No one expects The BRITs to be good. We gave up that pipe dream long ago, around the time they moved it from the gig-like setting of Earl’s Court and to the vapid space of the O2 Arena. But some of us, foolishly, still hold out hope. Looking at 2018’s nominees, a surprisingly diverse list, there was promise. Sadly, once the night’s performers were finalised earlier in the week, the writing was already on the wall. J Hus overlooked in favour of Sam Smith (not even nominated for anything), Foo Fighters instead of Haim, Justin Timberlake in lieu of literally anyone else.
It was Timberlake who kicked off the ceremony with two tracks from his underwhelming new album. For his second song, the laborious ballad ‘Say Something’, Timberlake introduced country star Chris Stapleton, a guy who has had barely a lick of success in the UK. It was a far cry from the days when Timberlake was singing Blondie with Kylie Minogue, making headlines the next day for a split-second bum grab. Still, after giving Stapleton the cold shoulder at his Super Bowl gig, Timberlake had to throw him a bone at some point.
Timberlake set the tone for a ballad-heavy night, with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man all opting for slow, stripped back performances. It made you long for the nineties when The BRITs were characterised by recklessness and drunkenness, packed with lively, downright bizarre performances from a host of thrown-together musicians. This year, the collaborations were minimal. Aside from Timberlake and Stapleton, we got Rag’n’Bone Man and Jorja Smith, Smith’s talents squandered on another blokey ballad. Elsewhere, we were treated to Rita Ora’s collaboration with Liam Payne, perhaps the dullest duet in BRITs history. Ora played snippets of her hits ‘Your Song’ and ‘Anywhere’ before launching into ‘For You’ with a pouting Payne who somehow becomes more loathsome with every public appearance. He managed to suck any charisma from Ora’s otherwise colourful display, lowering the bar yet again.
Payne’s dearth of personality was characteristic of the ceremony as a whole. While being interviewed by Jack Whitehall, a monotone Payne was upstaged by Este from Haim winking knowingly into the camera from behind, applying lipstick with a shit-eating smirk. It was a nod to the BRITs of old, when piss-taking and rebellion were par for the course. Nowadays, we get scripted onstage banter and muted swearing, even when it’s well past the watershed.
Kendrick Lamar’s performance was dogged by the overzealous censors just as Kanye’s was a few years back. Getting off to a shaky start thanks to what appeared to be some technical issues, Lamar quickly recovered, proving beyond doubt that he’s the best rapper in the world. Other performances included a stylish set by Dua Lipa, though as we’ve seen from past outings, ‘New Rules’ doesn’t lend itself particularly well to being played live. Though undoubtedly a solid tune, it loses its punch when performed live, something not helped by Lipa’s awkwardness on stage. Liam Gallagher pulled off an OK rendition of ‘Live Forever’ in tribute to the victims of last year’s Manchester attack (Ariana pulled out last minute due to illness), though his raspy vocals couldn’t quite hit the high notes, meaning an unseen singer had to take on the main bit of the refrain. Not ideal.
But amidst the snooze-inducing performances and self-satisfied speeches, there were tiny glimmers of hope. Jack Whitehall proved himself a decent enough host, his jokes topical and just catty enough to raise the odd laugh. When things went wrong (as they inevitably do), he handled the situation well, swigging from a bottle of champagne when Foo Fighters failed to turn up for their scheduled interview. But of course they didn’t turn up. No one really wants to turn up, do they? Especially not the American acts shipped in to give the ceremony some star-power. They look unbothered when picking up their awards (this year an unwieldy glass cuboid that won’t be sitting in anyone’s trophy cabinet anytime soon) and generally leave the ceremony early.
The BRITs made a feeble attempt at honouring the #MeToo movement by giving guests white roses to brandish on the red carpet – though you wouldn’t know from the ceremony itself. The nearest we got to any call for change was Ellie Goulding declaring herself proud to be a woman, though no one called out the lack of female performers, something that became more and more apparent as the ceremony dragged on. Only three women performed on the night, two of them with men. So much for girl power. Elsewhere, a smashed Damon Albarn tried to make a point about Brexit without actually saying the word ‘Brexit’, instead slurring something about the UK being a tiny island that mustn’t become isolated. He and the rest of the Gorillaz collective were swiftly played off, their microphones muted as the cameras panned to a mortified Whitehall.
The undisputed winner of the night was grime-legend Stormzy, who took home gongs for British Male and Album Of The Year, beating the likes of Ed Sheeran, much to our surprise. His acceptance speeches were heartfelt but heavy on the religion (imagine thinking God is in the business of handing out BRIT awards), though his closing performance was far-and-away the highlight of the night. It featured a new rap that made reference to Grenfell Tower and black empowerment, ending with a savage Daily Mail diss. Launching into a rousing rendition of ‘Big For Your Boots’, Stormzy closed the ceremony on a high, showing the organisers what the event should have been from the beginning – high energy, political and fun.
The BRITs are a weird type of award ceremony. They lack the sense of occasion of The Grammys, the anarchic spirit of the VMAs and the prestige of The Mercury Prize. They exist somewhere between the three, a sort of beige middle ground where everything is scripted and nothing really happens. It’s a shame, because in recent years, The BRITs had begun to show real promise. This year, however, they lost their way. Tedious, predictable and outrageously dull, it’s no wonder half the stars slink out early, escaping the cringe-inducing guff they’re subjected to year after year.