Rihanna mashed up with the Klaxons. Lemar and Jamelia covering Addicted to Love. B*Witched, Billie Piper, Cleopatra, Tina Cousins and Steps performing the music of Abba. The Brits is where the nation that brought you guitar-pop, grime and rave presents itself as a Butlins weekend curated by a panicked, time-poor aunt.
But this year it might be different. Finally aware it’s part of a hashtagging world stage, the Brits is booking some international big guns: Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Madonna. And it’s a year in which Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith are the two biggest solo males on the planet. We might finally get a proper slate of blue-chip pop! Bathetically introduced by Ant and Dec!
Whatever happens, we’ll be reviewing all the performances here as they happen, beginning with show opener Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift – Blank Space
For perhaps the first time in her career, Taylor is introduced by a pair of Geordies and Marco Pierre White. Blank Space is her bunny-boiler anthem where she doesn’t entirely convince us she’s driven insane by lust into courting a series of players – and its minimalist verses make for a rather tempered, non-bombastic opener. She does a perfectly pleasant vocal performance held aloft by big backing vox and strummed guitars. Her dancers meanwhile channel perhaps the greatest awards show routine of all time, Chris Brown’s MTV routine in 2007.
Sam Smith – Lay Me Down
Cultivating facial hair that’s somewhere between Miami porn star and working men’s club doorman, Sam trots out a note-perfect ballad about – guess what? – asking if someone will at least pretend to love him. The plodding Somewhere Like You piano chords give him plenty of room for melisma as a pyramid string section does some simple simpering. With every neatly parcelled delivery of emotion, the guy who sang La La La, Latch and Money on My Mind – who could have been a properly rounded pop star – veers towards a Heart FM ghetto.
Royal Blood – Figure It Out
Fresh from the their best British group win, the two lads play their big single, and it still has the air of something you’re really pleased with being able to play on Guitar Hero but don’t necessarily want to listen to. Still, it’s stripped back and palate-cleansing, and has a hint of funk in the choppy rhythm stabs before the headbanging finale which lift it slightly above bland proficiency. Personally, I prefer them when they dial up their math-rock vibes. “That was pwoper!” opines Ant.
Ed Sheeran – Bloodstream
Fresh from being pretty much the best thing at the Grammys – which with its Annie Lennox performance actually out Brits’d the Brits – Sheeran plays his new Rudimental collabo for his homecoming. He goes completely stripped-back, using a loop pedal and acoustic guitar, and it’s his bread and butter – for all the Pharrell productions, it’s this immediacy that has paradoxically won him three sold out nights at Wembley Stadium. As he batters his acoustic with his hands and blurs the strings, he’s set the bar high for Kanye for the most stirring performance of the evening. Also, as the only moon-faced ginger white man to have appeared on the cover of Vibe and convincingly covered OT Genasis, he can somehow get away with saying “faded” to mean drunk.
Kanye West – All Day
It’s spot-the-British-rapper time with Kanye playing a turnt new track called All Day (a bit of which was leaked last year). Skepta gets a shout out fresh from his NY fashion week takeover, and I think there may have been Jammer, Meridian Dan, Novelist, Krept and Konan... I can’t tell for sure. Perhaps he wanted to let grime-loving Drake know that he’s still the king of being up on obscure subcultural stuff. Anyway, it’s completely massive – between the blanked out cussing (and a non-blanked n-word) Kanye rides a peppy club banger as giant flames criss-cross above the all-black-everything crew. Taylor does her now obligatory white girl dancing. This could be the definitive huge single from the rapper’s new LP – and is quite a coup for the Brits.
Take That – Let In The Sun
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Another one from the fag end of the man-band’s tax-dodging, Mumford-channelling blandly aspirational late period. When they came back with Patience, which began this style, they were genuinely uplifting because there was a note of humility and vulnerability – now twisted into the kind of thing to soundtrack the drive home from a successful afternoon at the SCS sale, they are among the most venal musicians in the UK. Jason did well to get out when he did.
George Ezra – Budapest
In another year, Ezra could have been celebrating best British male, and this is a nice if unremarkable live arrangement of his ubiquitous hit. Dinky little organ chords ride along the rattling Mystery Train beat, as George sings the irresistible hook – it has the sense of being both meandering and determined that many great melodies share. Ezra’s success, and Royal Blood’s for that matter, might point to tastes tending towards more pared-back fare after a sonically glutted couple of years – suddenly Avicii and those infernal Take That blokes seem caught very much on the wrong side of the minimal/maximal divide.
Paloma Faith – Only Love Can Hurt Like This
The brass sounds fatter than ever on what is easily Faith’s best song to date. Standing under what looks like the Barbican’s Rain Room installation, balletic dancers clench and unravel behind her as she kicks down the top notes with complete authority, black ink trailing down her arms. It has the makings of a songbook classic. The drama is completely destroyed in an instant though as she shouts out her management company literally a second after she finishes. The frustrating bind of industry-minded British pop summed up in a single moment.
Madonna – Living For Love
Oh, didn’t think we’d get this after its Grammys outing. Madonna has suffered from Bjork syndrome of late: collaborating with the hottest production talent, sometimes using multiple examples in a single track, but not joining the dots with songwriting. Living For Love however manages to blend a properly good chorus with the backing track, even if you can still very much see the seams.
Once again, the look is “bejewelled sex-toreador”. She struts convincingly around the opening bars and then disaster: as her cape is yanked off she’s pulled off her podium and clatters to the floor! But as befits Madge, who has risen phoenix-like more times than anyone can remember, she’s a proper trooper and completes the song, though a little more muted than you might have otherwise expected. Many lesser performers would have missed an entire verse at such a nasty fall. Kudos!
So that’s it. A pretty safe Brits, and arguably one that shows how conservative British pop is right now – but not without strong traditional songwriting. And it was positively vibe-strewn compared with the drably balladeering Grammys. Kanye was the high point by some chalk, taking the anger of Yeezus and ramping it up for the club, and cementing grime as the cloth that credible rappers love to drape themselves in. Now someone go get Madonna an ice pack.