The Mercury Music Prize is widely regarded as a more credible alternative to the record industry backslapping that has come to typify the BRIT Awards, in which Fearne Cotton is still perplexingly seen as the voice of modern youth and the biggest prize frequently goes to the biggest star in their respective category who deigns to turn up. Instead, the Mercury tends to reward, in strictly relative terms, the little man. From long serving cult acts who never quite crossed over into multi-platinum mainstream success (PJ Harvey, Elbow) to exciting up-and-comers (xx, Badly Drawn Boy, Dizzee Rascal back when he had credibility), the prize tends to reflect acts that are a little more raw, a little less airbrushed, generally a little less ITV Primetime palatable.
So it’s easy to understand why some critics are muttering about the inclusion of Adele’s 21 on the recently-announced shortlist this year. This album hasn’t just been a huge success, it’s been a phenomenon. 17 weeks and counting atop the UK album charts, 9 weeks on top of the US album charts, and long-running #1 singles on both sides of the atlantic, with sales showing no sign of slowing down. It’s fair to say that 21 hardly needs the leg up. There is also the perception that the album, while clearly very well realised, is essentially a middle of the road affair that doesn’t offer the kind of boundary-pushing that the Mercury supposedly looks for.
Nothing irritates me more than phrases like “real music”, or the perception that pop music is less worthy of being taken seriously than other genres, but nevertheless I actually tend to agree with those who say Adele doesn’t really need to be here. I like her album a lot, but other than offering further evidence that she’s perfected the near impossible combination of high-end critical respect and superstar sales and market saturation, the nomination strikes as somewhat pointless.
There are two other acts with what could be described as mainstream pop albums on the shortlist too; Katy B and Tinie Tempah. They’re both a little more in-line with the Mercury’s remit; a little bit edgy and not quite household names just yet. But they’ve both scored huge hits in the past twelve months, and although the boost of a win would be more significant to them than it would Adele, they’re still doing perfectly well without it.
What would be lovely to see, would be for Mercury to nominate a pop album that was fantastic, but unfairly slept on. I would have loved to have seen ambitious but commercially ignored albums from the likes of Siobhan Donaghy, Roisin Murphy and Marina & The Diamonds nominated in past years, for example. Saint Etienne have been ploughing away for years creating beautifully realised, intelligent pop music, but haven’t seen a nomination since their brief commercial peak in the early 90s. From Adele, Tinie and Katy this year, to La Roux and Jamelia in years past, the pop nominations have always felt as tokenistic as the twiddly jazz nominee whose album has sold in double figures and who everyone knows is never going to win. There’s nothing wrong with prizes that shun the mainstream and champion the underdog, but if that’s what the Mercury is then they’d do well to try to level the playing field.