Friday, 16 September 2016

The 2016 Mercury Prize: Why David Bowie Was The Real Winner

Awards ceremonies are often a total farce, anyone with an ounce of intelligence should know that. So it shouldn't surprise me when those wards go to people who don't deserve them. However last night's Mercury Prize result has stunned and shocked a lot of people. The annual prize for Album Of The Year was given to London grime MC Skepta for his album 'Konnichiwa'. Wheres the problem? The judges appear to have deemed this average stereotype of a record more of a worthy winner than 'Blackstar', the final album released by innovative music legend David Bowie, made while he was battling terminal cancer and released just 2 days before his death. 

Now let's get this straight: I don't believe his death alone would have been a good reason to give the award to 'Blackstar'. The Mercury Music Prize is supposed to be an award for the best album of the year, and that should be the ONLY basis for choosing the winner. In fact I would have actually been annoyed myself if he'd been given the award solely because of his death, rather than because of the magical music his album contained. But even if Bowie wasn't battling cancer and was still here, then musically his album would STILL be leagues ahead of anything else on the shortlist, even brilliant records by Michael Kiwanuka and Radiohead.

Yet lots of people don't seem to understand this. I came across a post from one Twitter user saying that "if Bowie wins, it'll be a fucking travesty". I actually couldn't believe what I had just read. Why would this person say such a harsh, disrespectful thing? It turns out that Bowie was the bookie's favourite to win the award, and that many people expected him to win. But those who haven't been lucky enough to hear 'Blackstar' or listen to it with patience and an open mind aren't aware of what a stunning piece of work it is. All they know is that it's an album made by a man who died earlier this year. So all they were thinking was "Bowie will win, but only because he's dead", an opinion that completely ignores the fact that the MUSIC itself is astonishing.

And it looks like people on the Mercury judging panel were aware of these opinions too. Which is why they were obviously very, very afraid of giving the award to Bowie. They don't want it to look like they've given an award to someone just because they died, even if they knew that wasn't the real reason for it being picked. They also have a reputation for deliberately snubbing the bookie's favourite for being "too obvious". Also bear in mind that the judging panel is made up of people from inside the music industry. The music industry doesn't want to look "out of touch" and seem to be desperate to make it look like they're "down with the kids". They want a music scene that looks like it's moving with the times. But this is no reason to do that at the expense of an undeniably great record. They've tried this before. Drum n bass pioneer Roni Size won it in 1997, beating Radiohead's classic 'OK Computer'. Did drum n bass become the sound of the future? No. Did 'OK Computer' establish Radiohead as one of the most popular bands on the planet? Yes. Why should 'Blackstar' lose out just because a judging panel is scared of looking out of touch? Basically, Skepta won the award because out of all the nominees, on the surface he was seen to be the most modern and trendy amongst the youth.

This seems to suggest that Bowie would have won if he was still alive. Why should dying mean that you have to be denied of an award that you clearly deserve? People feel cheated, and no wonder.

It's not even the result itself that bothers me the most. It's the amount of deluded people who are actually ignorant enough to think that a generic, cliched grime record deserves to win, instead of a brave, innovative masterpiece made under truly incredible circumstances. Of course there are many who can see things as they are, and who agree that the result was "a complete cop-out". One comment on The Guardian website sums up how Skepta winning is certainly not progress: "which lyrics from Konnichiwa really resonated with you and the jury? "Niggas wanna kill me, tell them go get your uzi" or "still you can end up dead when you disrespect the goonies" or "see them on the roads getting lovey dovey with the hoes"...Misogyny, glorification of violence, murder...so progressive." Another user commented that Skepta's LP was "a decent enough album. But groundbreaking? A revolution? I'm not sure about that. As soon as people started mentioning the bookies favourite being Bowie - that rules Bowie out. The judging panel have never gone with what the bookies think have they? They seem to obstinately go against those reports as soon as they start circulating." These are people that know what's going on and who haven;t been fooled. But there are others whose ignorant, blinkered and ill-informed opinions really frustrate me, and symbolise the sort of attitude that is dragging popular music into such a sad, shallow state. I wasted time trying to make them see my point of view and predictably I get the same lazy defence that comes from Justin Bieber or One Direction fans: "your opinions are outdated and irrelevant". Just shows that they can't think of any other excuse except trying to shame others into feeling out of touch. If they're so "outdated" then why do many other people still think the same thing after so long? And what is "relevant" in this day and age where everyone listens to completely different things? Accusations of being "irrelevant" are the only thing that's irrelevant.

