Essay | 20 years of the Mercury Prize

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey

Twenty Years of the Mercury Prize or How to Get Away with Marginalising an Entire Gender for Two Decades

What Mercury has always tried to do is act as some sort of guide and say, this is at least worth a listen.”
– Simon Frith, musicologist and Mercury Prize panelist

The Mercury Prize has been beset by many criticisms over the years. It has been accused of being too commercial; too pretentious; of being fixed; of ruining the careers of those who won with unrealistic and unshakeable expectations. The prize also has a long history of marginalising the work of women. Of 240 nominees over the last twenty years, 53 were either female solo artists or bands with at least one female member. PJ Harvey has famously won the prize twice, ten years apart, and Eliza Carthy has been nominated twice. Only one fifth of the nominees have been female, of which three quarters were solo artists and the rest all-male bands with just one female member. Of the 20 winning acts, 7 featured women, 3 of whom were solo artists. So if you want be nominated for the Mercury Prize, your best chance is to have a penis. Failing that, you’d better at least have the ovaries to break out on your own because, if you’re in a band or – god forbid! – an all-female band, you can pretty much forget it.

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Ms Dynamite

How it Works

“[The Mercury Prize is] a contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon.”
– Antony Hegarty, winner (2005)

The prize was founded in 1992 by Virgin executive Jon Webster, the man responsible for the ever-devolving Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.

“The Mercuries were set up as an antidote to the Brits, which at the time was bloody corrupt. There was no debate about music or attempt to broaden people’s tastes with those awards. This was different: it was about bringing really good records to people’s attention that would otherwise have never had a chance.” It was also intended to boost album sales at a traditionally dry time of year and to get aging disillusioned musos buying new music again.

Ask any Brit and they’ll most likely say what the prize is about ‘real’, ‘serious’ music , and yet, most of us have no idea what the judges’ actual mission statement is, beyond choosing the ‘best’ album of the year. According to Webster: “It’s about getting people talking about music, arguing about it, ranting and raving about it.” So the very aim of the prize is to cause controversy and therefore promote healthy debate?

Well, that explains a lot.

A cynical person might suggest that this is all hogwash designed to distract us from the facts – that this is all about money – but it doesn’t seem to be as simple as that. The judges receive no payment – Mercury is a non-profit organisation. The sponsors – this year it’s Barclaycard – fund the actual event. The panelists are chosen for their ‘open-mindedness’ and ‘ability to compromise’, from all areas of the music industry. Each judge chooses 25 albums from a master list of about 200, and bring the list to a meeting with the other judges. Collectively they narrow the list down to 12 favourites each and put their choices into a sealed ballot box. What happens next is shrouded in mystery – but somehow the list is narrowed down to the 12 nominees released to the public. After many heated arguments, a winner is chosen. Scientific.

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M People

The 90s

The Mercury Prize has always been a sausage-fest and in the early days this was particularly true. For each of the first 8 years, only two of the 12 nominees were female. Women did get a little recognition in the mid-90s however, with 1994’s panel awarding the prize to M People and 1995’s recognising Portishead’s epoch-defining Dummy. M People were a controversial nomination, being part of the mainstream music scene, and there was much snobby grumbling when they beat more “legitimate” (and all male) bands to the prize. Of course, whether you were a fan of M People’s particular brand of pop or not, you had to admit that their win paved the way for future female frontwomen, and sure enough, the following year the much indie-r band, triphop legends Portishead, took the prize. Combining jazz and hip hop sounds produced by men with emotion-laden lyrics and bluesy vocals, provided by Beth Gibbons, the bands’ iconic frontwoman, they provided the music establishment with what it had always loved best – a masculine machine with a feminine face.

In this period, the charts (which in those days were actually a decent reflection of the diverse styles of music being listened to at any given time) were dominated by masculinity – from the boy bands to the brit pop. If music involving a woman was to be appreciated, it had to be legitimised by the presence of males. There is, of course, also the fact that male artists are signed on talent alone while, often and increasingly, physical attractiveness is a huge factor in whether a female artist will be given a chance.

