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Mercury's Message: Low Key, High Quality

Simon Warner

The Mercury Prize helps spread the gospel of talented UK musicians beyond the confines of their homeland, without over-the-top, Grammy-like showboating.

The gloss and glamour that characterise America's numerous award ceremonies have rarely been evident on this side of the Atlantic. We may, over the years, have taken polite notice of the Oscars, even the Grammys, but the notion of glittering prizes being accorded that central role in British life, has tended to run counter to our particular culture.

For one thing, while the US fêtes achievement, particularly of a commercial variety, with exuberant enthusiasm, the UK has tended to regard such public fawning over its musicians as something rather cheap, just a little vulgar. But such attitudes amount to more than mere Old World drabness and dourness: over here we are much more suspicious of success or, at least, its ostentatious display.

Yet, as most trends American � from fast food to out of town shopping and sponsored sports teams to multiplex cinemas � eventually wend their way over here, so the notion of the awards ceremony, the star-studded prize-giving, has begun, slowly, to etch an impression on us, too.

The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), launched its own awards strategy around two decades ago but it began as a fairly subdued affair, more business-directed than public-oriented. When it raised its profile by transferring to television in 1989, the move had anything but the desired effect. Unlikely co-presenters Mick Fleetwood, the elongated drummer of Fleetwood Mac, and the diminutive topless model Samantha Fox, flopped badly. It was for the comedy quotient of the awards, not the quality of UK popular music, that the foray was remembered. Ultimately, the event became almost a byword for small screen disaster in the years that followed.

Meanwhile, the BBC handled its modest ration of award shows with an understatement bordering on the austere. When covering prize ceremonies like the Baftas, the gongs handed to those working in the British film and television industries, it kept the show business content of these presentations to an absolute minimum. Eventually though, ITV, the principal commercial channel, concocted an on-screen format for the Brits: the BPI's prize for leading pop and rock achievers. And it worked. By the end of the '90s, BPI found the right presenters and the right formula � flash and dash, glitter and sheen � to challenge if not the Oscars, then at least the brash confidence of MTV and its high-energy award productions.

Audience ratings were delivered and the BPI transformed its awards into something the stars actually coveted. But, and this returns us to those opening salvos, the rampant commercialism of the Brits � an advert-driven television company promoting, in essence, the best-selling singers and bands of the year � was seen, by some, as a self-indulgent sacrifice at the altar of avarice by a mutual appreciation society. Where � in the midst the eulogies and the backslapping, the massed ranks of dancers, the plumes of stage smoke, and the gusts of wind machines � was the art, the substance? Where was the raw, new talent? If the productions were grand, the product was essentially shallow, was the broadly summarised opinions of the more serious music commentators. And if such attitudes tended to ignore that eternal paradox of rock'n'roll creativity � that to succeed was, in essence, to compromise and sell-out to the profit-obsessed powers that control the music business, the major labels � then there was still that sense that not all British music fans were quite ready for these incestuous, Hollywood-like jamborees.

However, ticking along in a quieter, maybe purer fashion, has been a British music award with less focus on the export earnings of its nominations. The Mercury Prize is not without a commercial dimension. Like most awards, it's a sponsored affair with a telecommunications company, joined by other backers in recent times. But its prime concern appears to be with rising UK acts, those on the cusp of something special. Nominated performers seem to be selected more for their potential, their artistic qualities, their attempts to say something fresh, rather than for their world-beating or attention-grabbing or dollar-winning proclivities. And, echoing that earlier model of the Baftas, the BBC has proved a long-term supporter of this rather understated, not to say earnest, affair, broadcasting the proceedings from year to year.

Previous winners have included enduring indie band Pulp, trip hop specialist Roni Size, Anglo country rockers Gomez, and Brit-rapper Dizzee Rascal. While few acts that have clinched the top award have seen the Mercury Prize catapult them to transatlantic recognition, the critical clout has, nonetheless, been immense. This is a trophy that doesn't guarantee riches � there is a modest cheque for £20,000 � but it does ensure credibility.

When the 2004 shortlist was unveiled, it suggested the quality of the contenders was possibly the highest ever, hinting that maybe the long hoped for British musical renaissance may not be more than a year or two away, and the US may start taking notice of us once more. For example, outrageously talented singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse rubbed shoulders with dance masters Basement Jaxx; fay minimalists Belle & Sebastian were lined up against fellow Scots, post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand; urban R&B singer Jamelia faced teen soul prodigy Joss Stone; Coldplay-clones Keane nestled alongside one-time Soft Machine veteran Robert Wyatt; the Streets' brand of British wordplay took on Newcastle hip hopper Ty; and the lush indie pop of Snow Patrol went head-to-head with Liverpool's quirky rock combo the Zutons.

In short, the range and the richness of the talent in the room was immense yet, for once, the bookmakers called the result correctly, as a panel of journalists, artists, and industry experts, chaired by prominent popular music academic Simon Frith, confirmed the favourite: Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand held off a powerful challenge to clinch the award at an event in London early in September. The first rock band to win for several years, Franz Ferdinand's success may preface a resurgence of UK guitar talent to take on the American incumbents like the Strokes, the Killers, and Interpol. But, it would be even nicer to think that other acts in this eclectic list are able to utilise this springboard, especially those nine acts in the line-up selected on the basis of a debut album.

Success on a grand scale may seem almost like failure in the perverse world of British rock'n'roll, but the Mercury, now a mini-institution, doesn't offer such lottery-scale luxury. Instead, in a nation where ceremonies and prizes might see you tarnished as the industry's pet, this scaled down accolade gives Franz Ferdinand and the other nominees recognition and some space to spread their gospel beyond the confines of their homeland.

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