Everyone who actually says Skepta deserved this award seems to give one reason why they: "because it's the most relevant, cutting edge thing on the list, and grime is a new, exciting sound". But isn't the Mercury Prize supposed to be for the best album of the year as opposed to the most temporarily trendy genre of the year? Let's not ignore the fact that Mumford And Sons were nominated for this award a few years ago. Yeah, very "cutting edge". Wikipedia even states that: "Simon Frith, chair of the Mercury Prize judging panel, has said that albums are chosen because they are the "strongest" each year, rather than according to genre". Grime itself (and especially the stuff churned out by Skepta) is a genre that's now over a decade old. John Peel used to play it and he died 12 years ago. During that time, the genre hasn't progressed at all creatively, all that's happened is that its become more commercial. In fact Dizzee Rascal took grime into the mainstream over 13 years ago with his album 'Boy In Da Corner'. It's typical of an industry taking underground trends from years ago and passing them off as "new". Embracing the new is good, but unless it is genuinely new then why try and find the closest to "new" rather than award it to an album that will become a massive piece of history? If the winner is meant to be based on originality then why give the award to someone whose album sounds just like music that was around over a decade ago? I'm not saying sounding like the past is bad, i welcome it equally as I do the future. I'm just highlighting the double standards. Fast rapping and loud beats doesn't automatically make you "cutting edge". Neither does rapping about guns and "hos". Skepta's music conforms to every wannabe gangster stereotype in the book. Being cutting edge is more about NOT bowing to trends or conformity. And surely Bowie did that, right or wrong? Who else on a major label would dare to release a dark, complex, cryptic mixture of jazz, drum n bass, art rock and hip hop? Some will argue that 'Blackstar' is a mixture of genres and sounds that already existed before. But exactly the same could be said about Skepta's album. In truth, the only genuinely "new", "unique" and 100% original music is odd, commercially unfriendly stuff that can be found in the dark depths of the leftfield. Music from obscure acts who can't afford to spare the £190 that it costs to even enter the Mercury Prize. OK, maybe they could afford it, but they know there'd be absolutely no chance of seeing any return on their investment.

Also, perhaps the judges deliberately made a bad decision so it would get people talking about the award all over social media. There's nothing like lots of attention to make you seem relevant.


From another point of view, would Bowie himself have even cared if he won or not? This is the man who once turned down a CBE. If he were still here, there's every chance that he would have given the award to a younger act that symbolises the future. Many years ago he quoted: "I wanted to be the instigator of new ideas. I wanted to turn people onto new things and new perspectives. I always wanted to be that sort if catalyst." Presenting the ward to Skepta, Jarvis Cocker said: “We as a jury decided that if David Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight, he would want the 2016 prize to go to Skepta.”

I have to add that even though I dislike Skepta's boring, overrated music, I have respect for his DIY ethics, especially in an age where corporate pop seems to rule the singles chart week-by-week. “I want to inspire freedom, not just in music, not just in grime... I want to listen to other genres of music” said the winner of the award. “I want to inspire people who make all kinds of music, people who are with record labels who tell them what to do and they don’t feel like themselves. I want people to get out of these deals because of Skepta. I want to get into people’s heads but I’m not signed, I’m still independent.”


But having an impressive attitude towards music-making doesn't automatically make you a worthy winner. As well as the incredible music on 'Blackstar', it's clear that the songs on that LP are songs that are as genuine and realistic as you get. Surely a terminally ill man (and not just ANY man) raging against the dying of the light and turning his death into the ultimate piece of performance art is an incredible thing. Even if you like Skepta, then it's undeniable that 'Blackstar' is simply in a different league all together. Even if it wasn't made under the tragic circumstances, the MUSIC speaks for itself.

But let's think about it like this: Bowie has an award better than some farce voted for by industry men to sell more records. He has an eternal place in history, the best prize of all.

