After a year of enforced quietude for celebrities – punctuated by the embarrassment of that “Imagine” video and Jess Glynne getting turned away by Sexy Fish – it’s reassuring to know that the culture is still exactly as it was before. The 2021 Brit Awards, which aired on ITV last night (11 May), was a reassuring reminder that Maya Jama is ubiquitous, Harry Styles is very much in his Seventies phase, Taylor Swift is queen bee and Jack Whitehall reads autocues with the charisma of a Year 10 student forced to orate from Catcher in the Rye in front of the class. Oh, and Dua Lipa is back from her holidays, which she had no choice but to take during this difficult time.
The Brits, lacking the glamour and sincerity of the Oscars or the Grammys, is obliged to send itself up a bit. Of course, there have been spontaneous newsworthy moments over the years (such as Stormzy’s 2018 freestyle on Grenfell), but the Brits takes simultaneous shame and pride in the mundanity of British culture. The ceremony, held at the O2 arena in London, was introduced by the Line of Duty cast and national sweetheart Jackie Weaver in a Zoom-call skit, in which she booted off the ceremony host, Whitehall, for “not reading the standing orders”. There was a general London Underground theme, and Olly Murs popped up for about ten seconds wearing head-to-toe burgundy. Little Mix won the award for British Group – the first all-female group ever to win – and, after an exuberant acceptance speech, Jade Thirlwall, Little Mix’s only non-pregnant member, signed off with a cheery, “Ta ra!”
Last night’s ceremony was unique, however, in that its audience consisted primarily of pandemic key workers and their families. It was also part of the government scheme trialling large-scale events: there was no mask-wearing or social-distancing, but everyone in the room had returned a negative Covid test before attending. Haim, who won the award for International Group (ice-cool in sweater vests and baggy trousers, endearing in American earnestness), had quarantined for ten days in order to attend, but other international acts (Billie Eilish, The Weeknd) appeared solely by video. Even Coldplay’s opening performance, from a stage in the middle of the Thames, was disappointingly pre-recorded.
There was something poignant about most of the ceremony taking place in person: live music, a crowd, non-canned applause! But despite conspicuously frequent nods to key workers there was also something deeply ironic about Dua Lipa, who won Female Solo Artist and the top prize of Best Album for Future Nostalgia, stating in her acceptance speech that NHS workers should be paid more, when she spent most of the pandemic posting pictures of herself on a beach in Mexico to Instagram. (Headie One made a more poignant political statement in a performance with other prominent UK rappers AJ Tracey and Young T & Bugsey, coolly delivering modified lyrics on diversity: “Two black Brits stand here at the Brits, but still we ain’t seen as British.”)
Taylor Swift was the first woman to win the Icon award, and brought a dose of real Hollywood glamour to proceedings (if she rerecords “London Boy”, she should add a line about the Millennium Dome). And in contrast to 2020’s male-dominated nominations list, this year women cleaned up: as well as awards for the megastars (as well as awards for Swift, Lipa and Little Mix, Billie Eilish took International Female Solo Artist), Arlo Parks won Best Breakthrough Act and Griff, Rising Star.
The highlight was Elton John and Years & Years’ cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin”, with Olly Alexander writhing on top of Elton’s piano in lace flares. And while some performances were unmemorable – Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk’s finale, for example, was less of a thrill than Whitehall saying the word “piss” after watershed – others, such as newcomer Griff’s, reminded you of pop music’s force and excitement.
And so while a relative lack of rich-and-famous sycophancy over the past year may have appeared to be one of the few respites of the pandemic, the 2021 Brits made you think, Ah, yes. A bit of unnecessary glitz, platitudinous acceptance speeches, too many ad breaks – maybe I have, actually, sort of missed this.