Few awards ceremonies have the same sense of thumping inevitability about them as the Brits. That’s partly because every year, without fail, the media react to their imminent arrival in the same way. The spectre of the ceremony’s past is raised: prepare yourself for the certain appearance of several online galleries featuring the Most Outrageous Moments in the Brits History, plainly a thing of eye-popping shock and revelation for anyone who didn’t know that one of Chumbawamba once threw water over John Prescott and Jarvis Cocker waggled his bum at Michael Jackson. The current Brits head honcho then heaves into view, announcing that the days of drunken chaos are long behind them, deploying the chilling phrase “world-class professionalism” and assuring a grateful nation that they’re in for another year’s ghastly stage-managed craziness and death-dealing patter from the host: come one, come all to pop music’s own joyless office party.
But it’s also because the Brits exist in order to reward commercial success. On the one hand, that means there’s none of the confusion about aims or purpose that attends the Mercury prize. But on the other, it means that the nominations offer nothing in the way of curveballs or shocks to anyone who’s been paying even a little attention to pop over the last 12 months. We can divine from them that Ed Sheeran is hugely popular, and so are a lot of other male singer-songwriters of earnest and earthy bent, that soul singer Sam Smith has done very well for himself, and that a cheerily depthless, dance-music-purist-enraging pop take on 90s house music – in the shape of Clean Bandit, Calvin Harris, Duke Dumont and Route 94 – is still the lingua franca of the UK charts.
None of that is meant as a criticism of the artists in question: Ed Sheeran’s second album is far less winsome and more accomplished than his debut, and there’s a fizzy joy about the best pop-house, including Duke Dumont’s I Got U. It’s merely to underline that the purpose of the Brits is to restate points already made in the charts, which, in the absence of the kind of truly showstopping live performances the Grammys invariably grub up, accounts for the air of so-what? around the event.
Those desperately searching the nominations for anything that might add a vague frisson of surprise suggest it would be nice if FKA Twigs triumphed in the British breakthrough act category, because her debut album is a strange, inventive and idiosyncratic take on R&B, an album that prizes individuality and a unique personal vision. But she’s not going to; Sam Smith is, because Sam Smith has sold 2.5m copies of his debut album – he was outsold in the US only by the Frozen soundtrack and Taylor Swift – and FKA Twigs hasn’t. Likewise, St Vincent and the War on Drugs, two other artists who seem to have fetched up in the best international female and international goup categories, respectively, as a result of critical acclaim rather than sales, and thus seem no more likely to win a Brit award than they are the Nobel prize in physics.