There is something different about the Brit Awards this year. The annual prize-giving ceremony has long been the most colourful showbiz celebration on the UK music calendar, a cheerful blast of glitter and razzmatazz showcasing pop’s biggest-selling superstars. Yet a glance at this year’s candidates reveals a fairly compelling cross-section of the most edgy, eccentric and experimental artists in the country. Far from a parade of familiar mainstream stars, this really is the full spectrum of British pop in all its weird and wonderful glory.
The 2017 shortlist is the most ethnically diverse, artistically daring and cutting edge selection of nominees in the awards’ history. There are multiple nominations for two artists – Kano and Skepta – who perform grime, a hard‑hitting, homegrown rap genre that has long been overlooked at the Brits. There is a transgender artist (Anohni) in the best female category. Black artists, historically under-represented at the Brits, dominate the solo categories four to one, with nods for the rich, funky psychedelia of Michael Kiwanuka, anthemic soul baring of Emeli Sandé, jazzy invention of Lianne La Havas and futuristic R’n’B of Nao.
Across the key categories, you would have to say X Factor girl group Little Mix are the only notable representatives of mainstream manufactured pop, and if you know anything about Little Mix, they are probably the feistiest and least safe exponents of plastic pop you could come up with. They are in the British Group category, where they have to do battle with Radiohead.
That, surely, is what we want from a battle of the bands: apocalyptic doom-mongering rockers going head to head with four lippy ladies in leotards. There is even room on this year’s Brits nominations for two late, great musical geniuses: David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, an inclusive reminder that pop isn’t all about pandering to youth.
Intriguingly, the British Album of the Year selection (featuring Kano, Skepta, Kiwanuka, Bowie and art pop rockers The 1975) looks virtually indistinguishable from last year’s eclectic shortlist for the supposedly high-brow Mercury Prize. It suggests a confluence between what is deemed ground-breaking and crowd-pleasing. Where the critical and the commercial meet, that is the place truly great pop music flourishes.
The Brits started life as the British Record Industry Britannia Awards in 1977 (although they weren’t held annually until 1982). In that first year, when disco and punk were at their zenith, the big winners were the Beatles (disbanded for seven years), Cliff Richard and Shirley Bassey, decisions that could most kindly be described as “safe”. It is a criticism that has been levelled at the awards ever since.
Conceived as a UK equivalent to the American Grammys – and re-labelled the Brits in 1989 – they are effectively a showcase for Britain’s major, mainstream record labels and have always tended to focus more on popularity than critical acclaim. Over the years, their biggest winners have been Robbie Williams and Coldplay (both on nine awards), Take That (eight) and Annie Lennox (who won Best British Female six times in the Eighties and Nineties).
Oasis, One Direction and The Spice Girls are others who have been heavily rewarded for selling lots of records. This criteria has led to some anomalies. Heavy metal parodists The Darkness, for example, have three Brit awards; Radiohead, despite being probably the most acclaimed British band of the past 25 years, have never received one.
But the greatest oversight has been the under-representation of black and ethnic minority musicians. Despite the way artists including Eddy Grant, Soul II Soul, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal have helped shape pop culture, the only black British artist to win multiple significant Brit awards over its four-decade history is Seal.
This is certainly not just a British problem. In America last year, there was huge controversy over the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards. The air of grievance rolled on to the Grammy awards, which has been accused of shutting out minority artists from its main showcase awards (over the past decade, only three minority artists have won Record of the Year, and, in each case, it was in collaboration with Caucasian artists).
Craig David’s treatment at the Brits in 2001 still rankles for some in the black music community. He was coming off a banner year as arguably the slickest R’n’B singer this country had ever produced, and the poster boy for garage, a breakout British dance genre. His debut album, Born to Do It, spawned four number one singles and sold more than eight million copies worldwide. He was nominated in six categories … and walked away empty handed. This year, he’s back, nominated for British Male Solo Artist, and surrounded by contemporary black artists he almost certainly helped inspire. These nominations send a powerful message of inclusivity. More than that, it suggests that the Brits themselves have got real.
This hasn’t come about by accident. Since last year’s ceremony, the BPI has overhauled its membership (the body of people who vote for the prizes), with 1,200 new members invited to help refresh the system. The voter base now has an almost even gender split and 17 per cent of members from minority ethnic communities. And with new members tending to be younger than established voters, the average age has come down considerably.
Such changes have resulted in nominations that reflect the kind of creative boldness that helped make Britain a pop superpower. At a time when the fight for equal rights for transgender people is intensifying, it is fascinating to see Anohni, who was nominated for British Male Solo Artist in 2006 (under the guise of Antony and the Johnsons), nominated for British Female Solo Artist this year. And, in the International Female Solo Artist section, androgynous French singer Heloise Letissier (aka Christine and the Queens) has been recognised for Chaleur Humaine, Britain’s biggest selling debut album last year.
It is also inspiring to see such uncompromising artists as Bon Iver, Nick Cave and the late, great Leonard Cohen among the international categories, as well as both Beyoncé (for Lemonade, her fantastic album wrought from marital discord with Jay Z) and Solange Knowles. Beyoncé’s younger sister released a wonderful psychedelic soul album last year, A Seat at the Table, but is probably still best known in this country for the dramatic CCTV footage which caught her punching and kicking Jay Z in a lift at a New York hotel in 2014.
What is particularly fascinating about these shortlists is that there is no way to tell who is going to win. It helps that 2016 was not dominated by one or two clear blockbuster albums, which tends to lead to the biggest selling artists sweeping the board (as Adele did last year).
This year’s Brits look much more like the charts themselves, with all manner of different genres and styles crashing off one another. The awards have become a showcase for the modernity, ambition and artistry that has kept British pop in such rude health for so long. Any of these nominees would be deserved winners. By allowing them this platform, the Brits have already won.
The Brit Awards will be broadcast on ITV from 7.30pm tonight