It had the same host and was held in the same venue, but the 2021 Brit Awards bore no resemblance to any other version of the U.K.’s biggest music awards.
As part of the government’s Events Research Program, 4,000 people were allowed to attend — just over a quarter of the usual BRITs attendance. But it’s been so long since anyone in the U.K. has attended an indoor event of this scale that a surreal air hung over the proceedings as the industry mingled awkwardly on the concourse outside London’s O2 Arena. Still, they soon got back into the swing of it. Hugging is still banned in the U.K. until Monday, but if there are any regulations on air kissing, they seemed to be ignored by many.
Once inside, things were also rather different. Normally, the arena floor is awash with what the host, British comedian Jack Whitehall, referred to as “boozed-up wastrels” from the music industry. But this year, the arena floor was strictly reserved for artists. There were fewer than 30 socially distanced tables on the floor, with only a couple of seats per table, meaning many artists were separated from their entourage or even some members of their own band; Little Mix, for example, had to split their three members across two tables. That may be why many tables were left empty for much of the ceremony. And, despite the much-wider-than-usual gaps between tables, the night’s trend for dresses with long trains still caused problems for some: Rising Star nominee Rina Sawayama’s supremely flouncy gown meant she needed help from fellow stars every time she tried to move around.
The industry has often used the Brits as a massive networking opportunity rather than a live show. Last year’s showrunner, Universal Music UK chairman/CEO David Joseph, even introduced measures to try and stop people moving around the room and talking when acts were playing. COVID almost succeeded where he couldn’t, with key workers taking the arena seating and executives confined to their own company suites. However, with no social distancing inside the event, industry guests were apparently allowed to visit other boxes, if they were invited in. “It’s like being a vampire,” quipped one exec to Variety.
Many of the Brits’ most famous moments have happened because of the potential for chaos on live television. But a surprising amount of this year’s show wasn’t actually live. Pink and the Weeknd appeared via video link; part of Dua Lipa’s medley was pre-recorded on a London tube train (where, many noted, she did not wear the compulsory mask); while Coldplay played live outside the arena, on a barge. Most surprisingly, Elton John and Years & Years had taped their much-touted duet of “It’s a Sin” a couple of days previously (even David Furnish’s intro wasn’t live). When the warm-up man apologized to the crowd for their absence, it transpired that Years & Years’ Olly Alexander was in the crowd, however, and he received a standing ovation.
The last Brit Awards show was criticized for its lack of female nominees in mixed categories, but 2021 was a very different story, with only Harry Styles’ Best Single win for “Watermelon Sugar” preventing an all-female winning line-up. Little Mix, somewhat incredibly, became the first ever female group to win Best British Band and dedicated the award to the Spice Girls, All Saints, Girls Aloud and all the others denied victory in the past. Dua Lipa also paid tribute to previous Brits queens, performing in a Union Jack outfit in a nod to Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, while her beehive hairdo referenced Amy Winehouse.
The members of Little Mix were also celebrating 10 years since they formed on “The X Factor” and thanked many of the people who helped their career overt the decade. Current label RCA and management company Modest! got a namecheck, as did recently departed member Jesy Nelson, but there was no mention of Simon Cowell or Syco, the company behind “The X Factor” and their initial label home.
Haim, meanwhile, became the first female winners of the International Group gong since the Corrs in 1989. They were also one of the few international artists willing to attend in person (although they are also playing Glastonbury Festival’s Live at Worthy Farm livestream next weekend). Whereas the Weeknd and Billie Eilish sent perfunctory video thank-yous, Whitehall said the Haim sisters had “quarantined for 10 days in a Holiday Inn in Hounslow to be here.” “And we would do it again!” declared the band.
Taylor Swift became the first female artist, and first international artist, to win the Brits’ Global Icon award (although she is almost an honorary Londoner these days). Swift, however, didn’t play the traditional Icon live set. The award had been pre-announced, but we still saw the return of Swift’s awards show surprise face, when Annie Lennox appeared on her tribute video. “My soul left my body when Annie came on,” she quipped in her acceptance speech.
The Brits’ chair role traditionally rotates around the three major labels, with the showrunning incumbent often, coincidentally no doubt, winning most of the awards. This year’s ceremony bosses were EMI Records President Rebecca Allen and Universal Music U.K. EVP Selina Webb. Allen’s EMI only picked up Swift’s gong, although Universal was the most successful corporate group with four wins in total. But Warner Records, run by President Phil Christie in the U.K., was the most successful individual label, with three wins (two for Dua Lipa and one for Rising Star, Griff). EMI did also win the night’s most profane presenter, however, with much of Lewis Capaldi’s speech ahead of the MasterCard British Album award (which began with “Hello motherfuckers!” and went downhill from there) having to be muted for broadcast.
The Brits usually make a great play of seeking an international audience but, with travel restrictions ruling out the attendance of many U.S. superstars, parochial references ran riot. The show started with a (hit British police drama) “Line of Duty” sketch that also featured local politician Jackie Weaver, who went viral when she threw rowdy councillors out of a parish Zoom meeting. Also featured in Whitelaw’s links: the stars of the “four lads” meme; a sea shanty from TikTok sensation Nathan Evans; and a reference to the recent row over a copycat version of Britain’s most-loved birthday cake character, Colin the Caterpillar. Whitehall’s best joke did have international appeal, however. Introducing Olivia Rodrigo, he said, simply: “In the words of Tiger Woods: ‘”Driver’s License” – take it away.’”
A couple of other Whitehall gags might not have gone down quite so well — one, talking about his Spotify playlist at an event sponsored by Amazon Music. Will he return next year? Watch this space…