Brits 2014: plenty of talent, but where's the charisma?

You know something's lacking in British music's biggest awards when the talk is all about which US guests might turn up to the event itself

You could perhaps tell the Brit Award nominations were going to be slightly underwhelming by the way the event at which they were announced was trailed in the press. "Pixie Lott to debut comeback single on Brit Award nominations show," screamed one entertainment website's headline. "Track was originally offered to Christina Aguilera," continued the subheading, with a detectable note of bathos.

Come along and hear the world premiere of a song rejected by a more famous and successful US pop star seemed to be the message, which sums up at least one of the Brit awards problems in a nutshell. It sets out to prove to that British rock and pop music is the most exciting in the world – not in itself an entirely ridiculous hypothesis – and almost without fail contrives to suggest the exact opposite. The awards ceremony arrives just after the Grammys, which are bigger, glitzier and attract more impressive names and more interesting on-stage collaborations. The Brits invariably relies on US artists to give it star power: the tabloids currently seem less excited by the prospect that the Arctic Monkeys might win two Brits for the third time than a rumour that Beyoncé might turn up and perform. And this year, the nominations in the US-dominated international categories feel more varied and characterful than their British counterparts: confessional gay singer-songwriter John Grant rubs shoulders with Justin Timberlake and Drake; science-fiction–inspired R&B auteur Janelle Monae contrasts more starkly with Katy Perry or teenage New Zealander Lorde than Ellie Goulding does with Jessie J or Birdie.

The problem for the Brits this year isn't the lack of surprises in the nominations. The Brits isn't in the business of delivering surprises: it exists to reward commercial success, which means it isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know if you've been keeping an eye on the charts. Nor does it lie with the actual quality of much of the British music nominated: Laura Mvula's debut album Sing to the Moon was a pretty daring attempt to push the boundaries of what's deemed acceptable by daytime Radio 2 listeners; the Arctic Monkeys' fifth album AM was a confident and hugely successful riposte to the notion that today's British alt-rock bands are subject to diminishing artistic returns after releasing their debut album; Rudimental and Disclosure's smart pop updating of underground 90s dance styles has genuinely brightened the upper reaches of the charts over the last 12 months. It's just that the artists making a lot of successful British pop and rock at the moment are marked by a weird anonymity.

Disclosure and Rudimental cleave to the dance producer's traditional facelessness. James Blake is a brilliant, idiosyncratic musical auteur, but, with the best will in the world, he is nobody's idea of the most charismatic figure in pop history. Nor is singer-songwriter Laura Marling, however impressively self-assured she has shown herself to be with Once I Was an Eagle, the album that has earned her a nomination for best British female solo artist. Bastille were 2013's big British breakthrough band, but you'd be hard-pushed to mentally conjure the image of what they actually look like. You could argue that this isn't a problem – it's all about the music and so on. Perhaps the issue is that mainstream British rock and pop doesn't really lend itself to a glitzy, primetime televised awards ceremony at the moment – and so the Brit nominations seem to highlight what's currently lacking, not what's to be celebrated.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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