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The Brit Awards Are Broken, How Do We Fix Them?

You can count the number of black British artists on one hand, and is there really such a shortage of talented British women that we have to nominate Amy Winehouse again?
January 15, 2016, 12:49pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

In a world that is so volatile; where Donald Trump can be a runaway success, where unexpected supernovas can explode at 560 billion times the power of our sun, and hurricanes can form in the Atlantic for the first time since 1938, it’s nice that the Brit Awards can be resolute in its delusional determination to stay exactly the same.

Trapped in a cultural static of its own making, it is an awards ceremony forged in a crucible of tedium, and while UK music might morph, mutate and expand in the most exciting ways, the Brit Awards remains so predictable, it verges on comforting. It sees grime, yes, but it chooses to Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s vaguely aware of Skepta, but who needs Skepta when you’ve got Olly Murs? It is a cultural safe space for ITV viewers still suffering from PTSD after seeing Yeezy perform “All Day” in 2015.

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The nominations for this year’s festivities, which will take place on February 24, were revealed yesterday evening, and the largest amount go to Adele, Years & Years, Calvin Harris, and James Bay. James Bay, a man so bland that even complimentary articles about his music struggle to find superlatives anywhere beyond “headwear loving.” A man labeled a "troubadour" even though he definitely isn’t a French medieval poet from the 11th century, although that would at least explain his fashion sense and his dysentery pale complexion.

As usual, the international nominees—featuring Courtney Barnett, Lana Del Rey, Bjork, Tame Impala, Major Lazer, Alabama Shakes, Eagles of Death Metal—are way more critically acclaimed than the artists that've been nominated as our own domestic successes. When you read the two sets of nominations consecutively, it's like ordering Coca-Cola and getting served a home-brand diet version from Lidl.

There are some positives. In comparison to the clangers of previous years—like 2013, when James Corden gleefully beamed out to Planet Earth that Ben Howard was the most important artist on the British Isles—we might have one overarching come-away statement that stays true to real life: Adele did dominate 2015, and if Jamie xx or Wolf Alice win anything it will be much deserved. But look under the carpet and you will find bloodstains.

For a start, you can count the number of black British artist nominations on one hand, despite being UK rap and grime being responsible for some of the most exciting and innovative moments of 2015. But while #OscarsSoWhite might be trending on Twitter for the very same reason, hardly any dissent seems to be directed towards the Brits – perhaps because it's become so accepted they neglect to recognise anything beyond Brit school fodder that nobody cares anymore. Then there’s the 'Best Female Solo' nomination for Amy Winehouse. I love Amy Winehouse, but with the greatest respect: is there really such a shortage of talented living British women that we need to put her up for a second posthumous Brit? Did Charli XCX happen or did I dream her?

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Elsewhere, it’s nice that Aphex Twin is nominated, but for 'British Male Solo'? Like he’s going to book out a whole table for his family and friends, order six bottles of fizz, and have a quick on-cam natter with Ant McPartlin about how lovely Jack Garratt is. Like he’s going to agree to do a duet of “Heroes” with Little Mix halfway through. It's crazy that Aphex Twin is now clearly regarded as being in an accessible enough area of the left field to be within arm’s reach of the mainstream. It probably keeps him awake at night. The last time the Brits awarded something a bit left field, it was Royal Blood.

In truth, I’m tired of getting angry about how the Brit Awards fail to represent British music and project such a warped message out to the rest of the world. I’d prefer if we could all chuck a quid in each year to construct a giant mechanical fist that just continuously shakes in the direction of The O2 every February, on our behalf. That would be better than the garden bridge, wouldn’t it? But, deep down, I yearn for just one decent awards show. America has five!

The funny thing is, it’s not like these nominations couldn’t be way more representative. For a start, they are actually a lot more inclusive and democratic than The Brits’ trendier but poorer cousin, the Mercury Prize. Unlike the Mercury Prize, which charges £170+VAT for entry, the Brits are open to all for no fee. All you need to have done is released something that has done kinda okay, and passed through the hands of the Official Charts Company. The OCC pass the list of eligibles on, and it is then down to the 1,000+ members of the 'Brits Voting Academy' to whittle it down to the nominations you see each year.

