This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
For a show that prides itself on dull, predictable music occasionally shot through with rare brilliance and framed by rudimentary gags that seem to be ghostwritten by Lee Mack, the Brits arrived this year with a level of apprehension you could almost classify as excitement. Would Rihanna actually turn up? Would it be weird that no British rap or grime artists are there despite dominating the UK cultural conversation of 2015? And would the ‘Bowie tribute’ just be Chris Martin in Desigual sandals surrounded by candles, singing “Heroes” over Noel Gallagher's over-egged acoustic strums?
In the end, the thrill of controversy that lit the build up was soon extinguished by the flawlessly competent and brutally colorless teleprompter-guided tone that came to narrate the show. You know a show has been culturally neutered when even Ant and Dec dumb themselves down for it, and there was something symbolic about them getting out a flamethrower as part of their first skit. Held in the hands of Kanye West’s stage crew last year, the success and also malfunction of the flamethrowers during the Virgil Abloh-visioned performance of “All Day”, made for one of the most thrilling Brits performances ever, as they invited a large portion of the uninvited UK rap and grime scene onstage. But this year, in the banal hands of Ant and Dec, the mighty flames were reduced to a two bit skit, a stark warning: there will be no surprises tonight; there will be no malfunctions; there won’t be any lights being shone on anyone; we are in control.
Like clockwork, the show opened with all the worst bits of Glastonbury rolled into one performance: long sleeve shirts under T-shirts, kooky flower arrangements on pianos, and Coldplay. Adele restored some graceful reality to proceedings, scooping every award she was nominated for like the Roger Federer of pop culture, and then acting like your mum’s best mate on the podium whenever she wandered up there. Every now and then you'd catch a peek of little Jack Garratt looking on from the audience. After having his ego mass-financed by the music industry all year long, he kind of found himself in the shadows at the Brits, reduced to performing on the ITV2 after show party, where they fucked the sound up for the first 30 seconds so you couldn’t even hear him. Still, you can imagine him staring at the tipsy James Bay as he wobbled up and down collecting his awards, the spindly fingers of some Supreme Leader Snoke music industry exec slowly resting on his shoulder, "Worry not child, your time will come."
But as the Best Male went to James Bay, and then Coldplay got Best Band, and then James Bay went up to perform, the show became teeth-grindingly awkward. Some people will say that the Brits are a cheesy ITV corporate masturbation ceremony that was only ever supposed to reward middle-of-the-road music, but once the show became the number one trend on Twitter and all your American friends started trading live streams over Facebook, you realize: oh yeah, this also functions as a window into our world, into our culture. And what a shit window it is. And as everyone routinely wandered up to receive their award, the absence of any acknowledgment of the UK rap and grime scene was a silence that became deafening.
Sometimes, in Britain, it feels like we automatically assume that we are beyond our societal problems, like we overcame them all sometime in the past. We’re not like America. America has “all the problems.” This level-footed mindset manifests in the Brit Awards, a ceremony drunk on its own medicine, oblivious to how much it lacks in self-awareness. The result is a Best British Male award that—according to Harriet Gibsone on the Guardian live blog—is won by a white British male over 90 percent of the time. The result is 90 percent of awards being won by all white bands. The result is a ceremony where Keith Lemon gets more shout outs than burning social issues or anything at all that matters (minus Adele who shouted out Kesha infront of a crowd that probably contained a lot of Sony bosses).
You only had to watch the American Grammys last week to see a national music awards ceremony that, at least to some degree, wore its issues on its sleeve, that awarded a wide spectrum of artists, and that gave Kendrick Lamar a stage to deliver one of the most politically charged performances of the 21st century. Yeah, Kanye still went on Twitter to detail artists he still felt were being ignored at the Grammys, like Young Thug and Future, but here in Britain, the ignored list isn't one or two, it’s hundreds. Too often we criminally fail to check our privilege on the major stage, and last night's Brit Awards was a two hour pop culture pantomime about what happens when unchecked privileges spiral rampantly out of control.
