We head to The Brits 2021 as O2 Arena opens as part of UK Gov Events Research Programme

It’s been a long time between expensive cocktails for the UK music business. The last major awards show to take place in front of a live audience – the BRITs 2020, as it happens – took place 15 months ago. So, no wonder that, after over a year of Zoom calls and misery, some people had forgotten quite how these things work.

With hugging still outlawed in the UK until Monday, guests arriving at the O2 Arena had to navigate a wave of uncertain fist bumps, awkward elbow taps and socially distanced air kissing. But once inside, the event itself seemed determined to wrap everybody – artists, 1,500 industry guests and 2,500 key workers – in the warmest possible embrace.

After a year of darkness, just being in a venue with other people was enough for some. Despite the requirement to check negative Covid tests, tickets and ID, progress into the O2 Arena was remarkably frictionless, with cheery staff clearly delighted to be back doing what they do best: putting on great events.

And once inside their suites, the biz could also return to relative normality, the bars and corridors buzzing with the joy of random encounters with people you’ve only seen on Zoom calls and social media in recent times. There was less of the excess normally seen at these events – although the suite level toilets were still decorated with vomit by the end of the night – but this was an important first step back for an industry that works better together than apart.

The last-minute decision to allow an audience under the UK government’s Events Research Programme must have been stressful, but showrunners Rebecca Allen, president of EMI Records, and Selina Webb, EVP of Universal Music UK, put on a seamless show in uniquely testing circumstances, showcasing a recorded music industry that has remained in good shape throughout the pandemic.

True, the lack of major releases by the UK’s biggest stars could have been a stumbling block, which is probably why the likes of Coldplay, Elton John, Years & Years and Rag’N’Bone Man had such prominent performance slots, despite not actually being nominated.

No one really picked up on this – but the nominations for the major UK categories were shared amongst a smaller pool of artists than at any other BRITs of recent years. Hopefully this is pandemic-related rather than an indication of any shortage of British talent, but it did mean a lot of crossover between awards, and that the likes of Arlo Parks and Headie One were elevated to mainstream national exposure for the first time.

Breaking artists has become harder than ever under coronavirus, but both rose to the occasion – particularly Headie’s collaboration with AJ Tracey and Young T & Bugsey, which pulled no punches lyrically or visually. Headie was amongst many using their BRITs platform wisely, with many winners and presenters promoting their causes (and almost everyone obliging with a shout out to the exuberant key workers that made up the majority of the audience). Thankfully, the UK’s one, true, 2021 superstar, Dua Lipa, was also there, with a powerhouse medley from her pop classic album Future Nostalgia, a get-up that paid homage to the Spice Girls and Amy Winehouse, and some thoughtful acceptance speeches.

She won two awards (helping her label, Warner Records, top the music industry competition with three gongs in total), but even Dua couldn’t dominate the ceremony the way some have in the past (she lost out to token male winner Harry Styles for Best Single). But then the BRITs electoral college seems to have successfully moved on from the one-artist-to-rule-them-all approach that was once this ceremony’s signature, in favour of honouring diversity, in all senses of the word.

It was all a long way away from the drunken chaos of the ‘90s – which somehow still holds sway as ‘what the BRITs should be like’ for a section of the audience. The last bastion of those indie-rock days was breached this year, as Little Mix, somewhat incredibly, became the first all-female act to win British Group (although Five Star, with three female members out of five, did pick it up in 1987).

Despite the pandemic, the reliance on big US names remained, with The Weeknd and Pink both appearing via video (less understandably, Elton John and Years & Years also pre-recorded their duet). The Weeknd’s appearance was a ringing endorsement for the BRITs after his Grammys debacle, but it’s a shame Taylor Swift (who, despite her most prolific and successful year yet, bafflingly missed out on the International Female Solo Artist award to a largely inactive Billie Eilish) couldn’t mark becoming the first ever woman, and first ever international artist to pick up the Global Icon with a live set. Thankfully, her wonderfully warm speech and evident delight at being there made up for it.

And it’s a pity that the show didn’t do more to highlight the ongoing live music crisis. After all, the O2 is not the only venue to have been closed, and few of the artists showcased so expertly by the BRITs would have made it to such giddy heights without the assistance of the grassroots circuit.

Ratings were also, inevitably, down again to 2.9 million – although less calamitously so than many pandemic awards ceremonies. But the reviews were good, the social media buzz was palpable and, overall, this was an inclusive, positive show that kept the hits coming but wasn’t afraid to dig deeper when it needed to.

Ultimately, given that – just a couple of months ago – attending a live awards ceremony with several thousand other, maskless people would have been the stuff of a madman’s dreams, the very existence of the BRITS seemed like a minor miracle. That it was also a great show is a bonus few would have seen coming back in February, when the ceremony would traditionally take place, and we were all stuck indoors.

So hats off to the key worker audience, who made the BRITs seem more like a proper pop extravaganza than usual. Salutes to the multiple teams behind the scenes, who made the BRITs run more smoothly than ever. A nod of respect to host Jack Whitehall, who is one of the very few BRITs hosts to ever raise a genuine laugh in the actual room and who has grown into the role so well that, by the end, the only person saying he wouldn’t get invited back next year was himself. Thank you, of course, to the artists who managed to conjure musical magic after a year like no other. And yes, respect to the music industry itself, which has helped those artists continue to lift spirits around the world.

The industry may have been dissed as “corporate wankers” by Whitehall, but no one really minded. After all, by the time the BRITs returns in 2022, the world should be back to normal, and hugging and backslapping will once again be socially acceptable – although hopefully the progressive spirit of 2021 will continue.

In the meantime, the BRIT Awards 2021 was a welcome reminder of the enduring power of music – and the most refreshing drink possible after a long, dry year…