize that needs to reflect the fullness of music and recognise commercial artists are worthy of inclusion. If you keep repeating yourself and nominate the same genres/sounds; that is not a smart decision. The fact Ed Sheeran and Blossoms do not have a chance of winning it will be a relief to those who have questioned their inclusion. It is, as you’d expect, the finest and strongest selections from the shortlist that are wrestling for the Prize. In fact, it is a congenial and pleasant build-up. Kate Tempest has nodded to Sampha and Loyle Carner (and Stormzy); they have nodded back and there is no sense of competition and pressure. Kate Tempest, as the favourite, shows there is no curse and expectation when one is nominated. Her debut album, Everybody Down, was included in 2014’s Shortlist and it narrowly missed out. If she had won; things would not have been worse for her – in fact, it might have afforded her the chance to grow stronger quicker. This year’s mix, pleasingly, brings ‘truth-telling’ artists to prominence – those who are talking about what is happening in life and the realities of modern Britain.
IN THIS PHOTO: The album cover for Loyle Carner's Yesterday's Gone
Music, at the moment, lacks those essential voices unafraid to tackle the mess in which we find ourselves. Kate Tempest and Stormzy – Loyle Carner, for that matter – are bold and vital voices that have been given a boost and sense of essentialness with their nominations. Alongside the much-discussed are the outsiders, The Big Moon and Dinosaur. This year’s rundown features a pleasing blend of commercial/mainstream; popular leaders and the outside runners – just what an award show should be about. The Big Moon’s Love in the 4th Dimension is a solid and compelling work from a fantastic female band. They are an Indie-Rock band ensuring there is promise and relevance in guitar music this year – and proving female Rock/Indie is among the very best out there. Their nomination shows the Prize is not about the boys and mainstream elite. The same can be said for Dinosaur who, led by Laura Jurd, are a blazing Jazz ensemble - in many people’s minds. It is debatable how many of would have missed out on an album like Together, As One, were Jurd’s clan not nominated. It is a fantastic Jazz odyssey that features so many ideas, textures and highlights. Naturally, it is unlikely the album will win – as the outsiders usually do not – but that is beside the point. The very fact it is nominated is a big thing and will give Dinosaur the confidence to keep recording and reaching. If an artist knows they are worthy of such an honour; they will keep pushing and striving – that is not to be sniffed at and a huge thing for any act.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Big Moon
One cannot associate any curse with Dinosaur’s nomination as, were they not monitored, many would not know they existed – therefore, unaware of their relative failure/decline. The Big Moon will get much motivation from their inclusion – they are outsiders, too – but it shows the panel is thinking more about equality, diversity and progression. I agree there are some notable omissions but one needs to draw the line somewhere. Whoever wins the Prize tomorrow – I am torn between Loyle Carner and Kate Tempest – it will be exciting to hear. Nobody should question a time that celebrates the best British music in all its variations. We are divided as a nation so should not split and quarrel over something like the Mercury Music Prize. It celebrates the quality and depth of our music and, whilst it does have some odd inclusions, the panel has brought the Prize into 2017 and seen we need to acknowledge Pop/Indie artists that would not normally get an inclusion. If we are including Dinosaur then why not Ed Sheeran?! Neither will win but they have been included for the effect and impact they have made on music – and how different they both are as artists. My Mercury Music Prize playlist (below) chronicles winners and nominees from 1992 to the present-day. It shows what magnificent music our best artists have produced. Good luck to all the nominees and do not give credence to any talk of ‘curse’ and misfortune. The winner will continue to make great music and the nominees, if they do suffer any dip, have to shoulder that responsibility – most will go on to great things are afforded the exposure to grow and…
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Tempest
CREATE incredible music for years to come.