In this age of virtue signalling it’s rare that an institution promises change and then actually delivers. So it’s notable and admirable that the Brit Awards has done just that.
When the non-binary pop singer Sam Smith was left out of the gendered Brit Awards categories for “male” or “female” solo artist at the 2021 ceremony, they called for the awards to “celebrate everybody, regardless of gender, race, age, ability, sexuality and class”. Splitting award categories along the lines of gender has felt old-fashioned and restricting for some time, but having an artist as influential as Smith speak out was, it seems, the tipping point. The Brits organisers listened, saying in a statement in March 2021 that the “gendered categories are very much under review. But any changes made to be more inclusive need to be just that – if a change unintentionally leads to less inclusion then it risks being counterproductive to diversity and equality.”
This week, the change has been made: for the 2022 awards, due to be held at London’s O2 Arena in February, the British male solo artist and British female solo artist categories (this year won by J Hus and Dua Lipa, respectively) won’t exist. In their place will be one category: artist of the year. The same restructure will be replicated in the international category.
The move is much-needed. It better represents the ways in which gender is lived and experienced in 2021. Binary gender categories are rigid and, as with Smith, exclusionary. They don’t reflect the real world – which is where musicians live. And leaving artists out, not allowing them to feel included, is damaging. It’s a particularly sinister prospect in the arts, where idiosyncrasies ought to be welcomed, and in awards ceremonies, where exception ought to be celebrated.
It’s difficult to understand just what the fears of such a change leading to “less inclusion” were. Perhaps critics are concerned that having one rather than two categories will reduce the spaces for nominees, and therefore the number of people whose careers benefit from being “Brit Award-nominated”. (It is as yet unclear how many artists will be nominated for the new category.)
Others have expressed fears that the move will lead to fewer female winners in an already male-dominated music industry. We can’t yet know how female – or male – musicians will fare in the category in the coming years. But this problem of male dominance – just 22.5 per cent of 2019’s top charting songs were made by female artists, for example – goes much further than any single “female artist” category in one UK-based awards show could ever reckon with. Change to move closer to gender equality – as well as equality with regards race, age, ability, sexuality and class, as Smith rightly pointed out – is needed across the board. In asking questions about representation and allowing their conventions to be reshuffled, the Brits organisers have proved themselves willing to engage with these pressing conversations. This year’s change may not be the only one needed, and time may even judge it didn’t have the desired effect – but an award that has openness at its foundation is a wise place to start.
This isn’t just a win for gender non-conforming people: it affords greater freedom to everyone. Who would want to be the best man or the best woman, when you could just be the best? It’s like the ire I feel every time I hear Serena Williams described as the best “female” tennis player of all time; of course, Roger Federer never gets the gender descriptor. Now, artists will be rid of any pressure to adhere to gender norms in order to stand the best chance of winning in their solo category. Few women set out to make “female” music, and few men strive for a “male” sound, so why label their achievements as such? The upper limits of what’s possible for artists (at least in terms of the Brit Awards) now won’t be determined by gender – and that’s freeing.
In 2011, the Grammys announced a massive overhaul of its awards categories, including removing gender-based categories in pop, R&B, rock and country, and replacing them with single awards for “solo performance”. This was before the current conversation around gender became mainstream, but that it’s taken a decade for the Brits to follow suit is alarming. Now the change has been made – as it has for the Australian Recording Industry Association Awards, which this week announced too that its next round of gongs would do away with gendered categories – it feels as though momentum is building. Will film awards such as the Oscars follow suit? What sort of freedoms would that bring to the film industry? And what other systems of categorisation should we now hold up under the microscope? The possibilities are endless – and thrilling.