Late last week an unassuming, nineteen year old songstress took home Australian music’s most coveted prize. More specifically, in what many considered an upset victory, teenager, Albury native and former Australian Idol contestant Lisa Mitchell beat out eight others to claim the 2009 Australian Music Prize for her debut longplayer “Wonder”.

Several music pundits were surprised by this decision but with a little research I think I know how, and more importantly why, such an unlikely outcome was reached. Some things to keep in mind – this isn’t an argument for why AMP winners and former Australian Idol contestants should be mutually exclusive. They shouldn’t be and as Mitchell proved last week – they aren’t. It’s lazy, pointless and way too cynical to suggest otherwise – like objecting to Precious because Mariah Carey has a speaking role. Likewise we’re not disputing whether “Wonder” is a good album. It’s a charming debut from a confident young artist. We’re merely disputing whether it’s the best Australian album of 2009. And finally, to the members of the AMP jury, this isn’t an attack against your decision. This award is Australian music’s most vital and has managed to become so in less than half a decade. If anything, our scrutiny is a mark of respect and if this accolade is indeed the antipodean Mercury Prize that it’s touted to be, then surely its winners deserve to be scrutinized. So scrutinize we shall. All good? Good.

Let’s take a look: Call me crazy but this is why Lisa Mitchell won the 2009 Australian Music Prize by default.

WHY A FEMALE SINGER/SONGWRITER HAD TO WIN

In the fours years since its inception the Australian Music Prize has been awarded to The Drones, Augie March, The Mess Hall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring – four all male or predominantly male groups rooted in the general mire of Guitar-Rock. Look outside of the winners, and the under-representation of female artists extends to the shortlist as well. Before 2009, women or predominately female groups accounted for just 7 of the AMP shortlist while men or predominantly male groups accounted for 29. Interestingly, this lack of gender diversity found its most vocal detractors not in alternative media outlets, but in the AMP’s own constituency.

“Who is afraid of pop music? Of hip-hop, electronica and the avant-garde? And, most particularly, of women?” Asked Bernard Zuel an AMP Judge and head music critic at The Sydney Morning Herald bemoaning the Prize’s predominantly male, rock-leaning winners. “Furthermore as someone who has participated in all the judging,” Zuel continued “I can tell you that in no year did a woman or a female act seriously contend in the final stages of voting”. Likewise fellow AMP Judge and Daily Telegraph music critic Kathy McCabe wrote: “We can only hope that there are plenty of original and excellent offerings from the non-male indie rockers of Australia to make the grade in 2009.” The Age’s Patrick Donovan, incidentally an AMP judge as well, also touched on gender inequality in For Women It’s A Longer Way To The Top Of Rock’n’Roll, a news piece that addressed the AMP’s male-skewed history but also celebrated the inclusion of four female singer/songwriters in the 2009 shortlist.

The critical bias against female artists was also explored, more generally, in op-ed pieces not directly related to the AMP. In response to a Triple J “Hottest 100 Of All Time” poll that yielded not one female artist, AMP Judge and freelance music writer Clem Bastow penned Women Forgotten In Triple J Poll calling the glaring non-inclusion of a single solo female artist “a result that effectively eliminates female artists from the huge impact that rock and alternative music has made on our generation”. Yes, we know that Bastow was referring to a publicly voted poll that, unlike the AMP, held no geographic or time constraints but the sentiment remained the same: “Have we just been so bombarded with the work of male artists that, come voting time, we forget about the women?” she asked – I think we already know the answer.

So that was the atmosphere in late 2009. The aftermath of four years of cock-rock-dominance at the Australian Music Prize and an undeniable feeling of prejudice against female artists in music voting circles. So what’s the AMP judging panel to do – especially since its own members have so vocally lamented the under-representation of women in music? Jump back to mid-February of this year where we weren’t surprised to learn of Bertie Blackman, Sarah Blasko, Lisa Mitchell and virtual unknown Lucie Thorne’s inclusion in the 2009 AMP shortlist. Or as Simon Collins of The West Australian (incidentally another AMP judge) explained: “Four female singer-songwriters lead the charge for the 2009 Australian Music Prize – a marked change for the award, which has gone to male rock bands every year since launching five years ago.” See what’s happening here? Bob Dylan knows what I’m talking about.

Now let’s take a look at the shortlist. According to the AMP’s official website, the shortlisted nominees and winners are chosen based on “outstanding creativity they exhibited based on an original album released in that year”. Using that mantra as a guide (and keeping in mind we understand that music taste is a highly subjective beast) glaring omissions arise in both the accessible (The Temper Trap – “Conditions”, Empire Of The Sun – “Walking on a Dream”) and the esoteric (Roland S. Howard – “Pop Crimes, Songs – “Songs”). These are Australian artists and albums that, by most metrics and critical yardsticks, have released albums of outstanding creativity – or at least more demonstrative creativity than Lisa Mitchell. Albums whose omissions weren’t due to a lack of creativity but their inability to fit the mould for this particular year’s shortlist. And therein lies our contention with the prize this year.

