The Inside Story of the Taite Music Prize: A Judge Speaks
Imagine a world where governments were elected on the content of their policies, instead of their winning smiles and slick PR campaigns, a world where the populace all became amateur political connoisseurs in the dedicated reading of each party’s manifesto.
If that happened, we might end up with a system resembling genuine democracy, with elected officials really working for the good of the people, rather than making the assumption that once they have the vote, they have the mandate to become a dictatorship, and ignore the will of the people on specific, important issues.
But what’s this to do with pop music, you may ask. As the entertainment division of the political-industrial machine, popular music has always relied on the same mechanisms as elections: a kind of dumbed-down illusion of democracy. Popular music, and popular culture as an entity, is just as flawed as the election process, and because it relies on the ‘votes’ of the middling majority, it’s doomed to perpetuate fleeting novelties, tasteless distractions and vulgar ordinariness.
But you know all this, because the music charts are crawling with the stuff: lame X Factor wannabes, reissues by tired old rockers (rockers in rocking chairs?), canned boy bands with very high, thin voices.
The pop charts are, of course, a popularity contest, not a gauge of artistic merit. Still, I’ve done my share of chart watching over the years, and can attest to the mysterious impact of the zeitgeist, which can occasionally seize upon the masses and shoot a genuinely brilliant song right to the top.
That’s an increasingly rare phenomenon of late, however, as the counter-culture aspects of rock and roll become less mainstream, and the entertainment industry pulls in its head to reflect the new conservatism.
But awards don’t matter, right?
Still with me? Well, here’s the thing: that’s why we need awards and prizes based on innovation and creativity, selected by connoisseurs rather than the popular vote. That’s why England needs the Mercury Music Prize, and New Zealand needs the Taite Music Prize. While some will always decry panel-selected awards as elitist and snobbish, there’s really no way around it.
The fact is that not all pop music is popular, and over the past 40 years, the divisions between so-called high and low culture have eroded away to the point where some music informed by pop is created with artistic principles in mind, not popular success. It’s NZ On Air’s mindless pursuit of market success for the music and television it supports that shows just how reticent that organisation is to admit that its selection process is all wrong. While Creative New Zealand supports high culture, NZ On Air supports business models rather than artistic excellence, making the Taite Music Prize even more important.
The fact that the prize is run and administered by IMNZ (Independent Music New Zealand) could be seen as limiting, given the possibility that a ‘major’ record company may have issued a great record, but just about anything good from a major these days is a distribution deal, and nearly all the nominated albums came through those channels.
There are paradoxes and contradictions in the Taite Music Prize system. Of the huge number of nominations, all of the finalists selected by the 10 judges were fairly well known, and all conformed broadly to certain stylistic and/or aesthetic guidelines. It would be great to see a world class label like Rattle getting some of its genre-free instrumental music into the finals, but it’s obvious why they failed to do so: none of their acts has ever played at the Kings Arms.
But an award system is never going to be perfect, so it’s really kind of cool that it’s named after the late Dylan Taite, a TV broadcaster who always delighted in kicking against the pricks, sometimes just for the hell of it. And it’s also cool that IMNZ has kept to the spirit of the prize by selecting judging panels made up at least partly by self-proclaimed media pundits. Traditionally, it’s the industry that gets to populate judging panels – surely the worst people to assess the artistic validity of the nominations, and the most likely to try to stack the vote towards their own artists.
The bit you’ve been waiting for
I went to the judging panel meeting with one aim in mind: to argue my case for SJD. It proved to be an intriguing experience.
A generous array of alcoholic beverages (and humble club sandwiches) was supplied, lubricating some forthright, funny and passionate discussions about the album finalists. Generally, the journalists held the floor while the independent music representatives quietly soaked up the critical rhetoric: the undoubted ringleader was the Sunday Star Times’ Grant Smithies, who provided a never-ending supply of quips, insights and detailed verbal eloquence.
It looked at the start as though popularity might win the contest. It was agreed that Aaradhna’s Treble & Reverb was great in so many ways, but after heated discussion, it was crossed off the list. Why? It might be a great album that’s easy to like, but it harks back to the ‘60s with such determination that it simply fails to tick the main boxes. There was nothing innovative about it.
Ultimately, two more popular choices – Home Brew’s self-titled debut and the closely related @Peace album failed to make it through for similar reasons. Many of the assembled loved the Home Brew album, but innovative? Not really.
There were panelist advocates for both Opossom’s Electric Hawaii and Lawrence Arabia’s The Sparrow, but also those who argued against them. Both albums contained elements of pastiche, but it was generally acknowledged that they were both innovative as well, artistically rather than commercially driven… and possibly just a little clinical.
At the kick-off, it didn’t look good for SJD’s Elastic Wasteland. Several panelists were obviously utterly bemused by the record and the artist, while others generally loved Sean Donnelly’s work, but hadn’t warmed to the synthetic sound of this, his sixth album. But after numerous rounds and eliminations, miraculously, SJD emerged the winner. I was somewhat flabbergasted. While I had gone in rooting for SJD, I hadn’t expected this outcome, especially for an album that seems to have proven more difficult even for his fans than previous works.
It did, however, tick all the boxes, and to me, it’s vindication at last for a singer/songwriter/composer who has not been lacking in critical praise since his first album in 1998, but has been all but ignored by the industry, resulting in what must at times have been a frustrating journey for Donnelly. It says a lot for his perseverance that, despite having flown mostly below the radar, he’s kept chipping away at his little masterworks; songs that are informed by the work of many of pop music’s geniuses, but never submit to facsimile reproductions or boring genre ghettoisation, and always reflect the essential internalisation of Donnelly’s world into his art work. It also says a lot for Stinky Jim and his label, Round Trip Mars (distribution: Universal) for sticking with him through adversity.
But I don’t want this to be a sob story. Donnelly is already celebrated in certain quarters, and his talents have been voraciously consumed as a sideman by the likes of Neil Finn and Don McGlashan.
I’ve raved about every SJD album since that raw but promising first step in 1998, many of them in Metro. Of Elastic Wasteland, last year I wrote: ‘This is getting ridiculous. Aucklander Sean James Donnelly is now six albums into his singular SJD project, and is probably the most critically acclaimed songwriter of his generation – and yet, the charts are bereft of his music, awards are not yet accumulating on his mantelpiece, and many still seem indifferent to his luminescent art-pop.”
This year, the IMNZ has had crafted a huge, heavy horseshoe of a trophy for the $10,000 Taite Music Prize winner. I’m sure Donnelly’s mantelpiece is strong enough to carry the weight.
SJD: Saint John Divine – review