Monday, 5 November 2012


A friend asked me what I thought about the Mercury Prize …

I dunno, what more is there to say? I suppose I thought there had been another turn of the screw this year in terms of the hype, and concurrently, the irrelevance of the whole thing. The two seem to be related. The more hysterical and insular the mediascape gets, the less people care. As with the Booker Prize, The Guardian worked itself into a frenzy with ridiculous “hustings” comment pieces, profiles on the nominees, etc, all of which would have been unimaginable in, say, the late nineties. But like contemporary politics, the music industry is now at such far remove from anything like a communitarian base that even this level of coverage/noise will almost certainly have no lasting impact on Alt-J or any of the other artists.

It was interesting that Alexis Petridis said something similar in a Guardian piece/sales summary, but in a way that illustrated just how grounded in PR commentary coverage of music has become (the fact that it’s now possible to use the word “coverage” in earnest seems to be symptomatic of the shifts I’m talking about). Bands/artists wither into the void if they don’t develop "momentum", if they don’t get enough promo, if they don’t break through to “sustainable territory”. Of course these have been stock aspects of the music industry since time immemorial. But instead of abating – as one might think it would in these days of Occupy and ongoing burgeoning crisis – the capitalisation of art is deepening in ever more subtle and profound ways. The alternative has still not manifested itself. There still isn’t really anything to discuss other than career trajectories, no vocabulary outside of promospeak.

Nick Grimshaw: on balance, a lobotomised fuck.
Another instance is the recent switch between Chris Moyles and Nick "Friend to the Stars" Grimshaw on the Radio 1 breakfast show. Far be it from me to make a martyr of Moyles, who was clearly a grade-A fucking neo-Savilite working-class-Tory shit-sack. But at least there was a streak of bathos and scepticism in his presenting act. His replacement, by contrast, seems to be the result of a music industry conspiracy to get the most bland, capitalistic Yes-man imaginable installed in a position of public power and centrality. Grimshaw sounds and acts precisely like a PR man. This is probably at least in part because he used to be a PR man. Moyles was a clownish light entertainer, but Grimshaw speaks with the vague authority of Someone Who Knows About Serious Music, and plays whatever hype-bands need “coverage” in any given week. (There are manifest similarities here with the Mercury Prize, which was founded by the industry as a way of giving album sales a boost in the late-summer/early-autumn downturn.)

These might seem like minor developments, but cumulatively they have a big effect.

Of course it's a familiar story: “how the counterculture was superseded by hipster culture”. Hipster culture takes the remains of the left, the remains of the counterculture, voids it of subversion and makes it saleable. The centre ground comes to be dominated by superficially “innovative” art that is conservative or at best ideologically insensate, and one is continually forced to remind oneself that “indie” is the exact antithesis of what it once was. I repeat that I’m not saying anything very ingenious here, but I am surprised at the sheer formidable extenuation of these Adornian movements, and at the continuing lack of resistance.

In this bravura piece over at the Oxonian Review, Joe Kennedy says something very similar about modern British poetry, with much more pith and articulacy than I’ve mustered here.

And here, as a special appendix, is said friend’s soundbite summaries of the Mercury nominees, which are all pretty much spot on I think:

Sam Lee: "admirable ... a good kind of scholar"

Django Django: "don't like ... and the wanky clothes don't endear"

Richard Hawley: "sounds like fucking Kasabian to me"

Alt-J: "nicepresentableposhboys in interview ... ultimately sign-of-the-times wankers I think"

Field Music: "should have won ... they manage to be in good traditions but surprising and new at the same time"

Lianne le ...: "fairly boring"

Michael K: "can't believe this is on here ... pure pastiche surely?"

Jessie W: "zzzzzz"

Plan B: "I know nothing about rap ... but oddly I liked this more than most of the stuff here"

Jazz Trio: "err, they're a jazz trio"

Maccabees: "U2 pompous Bono vocals, stadium rock pretensions ... is this unfair?"


dboon147 said...

"the sheer formidable extenuation of these Adornian movements"

I'm confused as to what you mean here Alex - what purpose is the invocation of Adorno serving here? (Given Adorno's adoration for avant-garde art & everything...)

Alex Niven said...

Hmm I see what you mean. I meant that the movements resembled those Adorno diagnosed in his writing on the culture industry, rather than that they were movements led or approved by Adorno himself. Strictly speaking I think you are right to query, but I can't think of a way to change it!