We can only speculate – but this year the AMP voted with an agenda. Like The Mercury Prize (the British institution the AMP models itself after), the award itself often serves a larger purpose than merely rewarding talent. Like making paradigm shifts visible for example, or changing what is considered worthy of critical merit. In 2009 Speech Debelle’s “Speech Therapy” became the first hip hop album since Dizzee Rascal’s “Boy In Da Corner” (2003) to win a Mercury Prize. It was also the lowest selling album to have ever won the award and ended half a decade of Caucasian male dominance at the Mercury (Elbow, Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons, Franz Ferdinand). This “avoid stagnancy at all costs” ethos is something both The Mercury Prize and AMP judges must employ or at least entertain, arguably for the simple fact that once winners become too same-same, we tend not to care as much.

And that’s where the unexpected victor comes in – the “statement winner” typified by the Speech Debelles and Lisa Mitchells of the world. In short, artists whose accolade says more about the institution who handed it to them then the work they produced to earn it. In the face of unbalanced testosterone overload, the Australian Music Prize needed a statement winner. They needed a Lisa Mitchell and that’s why a Female Singer/Songwriter had to win the 2009 Australian Music Prize.

WHY SARAH BLASKO SHOULD HAVE WON

OK so in this warped conspiracy theory of mine we’ve established that a female singer/songwriter had to win the 2009 Australian Music Prize. She’s the statement winner. The victor who proclaims that Yes! a female artist is worthy of recognition from at least one Australian Music institution (also the most progressive one). In the second part of my theory I’ll argue why the brunette songstress who should have won the AMP is actually named Sarah not Lisa.

Here’s why: As I said earlier, personal music taste is a highly subjective beast, but based on the evidence – we can glean that the AMP judging panel wanted Sarah Blasko to win. Unfortunately I wasn’t in the judging room at the Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday so I’ll never know for sure. Fortunately for the sake of my argument, the AMP judging panel is comprised of fourteen music media professionals or fourteen people who publish their opinions on music for a living. If you were shocked that Lisa Mitchell was announced as The AMP winner “to muted applause and a collective gasp” as M+N so acerbically described, then the following findings will send you to heart attack city.

In a round up of the year in music, AMP judge Kathy McCabe named Sarah Blasko’s “As Day Follows Night” among the Daily Telegraph’s albums of the year along with The Temper Trap, Hilltop Hoods, and Bertie Blackman writing “All artists say they want to make a better album each time; Sarah Blasko achieved it.” You know who’s absent from her top ten? Yep, Lisa Mitchell.

In his round up of the year in music AMP Judge and Chief Music Writer at The Age Patrick Donovan mentioned neither Blasko nor Mitchell. However in the same article Blasko is placed second on another writer’s list. Mitchell, again, does not appear at all.

When faced with the choice of Lisa Mitchell or Sarah Blasko in an ARIAs prediction piece published late last year, Bernard Zuel an AMP Judge and Head Music Critic at The Sydney Morning Herald chose Blasko saying that she “should” win and “will” win the “Best Female Artist” gong. But not only did Zuel deem Blasko’s “As Day Follows Night” a more deserving “Best Female Artist” winner than Mitchell’s “Wonder” he also claimed that Blasko’s LP should win Album Of The Year simply “because it’s good”.

North of the border Noel Mengel, a fellow AMP Judge and Courier Mail critic listed Blasko’s “Sleeper Awake” among his top forty songs of the year. Guess who had zero mentions? You got it. Lisa Mitchell.

In yet another end of year review for another major newspaper Iain Shedden, an AMP Judge and music critic at The Australian wrote the following: “2009 was a great year for music, with some significant leaps by Australian artists. Chief among these in the local marketplace was Sydney singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko. Her third album, As Day Follows Night, was Spin Doctor’s album of the year.”

Want more? Take a look at the 2009 Triple J album polls, or more specifically check out the Top Ten of AMP Judge and Home and Hosed host Dom Alessio. If you possess half the pattern recognition of a ten year old you might be able to predict what happens next. Yep. Blasko’s “As Day Follows Night” comes in at number three while Mitchell’s “Wonder” is nowhere to be seen.

So why did the judging panel award the AMP to Lisa Mitchell, who barely factored into their personal recommendations at all, while Sarah Blasko – an artist who received endorsement after endorsement – fell by the wayside? What seismic shift in opinion passed over the judges in the three months since late December? And why, in their pursuit of the most creative album of 2009, did the judging panel choose an artist influenced by another nominee instead of the source of that inspiration herself? This leads us to phase three of this here conspiracy theory.

WHY SARAH BLASKO COULDN’T HAVE WON

Let’s assume that the ARIAs, J Awards and Australian Music Awards are Australian Music’s big three award ceremonies (sorry APRA). The below table denotes the wins and nominations of J Award winners and AMP winners across all three ceremonies.

