I’m neither pleased nor displeased at the decision of the Mercury music prize judges. This year, like every other, I am utterly indifferent. That’s because I generally have a rather low opinion of other people’s opinions, and in this case, it’s even worse, since the result is some sort concensus decision by a committee of twelve. You can understand how that might work: the candidate album which annoys the fewest judges becomes the most likely compromise choice.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find out who the judges have been this year, with only the permanent chairman, music professor Simon Frith, getting a namecheck in the press releases, but I’m sure that all the twelve worthies were truly madly deeply in love with music and fit to discuss their opinions with insight and passion. But I just don’t care.
It’s not a question of them being right or wrong (P.J. Harvey won it in 2001 and I’ve always been a huge fan), but the fact is that there can be no right and wrong. Well, I suppose it would be wrong to award the prize to actual bad music; if, as I suspect, there really is something identifiable as bad music, beyond personal tastes and preferences.
I’m so unfashionable and out-of-touch that I haven’t even heard the music on the winning album, by The XX. One description I read of their music was that it’s like Portishead, but more bland; so I might not entirely dislike it. I suppose I’ll find out at some point, and that’s going to be a result of the Mercury prize result. The prize money is insignificant, not even enough to bankroll a big celebratory gig (thank goodness for record labels) but the extra publicity of winning the prize means that a lot of people who hadn’t previously heard of The XX will now have heard of them and will hear them.
But that doesn’t necessarily lead to worldwide domination. Last year’s winner, a Ms Debelle, saw her album sales increase from 3,000 a month after being nominated to 10,000 a month on winning. And now? Who knows.
Though the useful extra publicity of winning the prize is only created because the press tell us that it is important. It’s a self-creating circle of news: the press tell us that the prize is important; therefore the prize is important; therefore the press get to sell their column inches, telling us that the prize is important. If some smart person could convince us that the Emperor’s clothes were entirely transparent, nobody would care about the Mercury music prize.