Thursday 21 March 2019

Have the BRIT Awards lost their edge?

Michael Jackson performs 'Earth Song' at the 1996 ceremony before Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion.
Michael Jackson performs 'Earth Song' at the 1996 ceremony before Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion.
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Back in 1996 Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, having had enough of the Messianic vibes of Michael Jackson’s rather OTT Earth Song performance at the BRITs, bounded on stage, bent over, and made a wafting gesture with his hand across his backside, indicating exactly what he thought of the whole thing.

The moment has gone down in BRIT Awards history, and epitomised the ceremony’s reputation, during that Britpop era, for being a little shambolic, a little rowdy, unpredictable and, at times, anarchic.

Who could forget Best British Band winners (along with Simply Red) The KLF’s shenanigans at the BRITs almost three decades ago?  In 1992 they opened the show and invited extreme metal band Extreme Noise Terror to join them on stage, complete with flame-throwers.  They had planned to throw buckets of sheep blood over the audience at the end of the performance, but the BBC’s lawyers reportedly vetoed that particular plan.  Instead, frontman Bill Drummond fired machine gun blanks over the crowd, which was perhaps deemed more acceptable.  Could it happen today?  In light of the Paris and Manchester attacks, it’s unthinkable.  The group also sent a dead sheep to one of the after parties with the words, “I died for ewe – bon apetit” tied to it, and they later buried their BRIT Award at Stonehenge, just to drive the message,. presumably about their abhorrence of the music industry etc, home.

The 90s also saw the Gallaghers in full droll attack mode.  Noel and/or Liam can always been relied upon to provide some drama – they’ve taken pops at Michael Hutchence (1996) and Robbie Williams (2000) as well as the Spice Girls (1997).  As Oasis received the award for Best Video from Hutchence, Noel said, “Has-beens shouldn’t present awards to gonna-bes” while Robbie Williams challenged Liam to a fight after Liam called him the "fat one" from Take That.  Would Liam survive fat-shaming Robbie in this age of social media warriors or would he be, in the parlance of Twitter, ‘cancelled’?

Back in 1998 the UK Deputy Prime Minister of the time, John Prescott, attended the awards with his wife, only to end up drenched from head to foot after Chumbawamba's Danbert Nobacon chucked a bucket of iced water over him.  “If John Prescott, as a representative of the Government, has the nerve to turn up at events such as the Brit Awards in a vain attempt to make Labour seem cool and trendy, then he deserves all we can throw at him” said a statement released by the band. Nobacon was handed over the police but later released after Prescott decided not to register a formal complaint.  His office also released a statement, “Mr Prescott thinks it is utterly contemptible that his wife and other womenfolk should have been subjected to such terrifying behaviour.” 

In recent years, the BRITs, which kicked off n 1977, have evolved into a rather more polished, some would say sanitised, affair. ITV broadcasts ‘live’ with a 30 second delay in case anything untoward or distasteful, like an expletive, arises unexpectedly.  If anyone does say anything deemed distasteful or offensive, they are silenced.  In 2017 the decision was taken to mute segments of British Solo Male Artist nominee Skepta's performance of 'Shutdown' for the audience at home, thanks to some colourful language.  Rock'n'roll. 

Last year Male Solo Artist and British Album of the Year winner Stormzy came the closest to a genuine moment of good old-fashioned rebellion when he called out the British government on the response to the Grenfell Tower fire and the treatment of survivors.  “Yo Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell? You think we forgot about Grenfell?” he asked during his performance. Stormzy’s mini-rant (he also targeted the Daily Mail) was the pinnacle of the drama on the night. 

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Stormzy (Joel Ryan/PA)

Elsewhere, during his first stint presenting, English comedian Jack Whitehall threw ‘major shade’ (according to some media reports) at Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield among others.  This was headline news. His ascerbic wit was at least a little naughtier than the jovial patter of Dermot O’Leary and Emma Willis the previous year, but still hardly the kind of thing to make you spit out your tea, or even compel you to tune in live.  In the UK, last year’s show drew just 4.5m, a drop of 900,000 on the previous year.  This year organisers are ramping up the digital offering with a YouTube live stream and Facebook live stream of the red carpet and behind-the-scenes offerings from Twitter and Instagram where the vast majority of their intended youth market reside.

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Holly Willoughby preens Philip Schofield's hair as Jack Whitehall looks on at the Brits

Tonight’s show, which airs on ITV/UTV from 8pm live from London’s O2 Arena, offers an impressive line-up of nominees and performers.  Among the latter will be Hugh Jackman, who will perform a song from The Greatest Showman (rumoured to duet with P!nk) to Little Mix, Jess Glynne, George Ezra, The 1975, and Sam Smith.  We can probably expect a nice, polished, controversy-free offering. 

With diversity in the industry the buzzword on everyone’s lips, it’s refreshing to see that the nominees do not reflect the dearth of female names in the charts. Women dominate this year’s shortlist, with female solo artists Dua Lipa and Anne-Marie both earning four nominations apiece while Jess Glynne is up for two prizes and Jorja Smith has three nominations. Pink, meanwhile, will be the first international artist to be honoured with the outstanding contribution to music prize.  With Jackman opening and Pink closing it’s going to be an impressive show. 

Will there be spontaneity, or naughtiness, or controversy?  Perhaps we no longer have an appetite for in-your-face anti-establishment KLF style shenanigans, or Jarvis Cocker and his juvenile bottom wafting, or indeed fat-shaming courtesy of a Gallagher.  Hugh Jackman and the Greatest Showman feels are exactly what we need.

Brit Awards, ITV/UTV, 9pm tonight.

Read more: Hugh Jackman and Dua Lipa to perform at Brit Awards

Full list of Brit Awards nominations 

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