Their win shows a real change in the current attitude towards certain genres and a vital innovation in creativity. Or, at least, that’s what the Mercury Prize makes us think. The truth is that Alt-J, despite being hugely talented and inventive musicians, just came along at the right time and further proved that the Mercury Prize rewards artists for making the album that best represents what is cool at the moment, rather than the album that displays the best music. It does get it right more often than not, but every so often it shows us that the judges prefer to please the masses and play it safe rather than champion truly unique musicians.
The truth is, this year there were just too many alternative acts. The Maccabees, Django Django, Alt-J and Field Music all represented just one part of British music, and I can’t help but think that it would have been just as meaningless if any of these other bands had won. It doesn’t help in raising awareness of an underrated genre, it just means that a not unremarkable band will sell a few more CDs and get a few more high profile gigs, whilst the rest of the genre enjoys the same amount of respectable success.
…providing opportunities for as many different styles and genres as possible…
The very fact that these bands are all from the same vein of British music, and were all relatively well known to begin with, shows that the Mercury Awards shouldn’t be dedicating so much thought to them. It really should be about providing opportunities for as many different styles and genres as possible, rather than a few alternative acts who make the Mercury Prize seem that bit more ‘down with the kids’.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Alt-J are great musicians and fully deserve the recognition they get, but the recognition should not have come from the Mercury Awards. An NME or alternative music award would have been more suitable, and there are acts who deserve this esteemed award far more for the work they have done for their genre. Sam Lee, The Roller Trio, Plan B and the other artists that are fighting their corner alone have come out as unofficial champions as a result, gaining the reward of publicity and respect, for themselves and their genre, and bringing what they do into the limelight. This is what the award should aim to do, not just hand out awards to intelligently produced, but essentially unoriginal, indie.
…they shouldn’t win the majority of the time…
In the past there have been choices that make the Mercury Prize worthwhile; last year’s winner PJ Harvey was a relatively cult name, and she was chosen because she had made a dazzling album at the peak of a lengthy and passionate career, and artists such as PULP and Dizzee Rascal have won because they are simply doing something different and proving that music is not about playing the right thing at the right time, but about passion and talent. But despite these exceptions, the Mercury has always had a tendency to play it safe.
We saw this in 2004 with Franz Ferdinand, in 2006 with the Arctic Monkeys and in 2010 with The XX: they were all good albums, but none were ground-breaking, and there were certainly musically better and more deserving options in all of those years. I’m not saying that alternative, indie acts shouldn’t win the award, I’m just saying that perhaps they shouldn’t win the majority of the time. Just because an act is representative of the time, or more commercially viable, does not mean that they are better, it means the public need to be introduced to a wider selection of artists and the judges need to be able to see past current popular phases in music. So congratulations to Alt-J, but hopefully we’ll be congratulating someone a bit different next year.