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In for the kill

As five women set their sights on the Mercury Prize,
Jude Rogers, one of the judges, celebrates th

Every summer, critics want the Mercury Prize shortlist to tell them a story. Some long for a tragedy. They bring up era-defining albums such as Blur's Parklife (1994) and Radiohead's OK Computer (1998) that never won the top award, forgetting those years in which the best-known bands did - Pulp, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys - and forgetting that genres outside the realms of white rock should also be celebrated.

Commentators on internet message boards find it abhorrent when their rarefied tastes are not represented in the 12 nominations, and vent their wrath fitfully. As a judge, I used to be upset by the anger, but now I think it flattering. In a culture where single-track downloads and streaming are becoming our new means of listening to music, isn't it encouraging that people still care that much about the Mercury Prize, and the format of the album?

As this interest sustains itself, so do the stories. After last year's popular win for Elbow, a band of five men from Bury who had survived being dropped from their label, the death of a friend and 18 long years in a dog-eat-dog business, this year has shored up an even bigger narrative: the presence on the shortlist of five solo women. Yet even though some conspiracy-lovers might think this is merely to level out the prize's statistics - solo women have won only twice, in 2001 (P J Harvey) and 2002 (Ms Dynamite) - we did not have to write this tale ourselves. The music industry has done that without us.

In 2009, women are its fire and fuel. It has been so ever since the 2007 nominee Amy Winehouse and the underrated Lily Allen came along in this decade's saggy middle, bringing breaths of smoky air and vivid personality to pop. Record labels snapped up women in their wake, having international success with artists such as Duffy and the Grammy-winning Adele, while also signing quirkier artists such as V V Brown and Little Boots. From these legions come the five twentysomethings on the Mercury list: the electronic popper Elly Jackson, aka La Roux; the eccentric Florence Welch, aka Florence and the Machine; the myth-loving Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes; the Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan; and the rapper Corynne Elliot, aka Speech Debelle.

These women have become more visible, but their stances and songs also suggest women more empowered than those who came before them. Their strongest advocate, perfectly enough, is the BBC's Mercury Prize anchor Lauren Laverne, who used to be frontwoman of the 1990s indie band Kenickie. "The music world is supposed to be for people who are terrified of girls," she told Rebecca Nicholson of the Guardian after the announcement of this year's nominations. "Now that's who's in the band, that's who's writing about the music, that's who runs the radio stations . . . you have a music scene that resembles the doors opening on sales day at Selfridges. It must be terrifying for all of them."

If you follow her theory, it is fitting that these women are confident creatures rather than retiring wallflowers. Take Elly Jackson of La Roux. The names alone of the singles from her eponymous number-one album - "Bulletproof", "In for the Kill", "I'm Not Your Toy" - speak volumes, but her pure pop also crackles with a menacing sheen and her playground slogan lyrics are unconventionally fierce. "Bulletproof" fires out a flurry of imperatives - "I'm having fun, don't put me down"; "I won't let you turn" - while "Tigerlily" presents a passionate, angry creature who is going to follow you on the streets. Even the album's gentle closer, "Armour Love", presents a character who is "here to protect you". There are moments on the record where Jackson lets her heart bleed, but its overriding mood is one of a woman firmly in control.

Like La Roux, Florence Welch and Natasha Khan perform through personas. This is an interesting phenomenon: not a new thing for pop, which is full of artists who present themselves as unusual or spectacular beings, but a fairly new thing for women enjoying expressing themselves. Still, compared to Jackson's Berlin-Bowie androgyny, Khan and Welch amplify notions of fairly conventional, fairy-tale femininity. Their images are Lolita-like mixtures of long dresses, hairbands and unblemished flesh, though they delve more darkly in their lyrics.

Take Welch's "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)", which talks of Alice in Wonderland's "looking glass" and "wrong pills", but then expresses her wish to become a "lion-hearted girl/Ready for a fight". In "Howl", she gets dirtier, dragging her teeth across her lover's chest "to taste your beating heart". Khan, nominated for the second time, is cut from a similar, sparkly cloth. On "Siren Song" she warms her boy's bed before her "curls slice through your heart"; in "Moon and Moon" she is a hunter, albeit one who wants her "bear to lick [her] clean". There is power in these images, certainly, though one wonders how much they are there to titillate, too.

Rather different approaches to life and love come from the two final nominees, Lisa Hannigan and Speech Debelle. Hannigan, a soft-voiced guitar player, reworks folk vocabulary into modern situations on Sea Sew, singing in "Venn Diagram" about being "salty from drink" and about her "black and blue" boy who, all of a sudden, goes down the corner shop for sandwiches. This is a strangely mundane intervention, but such details really break through in her work.

Similar things happen in Speech Debelle's Speech Therapy, a record of harsh judgements and soft instruments that genuinely tries to do something different with hip-hop. Debelle writes brutally, but raps softly, about the future she sees for her absent father on "Daddy's Little Girl" ("Grey hair through your head like an old man . . . who's going to hold your hand?"); she also crafts a good tale about the first flushes of passion on "Buddy Love" ("I feel so alive for the very first time/You make me want to sweat/You make me to jump from the front to the rear/Pull up
the handbrake/We can do it right here"). Such touches can have a more potent effect on the listener than an extraordinary flourish, and Debelle seems to know that.

And yet, however different these five records are, travelling between everyday places and other-worldly realms, they all tell their own stories proudly, boldly and forcefully. They do so to such an extent that a glut of female nomi­nations should no longer be news by this time next year. That isn't to say there isn't some distance left to run. Rudimentary mathematics shows, after all, that five out of 12 is not a majority. Women in the wake of Jackson, Welch, Khan, Hannigan and Eliot, and their forebears Winehouse and Allen, should, as Welch says, keep raising it up.

The winner of this year's Mercury Prize will be announced on 8 September

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives