The pandemic isn’t over, but awards shows have entered post-COVID territory. Following last month’s Oscars, which gathered hundreds without masks in Los Angeles, the 2021 Brit Awards marked the return of big-time shows to the U.K. There was a packed, unmasked, distanced house of essential workers for the first event back at London’s O2 Arena, and it made for one of the most normal-looking awards shows we’ve seen since this whole mess started. Oh, and there were amazing performances, deserving awards wins, funny awards-show moments, and Coldplay. Nature really is healing! Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the 2021 Brits.
HIGH: Rina Sawayama earned her hard-fought first nomination — and showed up in style.
Rina Sawayama criticized the show’s nominations process back in 2020, noting that as a non-British citizen, she wasn’t eligible for the Brits. Her outspokenness paid off months later, when the awards changed their eligibility rules — and on top of it all, she earned her first nomination, for the Rising Star Award. Sawayama didn’t take the moment for granted, showing up in a stunning purple dress, easily one of the night’s best outfits. She may not have won (and singer-songwriter Griff, who did, seemed no less deserving), but she did flick at a bigger win: an upcoming remix of Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman.” It’s only a matter of years before Rina contends for top honors.
WHOA: Coldplay’s new song sounded good?
Coldplay’s new collaboration with Max Martin is one of the most contentious issues in pop music right now. Is it a boringly derivative moment from a has-been band? Is it song-of-the-summer material? Coldplay made a convincing argument for the latter as the Brits’ openers, performing a bright, high-energy rendition of the song right on the River Thames. (And hey, it sounded better than the song’s debut on American Idol.) If it’s not your song of the summer, maybe now it’s a song you won’t mind hearing this summer?
HIGH: Jack Whitehall earns his spot for another year.
English actor–comedian–Little Mix stan Jack Whitehall has hosted the Brits since 2018, and his act hasn’t gotten stale yet. His asides hit hardest, like when he joked the show “billed tonight’s event as a Niall Horan gig” to reduce capacity. Yes, this Niall Horan–loving writer laughed.
HIGH: Dua Lipa gives a bite-size taste of the Future Nostalgia tour.
As someone who came into her pop stardom during the pandemic, Dua Lipa hasn’t gotten to do many of the Pop-Star Things, like hyperproduced arena tours or showstopping awards-show performances. She crossed one of those off her list at the Brits, with an over-the-top five-minute medley of “Love Again,” “Physical,” “Pretty Please,” “Hallucinate,” and “Don’t Start Now” that showed off her home-turf pride. Nearly 14 months after Future Nostalgia came out, Lipa hasn’t let the music get old. At this rate, she’ll have no trouble filling arenas again come September.
WHOA: Little Mix’s history-making British Group win.
When you think of girl groups, you can’t not think of groups like the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud. Yet those girls never won the Brit for British Group — no girl group had until tonight, when Little Mix took home the award and made history. In an exciting, emotional acceptance, the group thanked former member Jesy Nelson, along with the girls who came before them. “This award isn’t just for us,” Jade Thirlwall said. “It’s for the Spice Girls, Sugababes, All Saints, Girls Aloud — all of the incredible incredible female bands.” And what a treat for moms-to-be Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Perrie Edwards, too!
LOW: Olivia Rodrigo strips back “drivers license” even more, to mixed effect.
It was just Olivia Rodrigo, a piano, and a harp onstage for her Brits debut, playing an even more stripped-back performance of “drivers license” than the one she cut in the studio. The song came off a bit sleepy without percussion to move it along and up the stakes, especially when it came to that climactic bridge. Luckily, she’ll have a chance to rectify things in just a few days on Saturday Night Live, and walked away with the most-coveted win of the night anyway: meeting her idol Taylor Swift.
WHOA: A sea shanty!
And an even bigger whoa: Olly Murs!?
HIGH: Arlo Parks breaks through.
The biggest winner of the night may not have been Dua Lipa, Harry Styles, or the Weeknd, but up-and-coming London singer-songwriter Arlo Parks, who snagged a big win for Breakthrough Artist and delivered a poised, moving performance of “Hope,” complete with a spoken-word interlude and a horn section. Next stop: U.S.?
WHOA: Dua Lipa with a message!
