Saturday, September 13, 2003


You could almost taste the self-congratulation in the air as the Panasonic Mercury Prize cocktail set lauded 2003 winner Dylan "Dizzee Rascal" Mills' album 'Boy In Da Corner'. The enthusiasm was so great, I'd even bet that as many as 10% of them had actually listened to it once.

The gloves were certainly off this year. An even-less-imaginative-than-usual shortlist included Coldplay (who had the decency to question their inclusion, since 'wer're just a soft rock band'), Terri Walker (who?), Martina Topley-Bird (what?), Floetry (hmmnnn...), The Thrills (yawn), and the unspeakably execrable The Darkness -- all lycra and 'ironic' metalboy posing. At least Coldplay called in from Cancun, though Channel 4 were obviously keen to cut out the politics, too.

It's as if the promoters and judges had finally decided to respond to all the past criticism by saying: "You think it's bad now? You wait 'till you see what we've lined up this year. Even the avuncular Jools Holland will be left wooden and speechless by the bottom of this barrel." And no one can deny they pulled it off with style.

There were redeeming moments, of course. The hugely talented Eliza Carthy, from England's first family of 'Anglicana', performed a marvellous 'Worcester' (originally recorded in 1913) with her band. "Here's some folkin' tokenism," she announced. Never a truer word spoken that night. The audience went to sleep. Everyone knew she didn't stand an earthly. It was all too tasteful.

Radiohead , with many better things to do than be stood up by these monkeys, sent a video. Their 'Hail To The Thief' cut was so far to the left of the rest in terms of musical ideas, it was almost embarrassing.

Alto-sax innovator Soweto Kinch (the token nu-jazz-hip hop album) beamed, but his performance lacked the intricate energy that he would have worked up given a little more time. He knew he was destined to lose from one glance at the fawning drunks in the audience, never mind the 'jury'.

Meanwhile Lemon Jelly's re-make of the gloriously panasonic, psychadelic 'Ramblin' Man' provided a touch of light relief. Sadly, they've just cancelled their UK tour. And Athlete proved the surprise draw: articulate, playfully melodic (or "Supertramp-ironic, and much less rubbish", as somebody tactlessly put it) but nowhere near gauche enough for this lot.

And that was it. Not even a token 'contemporary classical' or mainstream jazz release this year. Simon Frith and co seriously reckon that this lot consitututed the best releases of the year? They really should get out more.

As I observed to the BBC in 2002: "If further proof was needed that the Mercury is a popularity prize rather than a serious award for musical talent it will come with the inevitable failure of either Joanna MacGregor or Guy Barker to win. In any sane universe they'd be so far ahead you wouldn't see the rest of the pack."

Mercury is now wholly off its trolly. But they needed a winner, and they probably chose the right one -- given that, mind-bogglingly, some of them thought The Darkness were 'up there'. Rascal's urban/hip-hop (don't call it Garage) is from 'da underground' (as he reminded us endlessly in his post-show interviews), and it's brimming with raw enthusiasm. But it's also probably nowhere near the best album to come out of that arena in 2003.

As Simon Singleton acutely remarks: "It's impossible to believe that the judging panel own one other garage record (apart from maybe The Streets), in the same way that they didn't own one other drum'n'bass record other than Reprazent when they won. 'Fix Up Look Sharp' aside, 'Boy In Da Corner' is a depressingly dull album, even by UK Garage's extremely low standards, and its Mercury Prize just stinks of middle-aged, middle class people tapping the young MC on the head and patronisingly saying, "Well done talented urban British man". There's been so many better UK urban albums this year and it just proves how well XL's marketing team have done in pushing the Rascal onto the mainstream."

Harsh, maybe. But closer to the truth than all the hype. Rascal has certainly changed the tenor of music discourse. And, as we are endlessly told, the less mainstream artists will experience an increase in sales from the publicity. But that doesn't alter the fact that the Mercury is a charade. Be ashamed, Panasonic. Be deeply ashamed...

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