The BRIT Awards have been many things over their 46-year history, but they have never been Saturday night entertainment. Until now.
The 2023 edition moved to Saturday night in search of a ratings boost (the slot traditionally attracts the biggest audience of the U.K. TV week, while last year the ceremony pulled in just 2.7 million midweek viewers), although it seems likely most of the target demographic would be out on the town, dancing to these songs in less glitzy surroundings than London’s O2 Arena.
The rumor all week was that broadcasters wanted a safe, conservative show to keep the family audience at home happy.
Did they get it? Well, yes and no.
Harry Styles certainly stuck to the script. He has previous experience as Mr. Saturday Night, of course, first coming to public attention as a member of One Direction in this very slot as a contestant on “The X Factor.” 1D actually finished third in that contest, but Styles was tonight’s undisputed winner; opening the show with an exuberant, if straightforward, run through “As It Was” and going on to win four gongs.
Pop/R&B Act, Song of the Year, Artist of the Year and Mastercard Album of the Year, all for his Grammy-winning “Harry’s House” album, brought him back to the stage for speeches laced with rather more gratitude than attitude, although he did at least address the big pre-show controversy over the all-male shortlist for Artist of the Year, after gendered categories were scrapped last year (not to mention his baffling, much-criticized comment when accepting the Grammy for album of the year just six days ago, “This doesn’t happen to people like me very often”).
“I’m very aware of my privilege up here tonight,” he said, referencing just some of the female artists overlooked by Academy voters to warm applause. “So this is for Rina [Sawayama], Charli [XCX], Florence [+ the Machine], Mabel and Becky [Hill].”
But this BRITs also offered an alternative narrative. Because the other big winners were Wet Leg – the sort of quirky indie rockers who dominated this event in its ‘90s heyday, but barely get a look in nowadays. Their performance went full “Midsommar” as they hurtled through “Chaise Longue” – a rare indie rock song that can compete with the pop bangers on their own terms – accompanied by a whirl of folk dancers and people dressed as woodland creatures. And their two acceptance speeches, for winning Group of the Year and Best New Artist, were just as attention-grabbing.
Firstly, lead vocalist Rhian Teasdale quoted Arctic Moneys’ 2014 BRITs speech – “That rock’n’roll, eh? It just won’t go away…” – a reference seemingly lost on most of the 2023 crowd, but hitting home with indie rockers. Then, when they returned to the stage a second time, bassist Ellis Durand blurted out “Fuck the Tories” as his parting shot – an outburst that was censored for the live broadcast but that brought a huge cheer in the room.
There was a time when the nation’s rock stars could be relied on to bring plenty of such controversy to the live show, but this year it seemed that most of the storms were of the BRITs’ own making.
Take this year’s Rising Star winners, hotly tipped R&B group FLO. Not only did they not perform on the telecast, but they weren’t even presented with their award (that happened on the red carpet earlier), although they did get to endure one of host Mo Gilligan’s random table chats.
The group not playing live seemed a curious decision given a) industry concerns over the lack of new breakthrough U.K. artists and b) the controversial absence of R&B artists from the best pop/R&B category (won, inevitably, by Harry Styles). Indeed, all of the British winners presented on the night were white.
One of the acts FLO beat to Rising Star – singer-songwriter Cat Burns – did get to perform her hit “Go,” doing a fine job of enhancing the slowburning hit with an orchestra. Indeed, orchestras and choirs were everywhere, also employed by Stormzy – usually a BRITs firebrand but as muted here as his tasteful ochre-toned outfit – and Lewis Capaldi, inexplicably introduced by Gilligan as “Sam Capaldi,” an incident immediately lampooned by Capaldi on his social media.
Sam Smith & Kim Petras did not go down the stripped-down route – not in that sense anyway – but still delivered a much more PG13 performance of “Unholy” here than at the Grammys. While the closing medley from David Guetta – voted producer of the year – featuring Becky Hill, Ella Henderson and Sam Ryder felt as generic a Saturday night finale as you’d find in any provincial nightclub.
International-wise, Beyoncé won two awards but sent video messages, meaning it was down to Lizzo to show the BRITs what a showstopping awards performance really looks like. She duly obliged, performing with what looked like a fluffy pink couch on her shoulders, her flute-enhanced, twerk-heavy medley of songs from “Special” was probably the one moment guaranteed to get viewers at home off their sofas and up and dancing.
But if the performances were slick, the stuff around them was sometimes anything but. After two years of Covid restrictions, the famously raucous music-industry tables returned to the O2 arena floor and aftershow parties were once more booking out upscale venues (Universal Music Group took over 180 Studios, Sony Music Group hosted at the Nobu Hotel and Warner Music Group partied hard at the Nomad).
New WMG CEO Robert Kyncl flew in for the show and was spotted sat next to CEO of recorded music, Max Lousada. Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer was also in the house, on hand to congratulate Styles on his multiple wins. Meanwhile, this year’s BRITs chairman, Atlantic MD/president of promotions Damian Christian, was relaxed enough to be sat at his table, rather than pacing nervously backstage.
Rumors swept the arena that former Prime Minister Liz Truss was a guest in one industry box and, if so, she would surely have recognized the BRITs’ ability to generate chaos in such a short timeframe. Random guests (Stanley Tucci! Shania Twain! Some people from “Emily in Paris”!) popped up repeatedly to no great purpose. Gilligan – who should be comfortable on Saturday Night TV after well-received stunts on “The Masked Singer” and “That’s My Jam” – remains a comedian seemingly in search of some actual jokes. Singer Tom Grennan made a comment about co-presenter Ellie Goulding’s anatomy that we won’t dignify by repeating, but was about as tone-deaf as one can be in 2023. And an increasingly random selection of presenters seemed to be engaged in a competition to see who could say the daftest thing while giving away an award. While, towards the end, a “technical difficulty” meant they had to show a video of Adele’s performance from last year to fill some space.
That at least gave everyone a chance to catch their breath from a BRITs that was somehow both predictable and unpredictable, a tad bland and rather edgy, depending on your standpoint.
Just another Saturday night in the U.K., in other words.
Winners in full:
Artist of the Year – Harry Styles
Group of the Year – Wet Leg
BRITs Rising Star – FLO
Song of the Year – “As It Was” – Harry Styles
Best New Artist – Wet Leg
MasterCard Album of the Year – “Harry’s House” – Harry Styles
Producer of the Year – David Guetta
Songwriter of the Year – Kid Harpoon
Best Rock/Alternative Act – The 1975
Best Hip-Hop/Grime/Rap Act – Aitch
Best Dance Act – Becky Hill
Best Pop/R&B Act – Harry Styles
International Artist of the Year – Beyoncé
International Group of the Year – Fontaines DC
International Song of the Year – “Break My Soul” – Beyoncé
From Variety US