Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PJ Harvey gets her second Mercury prize - Why?

By Emmanuel Legrand

So PJ Harvey has won her second Mercury Music Prize, becoming the first artist to score a double Mercury. In absolute terms, her latest work, the brilliant and very personal Let England Shake’ (Island) deserves the accolade. But…
The Mercury Music Prize has a specific function, or at least had one when it was created in 1992: put the limelight on ambitious and creative works from artists that might not have received the recognition they deserve. In other words, to be the anti-Brit awards, which are driven by more commercial considerations.
By winning the Mercury prize, artists not only collect £20,000, but they usually get a much coveted promo and sales boost. And such is the aura of the prize that it resonates far beyond the confines of the British Isles. Winning a Mercury prize opens doors around the world. It is a badge of creativity and quality.
Since its inception, the prize has had its ups and down, but has retained its “arty” image (although Speech Debelle’s ‘Speech Therapy’ in 2009 was probably one step too far). It has been quite good at capturing artists at the right moment in their career.
That’s why last night’s decision was quite disappointing. PJ Harvey has had a career with already quite a few artistic milestones, and her Mercury win in 2001 for ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’ was thoroughly deserved. She was some 10 years into her solo career and produced an album that was close to a masterpiece.
By awarding the Mercury to PJ Harvey in 2011, the judges – who, according to one of them, Corinne Bailey Rae, were “all in agreement” –  celebrated a good album and a true artist, but failed to stay true to the ethos of the Mercury, which is either to put the spotlight on an outstanding emerging new talent (The XX last year), or crown an act whose creative achievements have not been met with public success (Elbow a few years ago).
As much as I like PJ Harvey (I still remember seeing her perform ‘To Bring You My Love’ in 1995 and being transfixed by her intensity and her, err, weirdness), the judges would have been far better inspired to focus their votes on up-and-coming acts that would have certainly appreciated the attention and the spotlight.
Aside from Adele, who is probably beyond a Mercury prize at this stage of her career, last night’s list of nominees could have provided the jury with many alternatives. How wonderful would it have been to see Anna Calvi take the prize home. Her intense performances, including last night’s, and her amazing songwriting skills – very much PJ Harvey’s heir – would have made her the best contender for the prize. And what of Tinie Tempah, Katy B or King Creosote & John Hopkins? All worthy winners and a big missed opportunity from the judges.


  1. It's a common misconception that the Mercury was set up to "put the limelight on ambitious and creative works from artists that might not have received the recognition they deserve." It is nothing of the sort. The brief is to recognise and reward musical excellence without reference to the artist's genre, status or any accompanying record company politics. Your suggestion that PJ shouldn't have won because she won it before is nonsensical. The prize should go to the album that the judging panel decides is the best of those that have been entered in the competition. Let England Shake was clearly that album. Anything else is irrelevant.

  2. Not sure, personally, that Polly's fine, fine album was the best album of the year, but, hey, it'd be a tad boring if we all agreed! I think it's always worth remembering that, regardless of who wins it, the Mercury was largely set up to try and keep album sales bubbling along during the summer... It had, at its core, a very real financial objective, particularly for retailers who generally found the summer to be a fallow period, ahead of the glut of major releases in the Q4. The albums on the shortlist have all - as every year - seen a boost in sales that, for most, would not have happened without the nominations. For my former employers at BARD at the time, that was the primary consideration in launching the award; at its most basic level, it was aimed at coaxing people into record stores during the summer months. So it boosts sales, raises profiles and provokes debate. Job done. And there's always next year for Baxter Dury...

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