“I guess we can hug now, right?” one friend says to another as they head from the concourse of The O2 into the cavernous arena for the 2021 BRIT Awards. For many in attendance in London tonight, it represents the first time they’ve been able to embrace their loved ones in over a year.
Following a Blossoms gig and two-day rave in Liverpool earlier this month, the 2021 awards is the latest event to take place as part of the government’s Events Research Programme, gathering data at a number of test events to facilitate the return of live performances. As such, the awards – the first relatively normal awards ceremony held in the world since last March – forego social distancing for one night and create a mini paradise shut off from the real world.
Along with plush suites full of “corporate wankers” (host Jack Whitehall’s words, not ours), the BRITs also hosts 2,500 frontline workers in the audience tonight, and the evening justifiably revolves around them. While many free gigs for NHS workers were announced from Liam Gallagher, Manic Street Preachers and more during the first wave of the pandemic last year, ongoing COVID restrictions have meant the dates have been pushed back and unable to be fulfilled as of yet. As such, tonight is the first time the industry has been able to give back to those who made something like tonight possible in the first place.
Ahead of the show, everyone in attendance has to return a negative rapid test result, with another PCR test taken on the day of the show. After a wary first few minutes inside the venue, with the audience acclimatising to surroundings they’ve been unable to witness in 14 months, sheer joy takes over as Coldplay open the show with a pre-recorded performance of euphoric new single ‘Higher Power’, recorded last week on a pontoon on the River Thames outside the venue.
Then, once Dua Lipa plays an outstanding medley of over half the songs from second album ‘Future Nostalgia’, all inhibitions are a distant memory. It’s a travesty that the singer has had to wait over a year to bring her chart-topping pop behemoth of a second album to a live audience, and along with British Breakthrough award-winner Arlo Parks and teen megastar Olivia Rodrigo, the night is full of in-person confirmations of the star status these acts have reached since they were last allowed to be on stage.
Some remnants of life in a pandemic do linger at tonight’s ceremony. “I wanna grab you but I can’t – we’re social distancing,” Taylor Swift says to Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as she presents her with her Global Icon Award. Key workers pack the lower tier of seating, while the floor of the arena – usually filled by a small section of dancing fans and a bustling cauldron of a hundred-or-so tables for artists – is largely barren, with only two people allowed at each table and a significantly reduced star guestlist. Despite this, the presence of any crowd at all gives the evening a buzzing energy not seen in a long time, and it fuels every performance, speech and interaction across the night.
It’s a testament to the energy within The O2 tonight that, from inside the arena, even performances from world-beating bands like Coldplay and a perfectly executed artistic statement from The Weeknd (who’s joined by producer Oneohtrix Point Never for an exquisite run-through of the pulsing ‘Save Your Tears’) fall a little flat when beamed in on the big screen; tonight’s all about those inside the room.
Desperately cramming in every meme-ready trend of the last year – Nathan Evans performs a BRITs-themed version of ‘Wellerman’, the four lads in jeans make an appearance, and the show begins with a sketch that crosses over Line of Duty and the notorious Jackie Weaver – the awards clearly wants to make up for lost time. It’s most vital statement, though, is one that works to ensure a brighter future.
While there are deserved nods for record-breaking artists and the last year’s biggest musical stars, the night’s moments most wildly received by the crowd are its political ones. Headie One and AJ Tracey’s performance of ‘Ain’t It Different’ sees them carrying on British rap’s tradition of demanding more of those in power when given the biggest platform at the BRITs.
While recent years have seen Dave call out Boris Johnson and Stormzy demand justice for the residents of Grenfell Tower, tonight’s duo criticise the Government’s pandemic response (“The Government is saying eat out to help out but won’t help out [Marcus] Rashford when he’s feeding the youths”) and paying tribute to those in the room: “It’s only right we show love to the key workers”).
It’s Dua Lipa’s pair of speeches (she wins British Female Solo Artist and Best Album for ‘Future Nostalgia’) that receive by far and away the biggest cheer of the night, though. This year, each winner receives two BRIT Awards, and are encouraged to pass on the second award to someone important to them as an act of kindness.
For her British Female win, Dua calls the idea an “incredible initiative” and announces her plan to share her award with nurse and healthcare icon Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who has “spent her stellar nursing career fighting racial injustice”.
The singer adds, “She has also spent so much time and is a strong, strong advocate for protecting frontline workers,” before going on to criticise Boris Johnson’s one per cent pay-rise for key workers following the pandemic. “It’s very good to clap for them but we need to pay them,” she says to rapturous applause that transforms the atmosphere in the room from one of celebration to a mix of defiant anger and hope.
This continues as she vows to dedicate her Best Album award to Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole, the 20-year-old man who died trying to rescue a woman who fell into the River Thames in April. Joining calls for Jimi to be given a Bravery Award along with Joaquin Garcia, his friend who also helped save the woman and survived along with her, Dua says: “You have touched the hearts of a whole nation and we will never forget you.”
On a night that – by design or not – revolves around its audience of heroes, it’s only fitting that the ceremony ends with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir being given the stage alongside Rag’n’Bone Man and (a remote) P!nk to perform a rousing rendition of ‘Anywhere Away From Here’.
While partly proving the celebratory blowout that everyone in attendance deserved, the 2021 BRITs also carries an air of determination to not stop the fight here and work harder to bring justice for those that made a night like this possible in the first place. While true live entertainment like this will be welcomed back with open arms in a post-pandemic world, tonight proved that it cannot just be a case of going back to normal.