Even when the one big thing we were all hyped for arrived, and Rihanna’s much awaited Brits performance began, it came and went like an all too good dream you woke up halfway through. It's no surprise that Drake, who Rihanna kindly brought along in her hand luggage, performed his “Work” verse live and then scampered out of the O2 quicker than you can say “Well paid media appearance" to Uber his way straight to the very non-Brit Awards party in Shoreditch where he joined Section Boyz on stage with Skepta to deliver the most fomo inducing show of the night. Why? Because that was where the real party was at. Similarly, Craig David hosted an unofficial bash at the 100 Club with Kano, Big Narstie, Giggs, and more. As Chris Martin was finishing the final sip of his lemon tea at the O2, fierce and fun Brits Awards resistance parties were sprouting up across the city.
That is not to say that grime and rap were the only things overlooked last night. There was an entire section of British youth culture missing, with dance music entirely ignored aside from cursory nods to Aphex Twin and Major Lazer, as it has been for years now. Other artists who didn't quite tick those traditional metrics of success boxes, like Charli XCX and Little Simz, were notably absent. There was no Zayn Malik in the crowd, who, let's face it, is probably just a bit too god damn cool for the Brit Awards at the minute. And when Bjork deservedly won Best Female, trumping a Lana Del Rey who actually came, she sent a video message, although she was dressed better than anyone else there. Basically, it felt like Britain had thrown a house party and none of its besties had turned up. Just all the basics you knew from first year.
Grime, rap, Bjork, and the majority of British youth culture aside though, one gigantic and more compelling absence dominated the night. In the weeks that built up the ceremony, Bowie fans old and young feared the worst of the rumored tribute planned for the Brits, because doing a tribute to Bowie at the current Brit Awards is like doing a tribute to Picasso at Disneyland. And Lady Gaga’s 100m sprint medley at the Grammys didn’t ease the nerves. Rumors abounded of a supergroup featuring Chris Martin, Adele, Noel Gallagher, and anyone else who replied to the email thread quick enough. But when it finally came, it was earth moving, a sobering cry that real British genius is out there, it always was. We might have given the world James Bay, but we also gave it David Bowie.
Annie Lennox came onstage to deliver a eulogy so powerful that had it come from anyone less commanding, endearing and legendary, they would have shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. Then Gary Oldman, a longtime friend of Bowie’s, stepped up to offer us a glimpse into Bowie’s final days that we’d heard bits of but never told in such a deeply personal way. When he told us about Bowie first ringing him to say he had cancer but that his cheekbones had never looked better, the dark comic poignancy of those words destroyed all the bad work we’d been watching, and suddenly we were back in the room. Here was a tiny peek at a Brit Awards that means something. Of course, when it came to performing the actual Bowie tribute, the Brits did what it always does when it needs a high profile job done well—it brought in an international artist: the very able and humble Lorde.
Cynics will say we are fools to repeatedly expect something better from a money motivated corporate music event sponsored by a credit card company. That UK rap and grime shouldn’t care about receiving pats on the back from an old industry fossil like this, and that we should just sit this one out until something better comes along (like the AIM Awards) or Mastercard runs out of money (that won’t happen). But I’m in the aggressive optimist camp. I reckon we can fix this. As Sian Anderson wrote in her piece for The Fader: ”It’s not about whether they [rap and grime artists] should be longing for a relationship with an institution that’s never supported them anyway, it’s about whether they deserve recognition from said institution.”
In a Channel 4 segment ahead of the show yesterday, organizers for the Brits made a vow to improve the entire thing following the effective ongoing outcry about how it felt like half of British youth culture was missing; promising to reintroduce genre-specific awards, reassess the diversity of the voting academy and bring in a “diversity panel” to help kickstart initiatives that ensure the ceremony becomes more representative of British music. It's hopeful, but how it will fair is something we'll need to wait a year to find out. Let's hope it’s one small step towards fixing this mess.
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