Fresh from the night’s first award, it’s breakthrough artist winner Arlo Parks. A subterranean meeting by the lizard people who run the British media decreed that every mention of her must be followed with the words “the voice of her generation” – a rather paternalistic boomer framing that underplays how varied her generation is, as well as the universal appeal of her music. Her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams is stacked with yearning melodies and the emotional strife is stuff we all go through. But can she scale up the intimate feel to a rather empty O2 Arena?
Taking the lockdown houseplant craze to a psychedelic extreme by fringing her band with dozens of sunflowers, and wearing her second excellent suit of the night, she performs Hope, and shows that her voice works just as well beaming to the back of the bleachers as it does cupping your ear. She adds in a spoken middle eight referring to the pandemic’s difficulties, and how we’ve learned to talk over Zoom and continue to allow relationships to blossom – much like those flowers. A brass band then arrives to bring the song into full bloom. The night’s best performance so far.
Quite a surprise that Taylor Swift didn’t win this, considering the massive commercial and critical reset of her sister albums Folklore and Evermore – and the fact that she is actually there – but Eilish also had a hugely significant year despite her second album still being two months off. It started with a Bond theme, debuted at the 2020 Brits, and moved through a jazzy ode to self-love and a brutally devastating rebuke to entertainment industry abusers. She’s said her new album is her favourite thing she’s ever made and has defended her right to feel “cocky” about it, so expert to see her back here next year, cleaning up once again.
Covid restrictions mean that she’s not here, so she accepts via video, recalling how the Brits were “so magical” for her last year.
(Also loved Jack Whitehall paying tribute to award presenter Annie Mac, who has been “playing caner music on a children’s radio station for 17 years”.)
Nathan Evans now, whose sea shanty Wellerman took up residence in mine and Laura’s brains to a troubling degree – he gives it a twist with Jack Whitehall to refer to Little Mix’s boozing and Olly Murs’s vocal inadequacy. Yo ho ho!
Below is Little Mix’s acceptance speech for British group in full – notable for Leigh-Anne’s comments on the difficulties they’ve faced during the past decade:
“In the words of Tiger Woods: Drivers License, take it away.” Jack Whitehall amusingly introduces this nice coup for the Brits, the debut UK performance from a woman who has gone from being completely unknown to anyone outside the High School Musical fandom to having the biggest song in the world this year, Drivers License. While in the Disney show she dramatises fiction, this breakup ballad is drawn from her real life, and yet for me there’s still something actorly about her delivery on the studio version that I find a bit distancing: the bruised vocal fry, the pat rebellion of the F-word. On the other hand, doesn’t the heartbreak she sings about sometimes feel as torrid as a stage tragedy or film romance?
So the stage is perhaps the most natural place for her and, having ditched the highlighter dress, she’s like a flicker of flame in red and gives her ballad real presence. Backed by harp and piano, she would perhaps benefit from a bit more orchestral oomph and support for that middle eight where her voice sounds a little hard and stark – but this is just fine tuning for a live show that will no doubt grow to become something really dramatic.
Cue delighted surprise at this end – we thought Big Conspiracy had come out so long ago that voters might have overlooked it – or that Headie One’s gigantic commercial breakthrough would make him a dead cert. After the #BritsSoWhite controversy of 2016, the BPI has vastly improved its recognition of UK rap – albeit mostly among the nominees, less so the winners – but it’s still astonishing that this is J Hus’s first win, given his trailblazing genre-fluidity, musicality and influence. Anyway, he can’t be here to collect it but here’s DJ Semtex, looking pretty uncomfortable!
“Shout to AJ Tracey, Headie One, all the artists in the building tonight, gonna take my time, get this right, I don’t wanna end up a meme. I’m here to accept the award on behalf of J Hus, he’s an incredible artist, one of the greatest, he’s given us classic albums, Common Sense, Big Conspiracy, he’s given us music that’s made our lives a little bit easier … If J Hus were here today, I know he’d say ‘you’re stronger today than what you were yesterday’.” There you go!
