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It’s been roughly 15 years since I decided that I was too good for the Brit Awards; but I’m firmly in the trenches of music retail now, so practicality and morbid curiosity sucked me back into the kaleidoscopic world of the British Phonographic Industry.
Popular music has relevance to me again. And the dominance of EDM squares with the smug appreciation of EBM and industrial which sustained me in the interim. I’ve not come crawling back to the charts - they’ve caught up with me.
Strong arguments can be made about how award shows are as arbitrary and meaningless as the opinions of hack film critics on YouTube. But speaking as a hack film critic on YouTube, it was interesting to immerse myself in a more vibrant and energetic celebration of a different medium.
Vibrant and energetic - Little Mix certainly planted their flag in these adjectives. Opening the show with an impressive spectacle built, ironically enough, on what is arguably their worst song. That “Shout Out To My Ex” also won Single of the Year isn’t very encouraging, but Little Mix sold it, which is something I guess.
However the fact remains that their rivals showed up with significantly stronger entries. Calvin Harris and Rihanna, Clean Bandit/Sean Paul/Anne-Marie, Tinie Tempah with Zara Larsson: all of them released great singles last year. But my pick would’ve been Alan Walker’s “Faded”. Inventive, atmospheric, uncannily beautiful and remarkably affecting. However Little Mix have a weapons-grade fanbase; and I still love Get Weird, so I’ll give them a pass.
Unsurprisingly, a ceremony heavily reliant upon chart relevance threw up few surprises in terms of nominees. Given the success of Views it was no upset that Drake and his immaculately groomed face-furniture would swoop in and take International Male Solo Artist. However I would’ve liked to see Bon Iver win; if only for the spectacle of an entire band marching on stage and someone shouting ‘Which one of you is Mr Iver?’ And yes, I know Justin Vernon is the fulcrum of the group, but it’s still twisty.
International Female went to Beyonce. I haven’t heard Lemonade but I’m told it’s great, though (given the unique influence Heloise Letissier has had on the charts this past year) I was dismayed that Christine and the Queens didn’t nail it. Beyonce is relevant. Even when she’s absent, she’s relevant. Letissier introduced some innovation and surreal joy into popular music, without being exclusive or intimidating.
Talking about the rest of the awards is kind of deflating, because the who-won-what was the least interesting part of the show. Of course Bowie took Solo Male: he’s David Bowie. Though it’s hard to shake off the cynical conclusion that Blackstar only won British Album because it was his swan-song. It’s an album which succeeds tonally but is completely anonymous in almost every other sense.
Speaking of tone: Emeli Sande, winner of British Female. The field was pretty thin, which is surprising considering Anne-Marie, Dua Lipa, Izzy Bizu and the architect of my favourite album of the year, Shura, all made names for themselves in 2016.
Sande's Long Live The Angels isn’t a bad album, but it’s hard to picture it having any lasting appeal or influence. But then I do have this rather flimsy “theory” that there are certain artists whose reputation remain inextricably entwined with the awards which first brought them to prominence. Sande is "Brit-Bait" - a talented singer-songwriter you can claim credibility for liking, though you’re unlikely to hum one of her tunes on your deathbed. Or perhaps you will, because Long Live The Angels is as rewarding as counting every breath like it’s your last.
Few surprises from the podium then; but the Brits have provided plenty of iconic moments from the stage over the years. In my day we had Jarvis Cocker’s arse and Geri Halliwell doing her bit for the wrist-muscles of late 90s teenage boys.
This year Bruno Mars basically took ownership of the O2 Arena. It’s a good thing he performed “That’s What I Like” - if he’d gone with the title track from 24K Magic the entire venue would have collapsed into a funk-inflected singularity of awesome.
Little Mix overcame a bad song and Bruno capitalised upon a great one. For some reason Chris Martin decided to mangle a poignant one. His idiosyncratic squawk doesn’t really gel with a soulful ditty like George Michael’s “A Different Corner”; and I say that as someone whose doubt Coldplay have always benefited from
George Michael is dead, and any tribute to him was both called for and welcome. However it was also ham-fisted. Rather than focus on one of our most successful musicians performing a beautiful song by one of our most remarkable; I was sitting there coming up with artists more suitable for the performance.
But the tribute was sincere, as were the eulogies given by Andrew Ridgeley, Pepsi and Shirley. However it’s worth noting that “A Different Corner” doesn’t seem to last for 18 hours. I don’t mean to be unkind; but it is ironic that - in paying tribute to one of this country’s finest performers - there was a conspicuously drawn out suspension of any and all musical performances.
