It’s a fitting end to the British Music Experience (BME) exhibition: to close a celebration of British Music, it is surely logical to point towards the awards that claim to do just that. At the end of a chronological journey through the history of popular British music beginning with Acker Bilk and his clarinet, moving from The Beatles to Bowie to The Spice Girls, and culminating in a display on the BRIT Awards. But do the BRITs always reflect the diverse, multifarious nature of British music?
There is a quote by Mark Ronson written on the side of the BRIT Awards case: “The cool thing about being nominated for the BRITs is just being considered to be British”. The awards have been interlinked with patriotism since they were launched in 1977 to celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee. They were originally named The British Record Industry Britannia Awards, and the winning statuettes depict Britannia, the female personification of Roman Britain. Nominees have frequently interrogated what it means to be British and a musician. When Geri Halliwell wore the now-iconic Union Jack mini-dress in 1997, it was a clear signal that Britishness was not just a vital component of The Spice Girls’ brand but something to be celebrated. In 2008, the Arctic Monkeys arrived dressed as country gentleman to an uneasy audience, who could not decide if it was a celebration or a critique of traditional British values.
The suggestion that the BRITs reflect the best of all British music begins to seem problematic when charting the success of different genres. There is a glaring link between what is deemed quintessentially British in music and white, all-male bands. Frequent winners have included Take That, Coldplay and U2; Robbie Williams remains the artist with the most awards at 18. The success of Britpop in the 90s epitomises the problematic conflation of Britishness and whiteness at the BRIT Awards. Black musicians, and their contribution to British music through genres such as Soul, RnB, Jazz and Hip hop, were consistently side lined. The BRITs endorsed commercial Britpop because it was a safe option; they gave a platform to bands that thrived off meaningless controversy without being political. Headlines about controversy at the BRITs prioritised the Oasis vs. Blur feud when they should have focused on the appalling lack of representation.
In 2007, the BRITs scrapped the ‘British Urban Act’ award, in a move that some claimed was an attempt to recognise BAME musicians and their vital contributions to British music. ‘Urban’ has historically been used to homogenise black musicians; it perpetuates an age-old stereotype that black music cannot be mainstream, and must be judged in a separate, ‘other’ category. However, nothing immediately changed. One of the objects in the Brit Awards case is a golden microphone that Leona Lewis used in her 2008 performance of ‘Bleeding Love’. Despite being nominated for four awards, and holding the fifth best-selling album of the 2000s, the singer left empty handed.
In recent years, a backlash to the BRIT Awards has surfaced; high profile criticism of the Oscars and the Grammys has made it harder for the public to ignore the blatant discrimination at the heart of the creative industry. Hashtags such as #BritsSoWhite have gone viral and prompted an online discussion. In 2015, Kanye West’s landmark performance of All Day felt like a watershed moment when he brought a large group of British Grime stars on stage. West’s performance forced the BRITs to recognise British Grime as a contemporary and relevant genre that should be celebrated. And yet in 2016, the committee failed to nominate a single British Black artist in any of the major categories. In 2017, David Bowie beat Skepta to the ‘British Album of the Year’ award; a dead, white man was more relevant than one of the biggest current Grime stars. That year had seen key Grime stars speak out on political issues and endorse or criticism politicians. Once again, the BRITs picked the safe, non-political option.
There is hope that the BRIT Awards will finally step up this year. Neo-soul singer Jorja Smith has already won the ‘Critic’s Choice’ Award and Dua Lipa has become the first woman to be nominated for five awards. Criticism has surfaced over the lack of confirmed women performing; the recent backlash to Lorde’s absence from the Grammys is a stark warning that the BRITs do not make the same mistake.
The final piece in the BRIT Awards case is the lyrics to Adele’s Chasing Pavements. Having won 9 awards, Adele remains the most successful woman artist at the BRITs. She deserves this achievement; I only hope that others get the recognition they deserve.