James Blake, this year's Mercury Music Prize winner. (Photo via)
The more you turn it over in your head, the more it makes perfect sense. There he was – right in everyone's blindspot. Like a delivery boy on a moped. No one even noticed him. Then we all braked. And the sad Christ of post-dubstep was splatted like so-much strawberry jam all over our wing mirrors. He'd been there all along. It made sense, when you thought about it.
What people forgot, naturally enough, is that James Blake was the last one you ever thought of. And by the law of Mercurys, in the years where there's nothing reaching out and grabbing the gong by the balls, the only really good choices are the ones where everyone gets that genuine look of baffled incomprehension on their faces. That who wins isn't actually as important as the rush of theatre in the moment of winning, be it Klaxons combusting in a hot heap of drugs or any Speech Debelle or Badly Drawn Boy or Ms Dynamite swooping in from the rafters to snatch it. Find the last guy you ever think of. Give it to him. That's the theory.
Blake ticked all of those invisibility boxes, he had a number of cloaking devices. The post-dubstep thing felt very 2011, very still quite-interested-in-this-new-Hyperdub-compilation. The whole "man who sings like a little girl" angle had already been covered by alt-J the year before. And yes, so his "promising debut" had converted itself into an "assured sophomore", but so what? If he hadn't won it the first time he was nominated, there was no way they'd give it to him the second time round, was there?
Which is why even in his instant of victory, a strange silence seemed to descend over the watching online commentariat. Like trying to review his tunes without resorting to words like "diaphanous" or "deconstructed", the general vagueness of what he does seems to resist the sort of easy interpretation you can slap into 140 characters. Everyone was a bit screwed for something to say. Was this a "victory for electronic music"? Well, that was probably supposed to be Disclosure. Blake's more just a genre of one. So was it "a triumph of the underdog"? Well, the underdog who gets to number eight in the albums charts. But at the same time, there were very few charges you could lob at him either. "Landfill indie"? Uh, no. "Safe choice"? Not by any proper definition. The best thing you could pin on it was "dinner party music", and you can throw that at pretty much anything. If you're dining to weird muffled sobbing noises under the RZA talking about love, you're having edgy fun parties by most people's yardstick.
For the organisers, it seemed like they had pulled the rabbit they needed to out of the hat. This was one of those years when they themselves needed a win more than any of the artists. After all, in 2012, alt-J's victory sent the internet erupting into huffy mode. True, people do this every year. But there was such a blowout on faux-outrage that, when this year rolled round, rather than wait politely till afterwards, everyone had got their hatchets out beforehand. So in the space leading up to the event, we had article after article trying to put a pre-emptive blade in. Was This the Blandest, Safest, Most Nothingest Shortlist Ever? What's the Point of the Mercurys? Should the Mercury Prize Be Boycotted As Much As the Sochi Olympics? Is This the Year the Mercurys Will Pull An Actual Fossilised Turd Out of the Envelope?
The way people went on, you'd have thought Simon Frith's jury had nominated nothing but The Best of Robson & Jerome and that soldiers' wives choir who pop up on the telly every now and again to make everyone feel bad about their lives. Yet, on the other side of the gulf that is the mainstream, Sky News was challenging its viewers as late as yesterday afternoon as to the number of nominated albums they'd actually heard.
Do you know what a Foals is, mate? "It sounds like a small horse. Is it a small horse?" No, mate. But I don't think you'd like it. Sky were leading their trails with: "Is David Bowie going to win the Mercury Prize?" because proper mainstream people have heard of the guy, despite the deep unlikeliness of giving it to a man in his sixties who wasn't going to turn up and has more money than Croesus. Hence the daft betting flutter on Laura Mvula – the one choice beige enough to straddle the Radio One and Two playlists equally, and hence one of the few things that most men in the street could assume they'd probably heard at some point.
The gulf between the sorts of people who feel like they are in charge of music, and the sort of people for whom music is just one small part of a life that consists of a wide range of different leisure choices, has seldom been wider. As any social media guru will tell you, the effect of the internet isn't to bring people together nowadays as much as to silo people off, to allow everyone to sit inside their own half-acre of cultural turf and come to believe more and more that the latest beef between Zomby and the people who troll him has had actual repercussions in society up to and including the cabinet.
Music may or may not have been the real winner here, but music prizes have definitely benefitted, because Blake's win has put a big gobstopper in the mouths of the carping community. All anyone can think to say now is, "ah", "oh", "right" and "makes sense when you think about it". Now that the hate has been staunched, we shall have to see what the Mercurys prefer in the long run – not being talked about or being talked about?
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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