Martin was back on later (and noticeably better dressed) with Coldplay and The Chainsmokers for the “exciting” reveal of “Something Just Like This.” Just like what? Plucking a random track from the back-catalogue and bolting “Roses” to it? Though it’s great that you’ve finally given us a release date for Memories…Do Not Open now Chainsmokers. Having you wave your dicks over us expectantly had become tedious and exhausting; like a sophomore’s year at bukkake college.
On the topic of groups I cannot adopt a confident stance upon: The 1975. Like The Chainsmokers they occupy a unique superposition in modern music - inside of a box marked “Schrodinger’s Twats.” Matt Healy et al represent an exceptionally talented and original export - but it grinds how fucking conscious of it they are. Their second album is called I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. “She’s American” is the best song on it, I love it, but I’m certain I can hear the band ejaculating somewhere in the mix.
They played “The Sound” - a fist-bumping, crowd-pleaser which has steadily grown on me. Credit where credit’s due: it was a great rendition, and utterly fascinating; as they actively toyed with the audience. Multiple inter-titles were cut into the performance, flashing criticisms of the band on-screen. Highlights include the rather pissy ‘This band thinks it has a charismatic singer’ to the deliciously eccentric ‘They’re essentially making robotic Huey Lewis tunes.’
It was refreshing to see a band actively acknowledge their “haters” while re-appropriating their remarks. But ultimately it’s still an achingly pretentious move which detracts from what makes The 1975 interesting: their singular vision and creative flexibility.
So yes, yet again I’m caught between liking them and hoping they get eaten by ferrets. I did approve of Healy trying to make a political point when they collected their British Group award. Unfortunately his call for people with an audience to speak on topics which truly matter was drowned out by all the fanfare going on around him. Which is ironic, or something.
Weirdly it was Katy Perry who truly delivered in the Serious Message Department. Her performance of “Chained to the Rhythm” with Skip Marley was decent enough; but it made for magnificence when two giant skeletons trundled onto the stage - one sporting a distinctive red tie and the other in a rather prim red dress - and proceeded to hold hands. It was a surprisingly deft act of commentary from an artist who historically has had little to no regard for subtlety.
Her performance was the highlight of the evening, though Skepta’s performance of “Shutdown” was very interesting. As with The 1975, the home viewer was treated to an alternate experience; in this instance an audio drop every time he swore, with a helpful icon appearing in the corner to tell you the audio had been muted. Which we knew because we couldn’t hear him. What’s strange is that “Shutdown” isn’t exactly the sweariest song in the Grime canon. The word which ITV seemed to take particular exception to was ‘PUSSY’. Which is apropos in many ways.
Discussing Ed Sheeran’s collaboration with Stormzy is difficult because their performance was boringly perfect. And there were no giant skeletons, or inter-titles stating ‘Have a shave, you’re ginger.’
The last ten minutes of the show were concerned with the winner of the BRITs Icon Award. Bowie received the nod last year, so it was a marked drop off that it went to Robbie Williams this time around. I regret feeling this way because I used to be a huge fan. I was there when the public realised that Gary Barlow suffered from a crippling charisma deficiency, while Robbie was overflowing with the stuff and could back it up with cracking tunes.
That the rot set in around the time I’d last watch the Brits is purely coincidental, though I do love the confluence. Robbie’s presence felt like a formality: he was going to get the nod eventually, so why not now?
I’d rather offer a more thoughtful critique than this but, putting it mildly, Robbie’s last album was shit. For an album boasting the talents of Rufus Wainwright, Brandon Flowers and long time collaborator Guy Chambers, (and which appropriates material from Serge Gainsbourg and Prokofiev); The Heavy Entertainment Show is inexcusable. However it did prove that you can yawn repeatedly while your eyes roll around in their sockets, faster than pulsars.
But given the horrendous state of things right now, it’s easy to justify seeking a little comfort and warmth in nostalgia. Though he didn’t play “Angels” at the end of the show which, in our heart of hearts, is all anyone ever wants him to do.
All told? I’m glad I gave the Brits another go. All award shows glance over the landscape rather than drop down into it Predator style - but that’s not a criticism. It’s nice having an excuse to celebrate what we have, and it’s good for our idols to engage with us in a more direct fashion. Though it’s disturbing that there’s a trend encouraging hashtag votes from bell-ends on Twitter.
By the way: British Video. I went with #BritVoteZaynMalik.