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Bat For Lashes

The 00s

In 2001 we began to see more female visibility in the nominees, a number of the nominated acts being bands who featured female guest vocalists. Electro-house duo Basement Jaxx and ambient chillout duo Zero 7 were the invisible male presences behind distinctive female vocalists like Corrina Joseph and Sia Furler. Also included was female-fronted ambient triphop duo Goldfrapp, another example of emotive female vocals punctuating music made by men. As previously seen in the nineties, women were being valued as the expressive counterpart to a masculine sound, but rarely in their own right. One notable exception was the wild card nomination for this year, solo artist Susheela Raman. Marrying traditional Tamil music with jazz and pop styles, whilst singing mostly in Indian languages, her album was never likely to win and lost out to PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea – but more about PJ later.

For the next six years the number of female nominees varied from an impressive five to the standard two, but there wasn’t another female winner until 2009. This was a landmark year for female artists. The album charts were aglow with strong British women and the Mercury Prize reflected this. Almost half of the nominees were female, and mostly solo artists; we had electro pop sensation La Roux, baroque pop multi-instrumentalist Bat for Lashes and indie folk singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan. Only the female fronted band Florence and the Machine, another baroque pop act, continued the tradition of invisible males supporting a female voice and here, since that voice was so huge and since the band itself was named after the woman possessing it, it felt like Florence Welch was more like a solo artist than anything else. That year’s winner was Speech Debelle, a female rapper with an uncommon sound and lyrics that express not just the usual bravado, but also vulnerability.

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Anna Calvi

Recent years

By the late noughties the Mercury Prize was becoming much more inclusive, reflecting many different genres and including many female artists, even allowing a virtually unknown female to take the prize. 2010 was slightly less promising but we still saw a couple female solo artists in there – indie folk artist Laura Marling and pop-jazz singer Corinne Bailey Rae. The winners were an obvious and yet intriguing choice. It was difficult to go anywhere in late 2009 without hearing one of the hauntingly retro tracks from The xx’s self-titled debut. Still, a band fronted by a male and female duo was a novelty and their win seemed to reflect the gender equality we had all been hoping to see in the Mercury Prize since 1992. Most of the songs were duets, expressing innocent romantic sentiments that felt very authentic and modern, while injecting a little late 80s/early 90s flavour.

Last year, PJ Harvey made history when she took the prize for a second time, becoming the only woman to win twice, adding to the previous coups of being the first female solo artist in the running and the only female artist to be nominated four times. Her first nomination was in 1993 for the aggressively dynamic Rid of Me, but she lost to all-male indie band Suede’s self-titled debut. Her second nomination was two years later for To Bring You My Love, produced by Flood, who was well-known for the darkly masculine sounds of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. It was her breakthrough album, featuring the indie hit “Down by the Water”, and a mellower vibe, but this was not to be her year either and she lost out, this time to Portishead. Her third nomination, for 2001’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, a slightly poppier, much lighter album which featured Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. This time, she won.

Was it because of her new radio-friendly sound or the involvement of a male member of the music industry’s elite or was it simply about time she finally won? Ten years passed and like every other winner, PJ Harvey was not nominated again – until last year. Ten years after her first win, she released Let England Shake to universal acclaim. The album’s understated tone and anti-war themes, along with PJ’s new softer vocal style, caught the zeitgeist perfectly and she was nominated for the Mercury Prize once more. In an unprecedented turn of events, she beat Katy B, Anna Calvi and Adele to win the prize for a second time, becoming the first artist of any gender to do so.

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Jessie Ware

This year

‘The first response to nominations for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2012 has been a collective critical “meh”. […] The real question is whether this list is an accurate assessment of a British music scene that is adrift, self-involved and playing it safe?’
– Neil McCormick, The Telegraph

McCormick goes on to lament the lack of exciting new talent in the UK right now, citing Americans like Lana Del Rey, Amanda Palmer and Lady Gaga as examples of the sort of music lacking in Britain. This year’s nominees are predominately male, with only two female artists in the running, and it is easy to cynically wonder if the lack of female visibility this year is a reaction to PJ Harvey’s record-breaking win last year. The two women nominated this year are Lianne La Havas for Is Your Love Big Enough? and Jessie Ware for Devotion. Both are young women who conform to the beauty standard and, while their sounds are different, they both produce a brand of inoffensive pop that harks back to the less manufactured days of nineties pop music.

