In the last two years, the Mercury Prize has gone a bit weird. It’s now held in a mega venue with celebs among the judges, and really massive people get on the shortlist, who don’t need another award. It’s more like the Brits.
One of the upsides of this is that everyone looks happy – it’s now a pre-requisite to look happy at the Mercurys. This change from diffidence to showbiz pride began in 2015 when Benjamin Clementine made the awkward decision to drag all the other winners up on stage with him.
That year, the Mercs were between sponsors, held in the small BBC radio theatre with no snacks and everyone facing the same way as if on an airline. The next year, after the facelift, winner Skepta brought his mum on stage. Mums are now an essential part of Mercury participation. Loyle Carner wore a T-shirt saying “Sun of Jean” (a song which features his mum). One of the reasons no bands win is there’d be too many mums to bring on.
The inclusion of famouses – Stormzy, Ed Sheeran – on the shortlist is guaranteed to get people writing and ranting about an award that every year, we say is more irrelevant and powerless. It ensures ratings and a razzy ceremony.
Both men fall within one of the Mercury’s famous criteria: that the winning album should represent the year in music. This is our most lucrative time for musical exports since 2000, before all the trouble began: British music has contributed £4bn to the UK economy this year, and Sheeran is probably responsible for 3.98bn of those. Stormzy, among other grime people, was the soundtrack to Jeremy Corbyn.
As an ex judge looking down the list last night, I could see that many of the turns might win, according to the other swirling and mysterious criteria employed by the Mercury panel.
A unique voice from a modest figure who’s been tooling away in the background for years (the Elbow vote)? Sampha. A super confident debut from a modern British artist who could do with being introduced to a mainstream audience? J Hus, Carner. An unusual brain who’s been nominated before, didn’t win then, and is continuing to pluck their own intense tune (the James Blake vote)? Kate Tempest. And just a really good album by a band? The Big Moon. No chance! (Bands are Mercury outcasts in this age of personal confession and emotional backstory.)
They used to say to us: don’t be swayed by the live performance, this is about the album! At points, I thought my favourites, Sampha and Carner, might be swallowed up in the drama. It was indeed impressive to see Stormzy recreating his last supper album tableau on stage, though he cannot sing. And Tempest is so brain-pummellingly full-on, how could she not win? Imagine you were turning on the TV and seeing her for the first time.
There was another weird new thing at the time of the announcement, when Lauren Laverne hinted at the winner by narrowing it down to a debut album from South London – presumably to generate tweet. But at the end of the day, the winner was classic Mercury. A bashful backroom boy whose demeanour gives no hint of the transatlantic royalty he’s worked with – Drake, Kanye West, Solange, Frank Ocean – and whose music recalls the open-heartedness of Antony Hegarty or Blake, only much warmer.
On Stars in Their Eyes, the winner used to have to go on again and sing straight away, even if they were shaking and crying with shock. I felt for Sampha when they made him go and do it all again.