If your memory of Big Conspiracy is also diminished, here’s my highlight, the gorgeous Repeat, ft Koffee.
Astonishingly, Little Mix are the first girl group ever to win this category. In their speech, they pay tribute to the Spice Girls, Sugababes, All Saints, Girls Aloud, “all of the incredible, incredible female bands” that came before them, as well as calling out the sexism and racism in the British pop industry.
On top of that, they’re bizarrely under-celebrated by the Brits considering their decade in pop dominance: this is their first victory in the group category after two prior nominations (they’ve previously won for best single in 2017 and video in 2019). They’ve written down a speech because “two of us have baby brains”, says Perrie; one of the first thanks on their long list is Jesy Nelson, who recently departed the band.
While I’m sure commenters BTL will have plenty to say about their “manufactured” music and “economical” outfits, this moment is sweet, sentimental and long overdue – worryingly, perhaps entirely too late. With one member gone and two pregnant, I’m getting flashbacks to the dog days of the Spice Girls and the crushing sense that proper adulthood was about to swoop in to steal all my 10-year-old fun. At any rate, Confetti is a much better song than, um, Holler so no need to panic just yet.
Clara Amfo’s voiceover just claimed Little Mix have “delivered historical performances”, suggesting they have a future in war re-enactments and the like.
If Dua provided the last year’s uppers, then Arlo offered the consoling comedown. You could hardly turn on the radio last year – whether Radio 1, 2 or 6Music, a sign of her cross-generational appeal – without hearing Black Dog, Parks’s accidentally apposite, blessedly tender devotional to a grief-stricken friend who can’t force themselves outside. And her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, followed through on its promise: balancing a dreamy sound and poetic air with piercingly observed details. Maybe you could consider Billie Eilish a bit of a Brits precedent here – they’re a year apart in age, both making hyper-intimate pop – but it feels rare for the Brits to recognise such introspective work, and even more so for an artist signed to a true independent label, Transgressive. She thanks her family and friends and says she’s living proof that anyone can do it.
This year’s trophy comes in two parts, so you can give the Mini Brit to a mate. It’s all a bit Mean Girls: A piece for Gretchen Wieners!
One of the key pleasures of the Brits is a medley, and Lipa delivers one straight off the back of Coldplay’s set. A take on Love Again set on a depressingly pandemic tableau on the London underground goes into a blast of Physical on a tube train on stage itself. There’s a blast of Hallucinate’s club energy, and then into Don’t Start Now and Future Nostalgia – and all of it in a Geri-referencing pleated Union Jack miniskirt, her second chaotic look of the night. She is the consummate British pop star and surely this could be a very big night for her.
The ceremony has started but I can’t let these tremendous outfits go unnoticed: Rina Sawayama and Simon Neill from Biffy Clyro!
Coldplay are the Brits in band form: trying to be cool and youthful, way too corporate to get away with it, and yet almost always enjoyable. Chris and co are in that tricky part of a career recently faced by Katy Perry and others, where they’re not ready for a life on Radio 2, but their age means that any climb up the charts must now be done up a tricky, crumbling north face rather than the gentle inclines afforded the likes of younger, more relevant likes of Headie One, Dua Lipa and Joel Corry.
They could make it, though, with Higher Power, a really stellar new single produced by pop powerhouse Max Martin (who has worked with many shortlisted artists tonight such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd). It’s essentially The War on Drugs on actual drugs, with a peppy Dancing in the Dark-type snare keeping the energy high, and Chris using his traditional whoa-oh-ohs to encircle quasi-religious bromides presumably gleaned from an ayahuasca ceremony with Instagram fitness models in Tulum. Chris is in really fine voice right across the pretty broad octave range needed for this track. They perform it on a pontoon in the Thames with holograms instead of backing dancers – social distancing kings!
Worth every penny of the inevitable ULEZ fine! Missed a trick by not inviting giant CGI Rita Ora up for a guest appearance tho.
Bicep here, serving some absolutely wild Billy Porter-esque energy as we approach the beginning of the show.