It would appear that this year, at least where the female nominees are concerned, the prize wants to play it safe, perhaps hoping that if the female choices are unremarkable enough, they will have no chance of winning. Sadly though, as satisfying as it would be to write thusly, it seems a little reductive. As McCormick suggests, the mainstream music scene is adrift on a sea of ‘meh’. Are women still under-represented? You bet they are, but we have seen some improvement over the years. Women artists, especially all-female bands, are grossly under-appreciated everywhere, not just in the Mercury Prize. As we look at the facts as they are laid out, we are struck not just by how irrelevant this outdated British model is, but how skewed the entire world of music really is. Perhaps if the feminists of today succeed in rebuilding ideas of gender from the ground up, the 2022 Mercury Prize nominees will be a richer, more inclusive bunch.

So, dear reader, what do you think of this years’ nominees? Will British women have to languish in obscurity for another ten years before they are again recognised? Or is this year just a one-off? How much of a role do you think gender plays in the panel’s decision? And what of artists who deliberately queer gender? Where are they represented?

Check out our Spotify playlist featuring the female nominees of the Mercury Prize:
the girls are | The Mercury Prize

Francesca Lewis


Female nominees:

  1. Saint Etienne – female fronted band
  2. Dina Carroll – female solo artist
  3. PJ Harvey – female solo artist – nominated four times, won twice
  4. Shara Nelson – female solo artist
  5. M People – female fronted band – nominated once, won once
  6. Portishead – female fronted band – nominated once, won once
  7. Elastica – female fronted band
  8. Norma Waterson – female solo artist
  9. Beth Orton – female solo artist
  10. Spice Girls – all female band
  11. Eliza Carthy – female solo artist – nominated twice
  12. Catatonia – female fronted band
  13. Kate Rusby – female solo artist
  14. Helicopter Girl – female solo artist
  15. Kathryn Williams – female solo artist
  16. Basement Jaxx – male duo featuring prominent guest female vocals
  17. Goldfrapp – female fronted band
  18. Susheela Raman – female solo artist
  19. Zero 7 – male duo featuring prominent guest female vocals
  20. Ms Dynamite – female solo artist – nominated once, won once
  21. Gemma Hayes – female solo artist
  22. Beverley Knight- female solo artist
  23. Joanna MacGregor – female solo artist
  24. Floetry – female duo
  25. Martina Topley-Bird – female solo artist
  26. Terri Walker – female solo artist
  27. Belle and Sebastian – band fronted by male and female duo
  28. Jamelia- female solo artist
  29. Joss Stone – female solo artist
  30. Amy Winehouse – female solo artist
  31. KT Tunstall – female solo artist
  32. M.I.A – female solo artist
  33. The Magic Numbers – single female member of otherwise male band
  34. Isobel Campbell – female solo artist
  35. Zoe Rahman – female solo artist
  36. Lou Rhodes – female solo artist
  37. New Young Pony Club – female fronted band with two male and two female musicians
  38. Guillemots – male fronted band with female bass player
  39. Adele – female solo artist
  40. Estelle – female solo artist
  41. Laura Marling – female solo artist
  42. The Unthanks – originally a female trio, now also featuring two male musicians
  43. Speech Debelle – female solo artist – nominated once, won once
  44. Bat for Lashes – female solo artist
  45. Florence and the Machine – female fronted, mostly male band
  46. Lisa Hannigan – female solo artist
  47. La Roux – female solo artist
  48. The xx – band fronted by a male and female duo – nominated once, won once
  49. Corinne Bailey Rae – female solo artist
  50. Anna Calvi – female solo artist
  51. Katy B – female solo artist
  52. Lianne La Havas – female solo artist – nominated once, may win this year
  53. Jessie Ware – female solo artist – nominated once, may win this year
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