9 comments:

  1. True words bowie still Inspires me everyday and it depends on what mood I am in to what songs I play. Grime on the other hand is uninspiring and just a cacophony of shouting voices. No talent in that. But each to their own. Bowie in my eyes is and was and always will be the grand master of music and art miss him forever

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    1. I can't thank you enough for the wise words in this article. I was present at the awards, had looked forward to it for months, and was gutted when 'Blackstar' didn't win. To my mind it is not just the greatest album of the year, but one of the greatest of all time. I cried with joy when I first heard the title track - the whole process of life, death and eternity are in that song for those with ears to hear - and Bowie had not even left behind his sense of humour. At first I was totally convinced he would win the award, but the first glimmer of doubt appeared when I read in Radio Times on Thursday's page "The big question this year is whether the panel will be able to put personal feelings and popular opinion aside and NOT award the prize to David Bowie". I couldn't help wondering whether, if any of the judges were reading this, it might have intensified their fear of doing what is expected and choosing the bookie's favourite. I was also worried during the show, when the (mainly) young audience shouted the loudest for the two rap numbers - indeed it appeared that the volume of acclaim was in direct accordance with the loudness of the songs. "Lazarus" received a superb performance from Michael C Hall and the New York "Lazarus" band - no surprise there, as I saw the show in New York, but the audience didn't receive it with anything like the applause the performance deserved. I think what upset me nearly as much as the panel's decision, though, was the way in which it was delivered. Having sat on the edge of my seat for three hours, when I heard that the choice had come down to "two black stars" it seemed natural to start feeling relief that Bowie had won. And when it was stated categorically that if Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Odeon he would have wanted the winner of the award to be - long dramatic pause - well, I started crying with joy and relief as that made the choice obvious - so when instead of "Bowie" Jarvis Cocker announced "Skepta" it came as an almighty blow in the guts, and I had to exit the theatre hurriedly to avoid making a fool of myself. How grossly insensitive and disrespectful, to try and justify the jury's decision by this ridiculous claim. Sure, to the end Bowie encouraged new talent, but to state that he would NOT have wanted his last glorious album awarded this prestigious prize is absolutely mad. As you say, the fact that he had died should not have entered the judging - the album was released and racing straight for Number One BEFORE he died (which makes the compere's earlier remark about the final six nominees including "four number one's and a posthumous nod" seem unjustifiably dismissive. The album deserved to win, and the fact that the ceremony was taking place in the very theatre in which Bowie "killed off" Ziggy Stardust all those years ago, would somehow have made the perfect rounding of the circle. I wish I didn't feel so angry about the whole thing, but I just cannot get it out of my head. I feel a great injustice has been done to a great man and a great album, and the fact that this can now never be rectified makes me feel so, so sad. I intend absolutely no disrespect to the winner, and appreciate his kind words about Bowie.

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    2. This is a great add on to my article, and you've made some fine points. Music history has been swindled. I think honouring him wouldve been the least they could have done to thank him for giving every person in that room a career.

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    3. He didn't need to 'win' Bowie transcends awards, it would have cheapened something so magnificent.

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  2. Fantastic, right on the spot, well done mr. Scott!!

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    1. Cheers :) i have some more insightful opinion pieces like this lined up, mostly about the decline of popular music and how record companies have found a way of fooling people into praising manufactured pop acts rather than talented musicians. Lots of other stuff on the site you may like too. Thank you for reading.

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  3. Thank you for this great article! & @Jenny Lee, exactly how I felt when I first heard!!! And I would have done the same thing. Over here in the US I don't get a BBC player so I couldn't even hear Michael C Hall's singing Lazarus. But, someone posted the announcement on YouTube earlier and as soon as I heard them announce someone else, I literally turned it right off, nearly in tears. Idiots! Yes I know about Bowie could have cared less about the award but, honestly the more I read about the other person that won, the worse I feel. How is that talent or creativity, if he's spouting the same ole gangster type crap? Bowie was a creative genius and it's unbelievable the judges were worried about giving the award to Blackstar, because they worried about what others would think! Seriously, are we in high school?

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  4. Bowie is the true winner...it would not matter to him, I agree, he was deeper than that, but Black Star is the most beautiful, profound and heart wrenchingly realistic look into the iconic human mind of the man David Jones and he shared that with us as a parting gift. That is enough for me... my hero. The legend lives on....

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