Brit Awards 2021: Great show, shame about the videos

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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image captionTaylor Swift picked up the global icon award in recognition of her seven number one albums

"Everybody get up out of the seats!" shouts Chris, the warm-up man at The Brits, as he cues up Rihanna's We Found Love and encourages everyone to dance.

We don't need asking twice. For the 4,000-strong audience, this is the first chance we've had to see live music in more than a year.

As it's a pilot event for the post-Covid era, masks have been removed and drinks have been drunk. The air is feverish with anticipation but no-one's anticipating a fever: we've all had negative Covid tests.

As eight o'clock approaches, the lights dim, the titles roll, the crowd goes nuts. And then... wait, what?

It's a pre-recorded performance of Coldplay, on a pontoon in the Thames, playing their new single.

That's right. After a year of being forced to watch live music on a screen, The Brits is opening by... er, making us watch some live music on a screen.

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image captionColdplay launched the show with a waterborne version of their new single Higher Power

It's hard to fathom what the organisers are hoping to achieve here. Perhaps they want to ease us in with something familiar? Or maybe they're worried that an actual band playing actual instruments will make everyone spontaneously combust?

Instead, whatever sparks the warm-up had ignited are instantly doused. In the section in front of me, two people stand up to dance. Then one thinks better of it and shuffles back into his seat.

It's an inauspicious start - but luckily Dua Lipa is just around the corner to save the day.

She struts out of a Tube station on to the stage, racing through a slick and thrillingly choreographed hits medley that encompasses more than half of the songs on her recent album, Future Nostalgia.

From there, the show finds its footing.

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Host Jack Whitehall delivers his jokes with just enough edge and charm to sneak past the censors - taking aim at Piers Morgan and Laurence Fox, before introducing Olivia Rodrigo to the stage with the memorable line: "In the words of Tiger Woods: 'Driver's License, take it away...'"

Rodrigo casually proceeds to cement her status as pop's most promising newcomer with a flawless performance of her ubiquitous ballad, accompanied by several thousand swaying phone lights.

media captionBrits 2021: Highlights from a female-dominated night

Later, Headie One brings together some of UK rap's leading names - including AJ Tracey and Young T & Bugsey - for a searing rendition of Ain't It Different and Princess Cuts, whose modified lyrics took aim at the demonisation of drill music and black youth.

"What else can a drill youth rap about part from my worst days," rapped the star, whose real name is Irving Adjei. "You see me on stage but I was in jail for three of my birthdays.

"Two black Brits stand here at the Brits but still we ain't seen as British"

Powerful and well-received in the arena, it is clearly aiming for the impact of Dave's performance of Black at last year's awards - but the stars' quickfire delivery obscures some of the most effective lines.

image copyrightHeadie One
image captionHeadie One (right) was up for best single for his breakout hit Ain't It Different

Elsewhere, Rising Star winner Griff marks out her territory as one-to-watch with a commanding version of her single Black Hole (performed from inside a black hole, in a victory for literalists everywhere); while Olly Alexander and Sir Elton John give a dramatic reading of It's A Sin, reflecting the impact of the Aids epidemic.

Theirs is another pre-taped performance, as is The Weeknd's rain-soaked rendition of Save Your Tears, but to cut the organisers some slack, a normal show is simply not possible in the current circumstances.

'Back to normality'

While the audience are free to mingle without masks and social distancing, the backstage area still has to adhere to strict Covid rules. That means no dressing rooms and minimal crew, making it almost impossible to stage quick-turnaround performances of the scale we've become used to (many of the acts, I'm told, have had to put on their outfits in a nearby hotel, drive to the venue, then leave again as soon as they come off stage).

"I was mad Elton John wasn't here in person but otherwise it was brilliant," says Christy Black, who's come to see the show from Bow in London.

"Honestly, the emotion you feel when you hear live music is like no other. You can't get that from Spotify. You can't get that from YouTube. When you're around people and you're all enjoying it together, it can't get any better."

"It's nice to be back to normality," says Ashley Singh, a college worker from Stratford. "I've missed live music massively. It's such an important part of our lives.

"To be back here was a real punctuation mark to the end of this pandemic. Next month, hopefully, things will go back to normal."

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image captionRag 'n' Bone Man was backed by the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir for his performance of Anywhere Away From Here

The majority of the audience are keyworkers, and every mention of their efforts during the Covid crisis receives an instant standing ovation.

Dua Lipa leads the charge, backing Dame Elizabeth Anionwu's campaign to give higher wages to nurses. Harry Styles, Rag 'n' Bone Man and Little Mix add their voices to the chorus, too. Even Taylor Swift, who normally lives in LA, praises the "help and support we got from the NHS" over the last year.

"To hear Taylor Swift say the words NHS just blew me away," says Gemma Fagan, an NHS dietician who specialises in intestinal failure. "And Dua saying Boris should give us a pay rise? I couldn't cope."

"We worked so hard during the lockdown without time off," says Crystal Ihenachor, a physioptherapist from Leyton. "Our annual leave was cancelled and some of us even lost our patients. So the fact that they thought of the keyworkers was amazing."

image captionLittle Mix made history with their best group win - while Leigh-Ann (left) and Perrie (right) said they were looking forward to becoming new mums

In the end, the actual awards are almost a sideshow - but it's worth noting that, for once, the Brits largely got it right.

Dua Lipa's intergalactic disco opus Future Nostalgia is the big winner, scooping album of the year. Billie Eilish is named best international female, confirming her position as the current queen of pop. Taylor Swift is named a global icon because, well, she is one.

The Weeknd, so mystifyingly snubbed at this year's Grammys, takes home best international male - and receives a eulogy from Michelle Obama. "In a tough year, he's provided a light that's pretty blinding and given us all a reason to dance," she observes.

Meanwhile, Little Mix correct a historic wrong by becoming the first girl band to win best British group.

They dedicate their win to all their overlooked predecessors - sending thousands of journalists to Wikipedia to check who beat the Spice Girls in 1997 (Manic Street Preachers, which isn't as bad as it could have been, given that Kula Shaker were also up for the prize).

The audience greet every twist and turn with uproarious applause, clearly giddy at being allowed to hear loud music again without the neighbours banging on the walls.

"I'm not going to lie: Prior to this event I was so nervous and anxious about coming out," says Shanelle Nwanebi, a marketer from London.

"But once we were in the arena, it just came naturally. It didn't feel like we'd been locked down for a whole year. The whole ambience and environment, I absolutely loved it."

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