Notice anything weird? In its five year history not once has a winning AMP album earned a J Award or ARIA Award (of any kind) and in the case of The Mess Hall’s “Devils Elbow” a single nomination at all. Conversely, albums that have garnered a J Award or ARIA Award (of any kind) have never garnered an AMP award and in the case of The Panic’s “Cruel Guard” and Hilltop Hoods’ “The Hard Road” an AMP nomination at all.

The reason behind this links back to the idea of a “statement winner”. Which, if you remember, is an attempt to control the homogeneity of winners year on year. Of course, the idea that uniform winners is a bad thing can also be applied across organisations and in the case of Triple J, AMP and The ARIAs – is even more undesirable. If, for example, the AMP is awarded to the exact same bands celebrated by the ARIAs and J Awards – what is its reason for existing? As I said before, once winners become too same-same, we tend not to care as much. To truly be “the most prestigious prize in Australian music” as it’s often touted, the AMP needs a point of difference. That is, it can’t concur with ARIA or J Award winners or it ceases to be a true arbiter of music taste. It needs to champion the Eddy Current Suppression Rings who have no hope of winning an ARIA and thank god they do. But it’s also the reason why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Sarah Blasko’s “As Day Follows Night” – an ARIA and J Award winning album – could not have claimed the 2009 Australian Music Prize. Since its inception in 2005, AMP winners and J Award or ARIA winners have been mutually exclusive groups. We’re just wondering whether that’s by coincidence or design.

HOW LISA MITCHELL WON

To understand exactly how Lisa Mitchell won the 2009 Australian Music Prize we need to understand how the voting system operated. Here’s a step by step guide:

1. Judges are handpicked from three specific categories: Music Retail, Talented Musicians and Music Media. This year the AMP jury was comprised of 27 judges.

2. CDs are then submitted to AMP in October. This year there were 234 submitted titles though that number is usually around 200.

3. A random group of five CDs is then sent to 5 random judges for the first round of judging.

4. Jury members then vote on whether an album should or should not make the Longlist – a “potential shortlist” comprised of 20-40 titles. Majority wins in this situation – if the majority of the group vote for it then it makes the Longlist.

5. To ensure all CDs are given every right to make the Shortlist there is a Right of Appeals system in place whereby all other judges, as well as another grouped called the Patrons (comprised of Music Industry Executives), are able to appeal a title’s exclusion from the Longlist. If this appeal is successful then that album is redistributed to another five randomly selected panel members for reevaluation. This “happens quite a lot” according to AMP Founder/Prize Director Scott Murphy.

6. The process is repeated and another five random CDs are distributed to another five random judges until all CDs have been voted on.

7. Once a Longlist has been formed (this year there were 30 titles) all 27 judges are sent every title on that list to listen to in their own time.

6. Judges are then flown to one of two meets in Melbourne and Sydney where they debate, face to face, the merits of each title. The original Longlist of thirty is then whittled down to a Shortlist of nine.

7. Judges then listen to the nine Shortlisted discs over the course of a few months. They form their own opinions, then debate and discuss the merit of their favourite albums on the morning of the AMP ceremony.

8. A winner is chosen.

I recently discussed this arduous process with AMP Founder and Prize Director Scott Murphy. According to Murphy there are two integral parts. Part one is the judge who has to listen to all Shorlisted titles on his or her own time, with their own ears and form their own view. Part two involves those judges coming together as a group and discussing and debating the merits of their favourites, then reaching a final decision, for which there is no roadmap or standard modus operandi. “That’s really important” Murphy explains “because things will happen like at that Friday meeting they all arrived thinking “I want Blasko to win, it’s my favourite record by a mile” but in that meeting Sarah Blasko might get knocked out quite early because not enough of the other judges are supporting it – they might want something else.” Choosing a winner then becomes a process of elimination. “They’ve got to sit there and discuss and debate all the other titles” Murphy continues “So they’re favourite might have been Sarah Blasko but now it’s going to move to being Lisa Mitchell.”

Of course the problem with this method as opposed to a blind ballot is the propensity for Groupthink – a psychological effect exhibited, most notably, in consumer focus groups. According to Wikipedia, Groupthink is “a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.”

At two separate stages during the AMP process – 1) Whittling the Longlist to a Shortlist and 2) Picking the eventual winner – judges are forced to reach a consensus decision through group discussions and are therefore more susceptible to Groupthink. This phenomenon becomes all the more pervasive when that group has a clear agenda i.e. It would be great if a female singer/songwriter could win and it would be even greater if she hasn’t yet won an ARIA or J Award. The group conforms to the agenda, then makes a decision that supports it.

That, my friends, is how Lisa Mitchell happened to win the 2009 Australian Music Prize and why the most prestigious prize in Australian Music failed to honour its charter. That’s what I think – and if you’ve managed to read this entire post I think you’ve earned a say in it too. So what do you think? Is the most prestigious prize in Australian music honouring the best album of the year? Or the best album crafted by a female singer songwriter who hasn’t won an ARIA or J Award? Or, as some of you may conclude, am I totally batshit crazy and making mountains out of molehills? It’s enough to make you wonder.