Dua Lipa opened her acceptance for British Female Solo Artist by shouting out the women at this year’s show — and indeed, it was a banner year for gender parity at the Brits, with four of the five British Album of the Years nominees being woman, along with a majority of wins going to women, including Little Mix’s aforementioned historic victory. Then, after her requisite thank-you’s, Lipa dedicated her award (part of a new initiative by the Brits, encouraging winners to give a tiny trophy to someone else deserving) to Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, a groundbreaking English nurse who has been outspoken about racial inequality in healthcare during the pandemic. Lipa turned the dedication into a call to raise pay for frontline workers, encouraging the audience to “give a massive, massive round of applause, and give Boris [Johnson] a message that we all support a fair pay rise for our frontline.” As the woman of the night, Lipa didn’t squander her platform — when she returned to the stage to accept British Album of the Year, she dedicated that trophy to Folajimi “Jimi” Olubunmi-Adewole, who died earlier this year while saving a woman who fell from London Bridge.
HIGH: Olly Alexander and Elton John’s wonderfully sexy, fantastically gay “It’s a Sin” duet.
Stateside, the Grammys often catch criticism for bringing together disparate artists for contrived “Grammy moments” that often just don’t work. This year’s show featured zero such moments, thanks largely to new producer Ben Winston, and was roundly praised for the move. Meanwhile, tonight’s Brits showed that when a cross-generational pairing between artists comes naturally, it can shine. Elton John’s duet with Years & Years’s Olly Alexander was a last-minute addition to the show that ended up being the performance of the night, with the pair debuting a new, high-energy cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” (after Alexander starred in the British drama series It’s a Sin earlier this year). The performance was dedicated to people living with HIV and AIDS, and while it began like an emotional affair, it quickly exploded into a fantastic, sexy expression of queer joy. John was on point, but Alexander was the star, commanding a stage full of dancers and drag queens in black lace and surely making many a gay boy swoon. On top of it all, proceeds from the new version of the song will go toward the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Really, what more can an awards-show performance do?
WHOA: Olly Alexander staring right into our hearts during said performance.
WHOA: Ladies and gentlemen, the Weeknd!
At least the biggest musician of the past year was adequately represented at this awards show. The Weeknd performed his current hit “Save Your Tears” — sans red suit and Ariana Grande — before accepting the award for International Male Solo Artist from Michelle Obama herself. Who needs another Grammy anyway?
WHOA: Haim, in the flesh, with a trophy.
Most of the non-British musicians accepted their awards virtually, given issues with pandemic travel. Not the Haim sisters, who elected to travel to the U.K. and quarantine for 10 days just to sit in the Brits audience and have the chance to win the International Group award. Their dedication to fans across the pond paid off, with Haim taking home the trophy, after coming up empty at shows like the Grammys for their deserving album Women in Music Pt. III. “I think my parents are fully crying right now, I can feel it!” an especially excited Alana said.
WHOA: A sniffly Harry Styles accepts Best British Single.
Here’s hoping it’s allergies and not, you know.
HIGH: Jack Whitehall gets his moment with Little Mix.
He may not have earned one of their mini trophies, but he did make a wonderfully awkward joke about all that babymaking, as a good host should.
HIGH: Headie One makes a moment for U.K. hip-hop.
U.K. drill star Headie One didn’t go it alone for his Brits performance — he made room for duo Young T & Bugsey and rapper AJ Tracey, in a high-energy showcase of Britain’s abundant hip-hop talent.
HIGH: Bonafide global icon Taylor Swift wins the Global Icon award.
Taylor Swift can have a reputation (wink wink) for being buttoned-up and highly manicured, planning her every move to a T. But her Global Icon acceptance speech at the Brits was genuine and heartfelt, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of her. Here’s hoping she eventually got to hug presenter Maisie Williams.
LOW: Jessie Ware comes up short.
Someone’s always going to go home empty handed. At the Brits, it was Jessie Ware, who lost both her nominations off her stellar album What’s Your Pleasure? to fellow disco diva Dua Lipa. The Brits can right their wrongs come 2022, when Ware’s Platinum Pleasure Edition deluxe — including early song of the summer contender “Please” — will be in play.
LOW: For once, a P!nk awards performance disappoints.
P!nk perfected the awards-show performance, from her high-flying acrobatics to her high-concept onstage storytelling. So, it’s a no-brainer to let her close an awards show. But the pandemic kept the pop icon out of the U.K., meaning she got videoed in to her performance, while Rag’n’Bone Man and the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir performed “Anywhere Away From Here” in person. If that performance succeeded in reminding of one thing at the end of the show, it was that the pandemic is far from over — even if the two hours before presented a post-COVID fantasy.