Features

The AMP 2009: A Riposte

Despite the online conjecture, Lisa Mitchell won the $30,000 Australian Music Prize fair and square, writes patron and former judge CHRIS JOHNSTON.


I like Everett True (mostly) and I also mostly like the website pedestrian.tv. Unfortunately both of them – in a kind of consensus of the fringe-dwellers – got it horribly wrong last week on the ?controversy? of Lisa Mitchell winning The Australian Music Prize 2009 (The AMP).

Most of us involved in The AMP read the pedestrian.tv article and really liked it as a piece of dissent. But we also recognised it instantly as full of incorrect assumptions and, basically, a crock. Everett responded to it on his [blog](http://everetttrue2.blogspot.com/2010/03/ongoing-disgrace-of-australias-critical.html) in an even more dismissive manner, bordering on the facile. Like pedestrian.tv he made a massive assumption about the make-up of the AMP judging panel and tried to join the dots toward the outcome and got it horribly wrong. He then used that error to label the judges impotent and accused them of being corrupted by ?powerful folk? who were ?overruling them?.

The great irony of course is that the whole reason The AMP was set up was as a counterpoint to something like the ARIAs, where commercial success rules. Without it, you can’t win. The AMP on the other hand has a detailed judges? charter which every judge has signed. It says commercial success doesn’t matter (but if a record has sold a trillion copies nor does that matter) and neither does anything like the label or the genre. The formula is simple. The winner should be the record that in the judges? opinion was the best Australian album of the year. There are no ?powerful folk?. There is no ?overruling?. There is no hidden agenda.

Which brings me to Bernard Zuel, the Sydney Morning Herald*?s music critic and an AMP judge. The current conspiracy – that one time Australian Idol placegetter Lisa Mitchell won because it was deemed from on high that the AMP needed to step away from The Drones/Mess Hall/Augie March/Eddy Current hegemony – began with him, in a sense, because he [wrote]( http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/prize-and-prejudice-why-top-music-award-leaves-me-singing-the-blues-20090323-97d3.html’page=-1) as much in the *Herald this time last year. After Eddy Current, he feared it was becoming a male rock award. Who’s afraid of females, he asked, and of non-rock?

?If Blasko won we would have been accused of going with an ARIA-winning big seller. If Urthboy won it would have been a tokenistic hip-hop award. And Black Cab would have been seen as more of the same.?

And here’s the thing: Bernard’s is a great, valid point. It took someone with his courage and confidence to say so. The same point was raised again in various AMP situations this year. Yet – contrary to the conspiracists? view – it had nothing to do with any judgements. It was listened to and strongly debated but not taken into account in appraising the music. Also raised and strongly debated was the silly notion of ?reward? for accrued good deeds. In the washup to Lisa Mitchell, especially here on [Mess+Noise](/news/3895174), there was a view that the award should be such a reward. So that if you pay your dues, make lots of OK records then a really good one, you should win. The AMP says no, you shouldn’t. You should only win on account of one record being judged the best of the year against the others in the shortlist.

They are quite tricky ideas for judges – all opinionated, passionate people – to rationalise. But the questions of how to judge and what criteria to use are not for them to decide. In the end the only thing we can tell them is to call on their integrity at all times.

In the judging room in Sydney two weeks ago some were surprised that Mitchell’s pop record Wonder* rose and rose while Sarah Blasko, perceived from the outside as the one that would win, fell away. The point being that over the course of six months, during which albums are listened to again and again and again, and then some more, *Wonder began to affect more judges deeply enough so that they picked her, in the end, over others that perhaps fared well in early judgements, perhaps records such as Blasko’s or Black Cab or Kid Sam or Urthboy.

If Blasko won we would have been accused of going with an ARIA-winning big seller. If Urthboy won it would have been a tokenistic hip-hop award. And Black Cab would have been seen as more of the same.

It would surprise the haters to learn who exactly stood up for Mitchell in the final moments of the last judgement. It would surprise them greatly. And generally speaking that’s why the judges are who they are: because they can be trusted to hear quality and can be trusted to put aside their own prejudices and tastes and perceptions and desires in doing so. No one was more surprised than me when Mitchell won. I’m more of a Black Cab kind of guy. But that was what the majority wanted – in a series of secret ballots, toward the end – and that judgement I trust and also admire.

Everett True and pedestrian.tv also misunderstand who this ?majority? is. Both made much of the fact that some prominent print media critics and AMP judges voted Blasko in their end-of-2009 polls yet Mitchell won the AMP, seemingly implying that it was pre-ordained. But those critics/judges are just a few of 27. Most [judges](http://www.australianmusicprize.com.au/about/judges) are in fact are not music critics – instead musicians, retailers and broadcasters — and so their views were never known.

A doubter even said to me after Mitchell won that because there was a video of her saying ?thanks? (she was in London at the time) then it must have been rigged. Well – no. Two of the nine finalists were overseas. Videos were done with both in case they won. It’s simple. Not complicated, as conspiracies tend to make things, but simple. Perhaps it is this very fact that confuses people and makes them want to see it as something trickier than what it is.

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Chris Johnston is a former judge and now patron of The Amp who helps mediate judging. He wrote the prize’s judges’ charter and is a music critic for The Age and Mess+Noise.