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So if you thought some shady major label cabal was conspiring against JME being in the 'British Male Solo' category, or Stormzy and Little Simz being in the 'British Breakthrough Act', or Krept & Konan being in the 'British Album of the Year', then that's not really the case. Clearly, nobody is voting for them. Everyone is voting for Calvin Harris. It’s like the Brits Voting Academy saw the MOBOs becoming popular again and thought, “Ah, well, I’m glad that’s been taken off our hands.”

Still, it would be nice to blame someone, wouldn't it? So, who makes up this Voting Academy and can we blame them? We’re told this thousand strong army of judgment comprises of critics, labels, managers, DJs, previous winners, bloggers, bronies, and five star rated Uber drivers. But like any good mailing list, you can imagine it hasn’t been refreshed since the Blair years, and it’s not hard to envisage the eyes in the wizened old former critics of yesteryear – now a far cry from those heady days, drifting a little further to the centre with each passing year – lighting up every Winter when they are given the ego sustenance of still somehow being emailed to cast their vote in this year’s Brit Awards. Maybe these are the ones that think Catfish & The Bottlemen are radical pioneers. Maybe these are the ones who think Coldplay are the 'Best British Group', again, and again, and again.

I guess they are just following their instincts about what makes a Brit Awards winner. Instincts that have been conditioned by years of seeing acts like Coldplay and One Direction sweep home repeat prizes. A run of seeing the new music award, 'Best British Breakthrough', move as if it was pushed by the pre-determined hand of God towards to acts like Ed Sheeran, and then Ben Howard, and then Bastille, and then Sam Smith. When it comes to the Brit Awards in 2016, someone like Stormzy doesn’t look like a nominee, never mind a winner.

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Yet, the real problem with the modern incarnation of the Brit Awards isn’t even the voters. It’s the categorisation and the way it is shaped; the way it’s trapped in a cycle that continues endlessly by only feeding itself with more of itself. It's become bland because it is structurally incapable of representing the breadth of British music properly. Unlike the Grammys, which has 'Best Rap', 'Best Pop', 'Best Country', 'Best Alternative', 'Best R&B', 'Best Urban Contemporary', and more, the Brits have chiselled down the categories to within an inch of their life. The flavourless corridors of male, female, group, single, album, always fail to represent a decent scope of British music, because they are all motivated by generic commercial success rather than form or style.

This wasn’t always the case. Those of you with memories not yet entirely fragmented by the internet will remember the halcyon days of 2003 to 2006, when we had urban, rock, electronic, and pop categories in amongst it, meaning winners could span from Ms Dynamite to Basement Jaxx to Franz Ferdinand to The Streets to Lamar to Daniel Bedingfield (not always ideal, but always varied). But they vanquished all style-based categories in 2007, and ushered in an era of chart fodder domination disrupted only by the Arctic Monkeys.

But the Brits doesn’t just need a heart transplant, it needs a gruesome makeover. The whole script and tone of the show needs to change, so that it doesn’t feel like it was ghostwritten by Lee Mack. Say what you like about previous host James Corden, but at least you could remotely entertain the idea that he was aware of the artists he was engaging with. Current hosts Ant and Dec have a bewildered relationship with UK culture. They are the isolated Bill Murray of Lost in Translation, and contemporary British music is the Tokyo they find themselves lost in. You just know, in your heart of hearts, that Ant and Dec do not listen to modern music as a pastime. They sit at home next to each other, in silence, a silence disturbed only by Byker Grove reruns, and the sounds of their own tears.

And so The Brits will continue this year, trundling along with its ears plugged. And we will watch Canadian talent The Weeknd nail his live performance, only to be followed by a James Bay and Jess Glynne duet. And we will watch Ant and Dec do a dad-dance next to Justin Bieber, and make comments like, “Justin, did you know Ant and I used to be a rap duo?” and then burst into lethargic rendition of “Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble”, and the camera will cut to Niall Horan clapping like a seal, and we’ll kinda relish how awful it is, and we’ll complain, but with the disclosure that, “It’s the Brit Awards, it’s meant to be shit.” But we deserve better.

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