Politics and powerful performances at the 2020 Brits – but no shock winners

Lewis Capaldi predictably took home more than one award at a Brits night that nevertheless rewarded innovative talent, from Billie Eilish to Dave and Tyler, the Creator

The row about female representation at the Brits was rumbling on unabated in the lead-up to the awards ceremony. The most recent contributions included best group nominees D-Block Europe complaining that music remains “a man’s game – what’s the head of every label?”, while Piers Morgan gamely attempted to blame the situation on transgender people. A variety of presenters and award-winners subsequently mentioned it, from Paloma Faith to Foals, and presenter Jack Whitehall made a surprisingly cutting joke about it: “In the spirit of sustainability, the Brits have been recycling all sorts of excuses for why there were so few women nominated.”

But there’s a sense in which the actual winners of the 2020 Brits represented an attempt to convince the public it was all very much business as usual: nothing to get upset about here, kindly move along. The kind of unscripted events that made last year’s Mercury prize ceremony genuinely interesting for the first time in years – Slowthai brandishing an effigy of Boris Johnson’s severed head; one of Black Midi running full pelt into a grand piano with a sickening thud, then attempting to style it out while visibly in great discomfort – were noticeable by their absence.

There were extravagant set-pieces from Stormzy and Lizzo, and the sight of Billie Eilish enjoying yet another co-sign from an artist of a more mature vintage, this time Johnny Marr, playing guitar on her Bond theme No Time to Die. But it was left to rapper Dave and Tyler, the Creator to provide the solitary edgy moments of the evening. The latter mentioned Theresa May’s successful attempt to have him banned from the country while she was home secretary – “I bet she’s pissed,” he noted – while Dave extemporised an extra verse during the evening’s standout performance, a version of his single Black, short on bells and whistles but big on emotional clout, during which he bluntly called the prime minister a racist.

Otherwise, shocks of any kind were thin on the ground: you could, if you were absolutely desperate, make a song-and-dance about the fact that Foals won best group rather than the more commercially successful Bastille or Coldplay, but it’s hardly an unknown artist suddenly escaping the margins to snatch victory from beneath the noses of the bookies’ favourites. Elsewhere, there was never really any doubt that Mabel was going to win female solo artist – Charli XCX and FKA twigs may boast more critical acclaim, but neither of them had a hit as big as Don’t Call Me Up, which spent over six months in the charts – while Lewis Capaldi, or The Remarkable Talent That Is Lewis Capaldi, as Jack Whitehall insisted on calling him, was a shoo-in for new artist and song from the start: you don’t make the UK’s biggest-selling single and album of the year and go home empty-handed from the Brits.

In truth, the closest the actual awards came to a genuine surprise was that The Remarkable Talent That Is Lewis Capaldi didn’t win more awards. Essentially predicated on rewarding commercial success, you might have expected the Brits to give him everything, up to and including the on stage autocue, but Dave’s Psychodrama added to its Mercury win by clinching album of the year, a rare moment when you got the feeling the voting academy might have been listening to the music rather than concentrating on the sales figures.

An extravagant set piece … Lizzo’s performance at the Brits.
An extravagant set piece … Lizzo’s performance at the Brits. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

For all that, there were times when the Brits made you feel good about the current state of pop music albeit simply by holding up a mirror to the charts. Psychodrama is a great album – powerful, thoughtful, moving, intense – that went to No 1 and spawned three Top 10 singles. International female solo artist winner Billie Eilish’s ascendency to imperious teen superstardom has been achieved by making genuinely great music that sounds like the expression of a uniquely skewed personality rather than a craven attempt to make something that the maximum number of people will like. Tyler’s album Igor offered a perfect example of how its author has managed to outrun his initial notoriety, ditching the obnoxious shock value without compromising a desire to experiment.

As for the ongoing situation regarding female representation, it’s perhaps instructive to look back at the 2016 Brits, where the nominations for female solo artist included Amy Winehouse, who’d died five years previously, the implication being that there were so few female artists worthy of consideration that the awards had to scour the hereafter to make up the numbers. In that respect, too, this year’s awards were business as usual.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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