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Hey, have you heard this Sufjan guy? I hear he’s pretty good!
So the nominees for the first-ever New Pantheon Music Prize were announced today. This award seems to be pretty much a carbon copy of the already-defunct Shortlist Music Prize, which in turn was ripped from Britain’s long-running and vaguely established Mercury Music Prize. A panel full of famous-type people get together and nominate a bunch of albums based on a few weirdly arbitrary rules of inclusion (released between July 2004 and October 2005, sold less that 500,000 copies), and then they vote on them or something, and then someone puts together an award show in LA and one album wins and independent music is celebrated in all its trailblazing glory, yay. The list of ten final nominees has most of the names we’ve been unable to escape lately (Sufjan, Arcade Fire, etc.), and the only remotely surprising nominee is the Kings of Leon, which isn’t exactly a good thing. But now we know the nominees, anyway, and that answers one burning question. Now for a few more: Does indie-rock really need to pat itself on the back like that? And who really gives a fuck?
I guess I understand the motivation here; these awards exist to create an insta-canon, a ready-made list of the Music That’s New Now But That Will Last Forever. The Grammies try to do the same thing, of course, and they fail, of course. The danger of making huge, written-in-stone pronouncements is that people are going to remember the spectacular fuckups (Milli Vanilli Best New Artists, Jethro Tull Best Metal) way more than the successes (um I guess OutKast?). And indie music doesn’t really have a better batting average for this sort of thing than glossy big-studio award-shows; Damien Rice, after all, did win a Shortlist Prize. The Pantheon Award exists “to honor the most creative and artistic records of the year” without regard for glitz/glamor. But this self-conscious shirking of gimmicks is itself a gimmick, and the under-500K rule means the whole enterprise suffers from the less-popular-is-better fallacy while at the same time limiting its focus largely to the tired dudes-with-guitars archetype, even with Antony and Fiona Apple making the list (goes without saying that the only nominee even tangentially related to rap is M.I.A.). And really, the award turns itself into a target from jump when it includes Dave Matthews and Frodo Baggins and Seth Cohen as nominators. The award’s website isn’t a zeitgeist-indicator so much as a source of bizarre little fun facts. (Both guys from Linkin Park like Z-Trip and Thrice! Elton John likes Jamie Lidell! Keith Urban could only think of one album, and it’s Kings of Leon!)
Award shows like this one and the year-old Plug Awards and, what the hell, the MTVU Woodie Awards are never going to be definitive, in part because they smack of niche-marketed incestuous publicist-baiting self-congratulation; the only end result from all this will be maybe a sticker on somebody’s album. (My roommate Andrew Parks and Riff Raff are both Plug Advisory Board members; no one asked me so fuck people.) But indie-rock, just like every other genre of music, lends itself much better to the messy tangled and inconclusive and non-definitive top-ten list or top-fifty list or top-42,000 list than the single emblematic award. Music and the culture around it are way too obsessive and confused for a single award to be even remotely satisfying, and if you’re going to undertake the dubious task of assigning objective value to someone else’s work, you might as well go ahead and include as much of it as you possibly can.