This year's list is characteristically awful, argues columnist Mark Beaumont
It came as no surprise to me to learn this week that Celine Dion is a footsoldier of Belzebub. The Pennsylvania priest who accused her gender-blind children’s clothing range featuring Illuminati eyes and skulls of being “satanic” was falling for Satan’s classic diversionary tactics though. Celine Marie Dion – a chilling anagram of ‘die on l’marine ice’ – has been making music like the devil’s flatulence for over thirty years. And not even using up any of His best tunes.
Yes, the truly cloven-footed ones don’t blow their cover easy. Ozzy Osbourne? Too doddery. Marilyn Manson? Too try-hard. Jay-Z? Allow that guy into your secret satanic society and he’ll start selling baseball jackets with ‘I’m A Member Of The Gettysburg Goat Garrotters’ splashed across the back of them. No, the devil’s work happens behind closed doors, by surreptitious email or whispered agreement, entrusted to a shadowy cabal gathered for one purpose, and one alone. To meet each winter solstice on some blasted heath, to choose the next host of Satan’s very soul, and to bestow upon them, by some infernal ritual, the Brits Critics’ Choice Award.
If the mysterious coven of newspaper music editors, radio producers and critics that supposedly vote for the winner actually exist – they’ve never been photographed together, presumably because they don’t show up on film – then their souls are black indeed. Given the opportunity to put a ground-breaking, challenging and potentially culture-rejuvenating unknown act before an audience of millions, they instead select the most predictable lowest-common-denominator dross that’s clearly machine-tooled to keep the major labels churning over for another year. No white-boy soul singer is too irrelevant. No by-numbers R&B warbler is too innocuous. No regurgitator of whatever was popular last year is too obvious for their needs. And in their ditchwater dull choices, inch by inch, they hammer the stake closer to British music’s once proudly pounding heartbeat.
This year’s shortlist is characteristically unimaginative. There’s Sam Fender, the Bastille one. Mahalia, the R&B one. And Lewis Capaldi, the slightly wonky white-boy soul one who looks, according to one NME wit, like Tom Chaplin’s attic twin. Who will win? If you have an opinion, seek professional help. Only the accountants care. The whole Brits charade of critical anointment is designed purely to balance projected profit spreadsheets; the fact that every gormless soul dullard that wins is another bullet in the kneecap of Britain’s musical reputation and development doesn’t register, of such high quality, I presume, are the boardroom biscuits.
The award’s faux air of critical respectability has had an even more insidious effect. By some kind of cultural osmosis, the entire media has decided as one that we now have to respect mainstream pop music. Which meeting did I miss? Like me, you would have read all of the five-star reviews of The 1975’s new album. Like me, you will have gone off to listen to it. And if you’re like me, you might well have thought that if it was shit when Imagine Dragons did it in 2012 – or, on some songs, when Michael Bolton did it in 1989 – why is it suddenly a post-modern millennial masterpiece now that an ex-heroin addict who’s heard of Snapchat and Cambridge Analytica is doing it? Culture’s judgement is dulled, music’s Overton window has shifted deep into the Walliams Zone, Reading & Leeds is a pop festival, bland is genius. “Everyone likes everything now,” has become the new “I was only following orders”.
I’ve ranted about the Bastillification of music in these virtual pages before, but it’s not like the Critics Choice contributors have to look far to find brilliant new talent. The internet is a Yellowstone volcano of amazing acts you’ll never see celebrated on a mainstream awards show or get linked to by a whistleblower algorithm that’s gone rogue. Just this week, clearing out my inbox, I’ve fallen for Henry Jamison, The C.I.A., Black Futures, Famous, Two, Telekinesis, Silverbacks, Suzi Wu, Spielbergs and, oh yes, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, a band that Starbucks customers need to hurry to stream before the wanking ban kicks in. Enough of those are British to blow the current shortlist a new Crit-hole. Those critics need to make a real choice – to keep the Universal and Warners shareholder reports rosy, or music vital.