Paul Morley Showing Off ... Ms Dynamite, M People and Portico Quartet

Paul Morley introduces the Mercury prize nominees and winners that make up his prizes and awards discussion panel

After a couple of decades, there are a couple of hundred acts to choose from when it comes to assembling a panel to discuss what it was like to be nominated for, win, or not win, the Mercury prize. It's quite a club, efficiently reflecting one of the original ideas for the Mercury, for it to map out the evolving state of British music, vaguely rooted in a sensibility that is more indie than industry – one that fancies itself as cutting-edge and that links Peelworld with BBC 6 music, one that readers of Kerrang! or Gramophone magazine might feel profoundly exiled from, one that does as much as it can without alienating comfortable mainstream audiences to involve music that is other than cleverish pop, hip urban or indie rock.

If traditional gatekeepers have been all but removed now that recommendations for what music to try next come thick and fast both through automatic systems, blogs, webzines and consumers rating and listing their likes and finds, the Mercury maintains its commitment to acting as a guide whose taste and judgement you can trust, because of founding father Simon Frith's basic belief as a rock critic in the importance of experienced, expert cultural critics. Such critics feel a responsibility to detect hidden patterns, establish a particular cultural hierarchy and proclaim that some music is actually more important and socially valuable than other music. They don't rate music as a product, or as something to store and collect, as a soundtrack to lifestyle or tribal affinity, and they remain faithful to the idea that the best music reflects and shapes the environment, and that it has a purpose other than to merely entertain.

Consequently, members of the Mercury club, indicating where music has travelled since the early 90s, if only because the Mercury says so, or because it encouraged it – the emergence and mutation of certain genres, the arrival of new fads, forms and trends – include Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Suede, Elastica, Prodigy, the Auteurs, Supergrass, Tricky, Massive Attack, Manic Street Preachers, Underworld, Chemical Brothers, Cornershop, the Verve, Robbie Williams, Stereophonics, Doves, Leftfield, Basement Jaxx, Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay, Keane, the Streets, Hot Chip, Richard Hawley, The Coral, The Thrills, Belle and Sebastian, Muse, MIA, Editors, Guillemots, Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse, Burial, Bat for Lashes, La Roux, Florence and the Machine, Kasabian, and now Foals, Wild Beasts, Villagers, and the xx. The refreshing revival of folk has been represented by Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Kathryn Williams, Ed Harcout, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Laura Marling, there's been a positive change in domestic jazz that has taken us from Courtney Pine to the indie spirit jazz of Soweto Kinch, Polar Bear, Led Bib, Portico Quartet, a reminder – until 2002 – of the presence and energies of important classical composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies, Thomas Ades, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, and suggestive of the roots of its sensibility, there's been David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, New Order, Paul Weller and John Surman.

The possible combinations for a discussion panel of those who have experienced the highs, lows, fun and games of the Mercury are numerous. Is it just part of a modern plugging world where certain types of acts can achieve a welcome push of publicity and thus compete with the rampant audition shows, is it a way for the corporate sponsors – currently Barclaycard – to receive a little glaze of cool, does it genuinely break new acts, and if so, are these the kind of acts that are about to break anyway? Is there an authentic kind of curse that afflicts certain winners, bringing them to attention too early and causing an abrupt fall from grace? Is it just another pointless award ceremony that allows insider figures to perpetuate a music business glamour threatened by the collapse of the traditional music industry? Does being part of the fuss that surrounds the award constitute a form of sell out that undermines the carefully compiled integrity of many of the acts who, by their very nature, would generally scorn such ways of comparing and promoting music?

Todays panel happens to consist of two winners and an example of what tends to get called, often in pieces like this, the token jazz nomination. (Tomorrow's panel would consist of a different lay out,) Ms Dynamite won in 2002 for A Little Deeper, beating Doves, Bowie and the Streets. To those who believe in the curse, she is perhaps an example of what can happen if the award goes to an unlikely act early in their career. The rush of publicity propelled her into a mainstream that she wasn't ready for and that wasn't ready for her, distorting what might have happened to her if she hadn't been given the attention. Or, it was just a reflection of what would have happened anyway. Would the world be a different place if she hadn't won, and, say, the Bees had won? Well, yes and no.

M People won in 1994 for Elegant Slumming, controversially beating Blur's Parklife, Weller's Wild Wood and Pulp's His'n Hers, an example of how the Mercury, perhaps perversely, occasionally avoids the rock critic obvious and just goes for something fun and even camp that it fancies. Mike Pickering is the man who put the m in M People, and helped put the m in Madchester after working for Factory Records and helping to make the Hacienda a temporary centre of the music world in the late 1980s. He's currently an A&R man for the likes of Ting Tings and Kasabian and is putting Beth Ditto together with Simian Mobile Disco. Some say the Mercury curse struck M People. Some say they deserve it for robbing Weller. Well, Weller says that. Would the world be a different place if Weller had won? Yes, and no.

Jack Wyllie plays sax with the Portico Quartet, a chamber bop instrumental group whose subtle, upright music grazes the edge of jazz, but is more a sort of post-indie light music lacking a specific genre box, but it could easily fit into whatever compartment Four Tet are sometimes placed in. They were up as lovely but hopeless outsiders against Radiohead's In Rainbows, the Unthanks' The Bairns, Burial's Untrue, the Last Shadow Puppets' The Age of Understatement, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand. Elbow's Seldom Seen Kid won. Would the world be a different place if Portico Quartet had won?

Well, yes, and no.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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