The Brit Awards: nostalgic for nostalgia

With the pop stars being either old or imitating a time when nostalgia was in, the ceremony was a postmodern pastiche.

Patrick West
Columnist

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There are certain stages in life when you start to feel the passing of time. Call them unwitting rites of passage.

The first is when you notice that footballers are getting younger than you. I remember watching on television as Kevin Gallen made his debut for Queen’s Park Rangers against Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 1994, and realising with a sense of horror that Gallen was actually in the year below me at school. The second is when politicians are getting younger than you. I suppose other thirty-somethings out there have had their own ‘Sarah Teather moment’. The final confirmation of impending middle age is when you have little or no idea who is in the pop charts.

This is what made watching the Brit Awards on ITV1 so bewildering. I didn’t mean to watch it. I had meant to review some serious, provocative programme about the ethics and difficulties of having babies/ not having babies/ having babies to save your other babies. It’s just that, judging by Facebook and Twitter postings on Tuesday evening, I noticed everyone else seemed to be watching the Brits. Like someone who seeks to make a sausage roll more famous than Cheryl Cole, or have some opinion either way on Jedward, I didn’t want to feel left out from a Shared National Experience.

I was naturally expecting to have little clue about who was appearing at the ceremony, bar those I remember from my youth – namely Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams – and I was prepared fully to indulge in an evening of grumbling to myself in a self-satisfied manner about how music ‘was better in my day’. What I hadn’t anticipated was the level of nostalgia actually displayed in the content itself. I know we are meant to be living in self-referential times, in an age of cultural cannibalism and ‘mash-ups’, and I expect from the British nothing less than allusions to ‘the good old days’, but this was ridiculous.

The show’s host, Peter Kay, was the immediate giveaway. The ‘Bolton funnyman’ (as he is mandatorily described) came to the fore long after the ‘Alternative Comedy’ scene, a young man providing a nostalgic throwback to the stereotypical northern comic of old. And he has been trading on this persona ever since, to the degree that he now resembles the kind of fat, unfunny northerner he once sought to parody. At the Brits, his one-liners all went flat, mainly because no one understands anymore what he is meant to be; is he an imitation 1970s comedian, an imitation 1990s alternative comedian, or an imitation of himself?

Many of the celebrities were equally befuddled as to their role at the Brits, such was the degree to which the whole episode was infused with nostalgia. Samantha Fox was presumably there on account of her infamously shambolic performance as co-host at the 1989 Brits, and she proceeded to embarrass herself again in an accidentally-or-not self-referential way. Shirley Bassey came on, reminiscing how she won a Brit Award back in 1977. Was she here to win a lifetime Brit Award for winning a Brit Award? Mel B and Geri Halliwell popped up to talk about the Spice Girls appearing at the same ceremony back in the 1990s, while many actual award winners made it known that they had been in the audience at the Brits only a couple of years back. Liam Gallagher accepted Oasis’s Brits Album of 30 Years award by promptly throwing it into the crowd. The boundary between performers and audience was at a real danger of being eroded here.

The rap artists all seemed to play with guitars, drums and pianos – in direct violation of the iron law established in the 1980s that rap should only by accompanied by synthesized instruments. JLS and Cheryl Cole made their entrances in a kind of unmerited, megalomaniac, messianic mode that would have made Michael Jackson look demure and modest by comparison. Jonathan Ross sought to pre-empt the inevitable criticism that he was an overgrown teenager by dressing up as an overgrown teenager. Robbie Williams concluded with a medley – a style of deliverance apt for the zero-concentration, remote-control, jingle age. And no one still knows who, or what, Lady Gaga exactly is (see elsewhere on the internet for relevant innuendo). Even Peter Kay’s solitary amusing observation that evening – calling Lady Gaga ‘New York’s answer to Su Pollard’ – was doubly nostalgic: a reference to Hi-De-Hi!, a 1980s comedy set in the 1950s. Time, space and sense of reference were collapsing all around.

Perhaps I’m being old and snobbish. When Stravinsky, Stockhausen and John Cage went all self-referential and explorational in the last century, they were afforded due reverence. We are all still meant to nod solemnly and seriously to their works, presumably because they are all now part of the musical canon and their work was made for cerebral grown-ups. Pop music on the other hand is associated with youthful, shouty and incoherent disorder (nevertheless, the curmudgeon in me still thinks Cage’s ‘4’33”’ should be the mandatory ring tone for anyone under 30). But those composers are taken seriously because their spirit of experimentation was self conscious, just like Miles Davis and Napalm Death, who were both as interesting as they were unlistenable. Likewise, on the surface, Finnegan’s Wake is unreadable and Waiting For Godot is a bore, but once you comprehend Joyce and Beckett, they are worth the effort. Eventually.

By contrast, the sense of chaotic nostalgia witnessed at the Brits was unthinking, unreflective and spasmodic, a symptom of a culture that eternally devours and regurgitates its cultural history. Oasis in their prime were a wonderful and exciting band. Yet they were ultimately derivative. So if you are going to give one of its members a Brit award, Liam Gallagher should have been forced to say: ‘I’m accepting this on behalf of the dead Marc Bolan and the dead John Lennon.’

This is not to say the Brits didn’t showcase some genuinely good and original music. I like Lily Allen’s ‘The Fear’, because it often features as the soundtrack to the summary of goals on Match of The Day 2. The excellent Dizzee Rascal is something of a genius, producing tunes that consciously blur boundaries. But Mister Rascal (as Jeremy Paxman called him) may find that his desire to explore and meld different genres may ultimately be his downfall. Neophilia can be a cruel mistress, as fans of Madonna found out in about 1989. A love of the new for its own sake can become just as tiresome as a mindless love of the old.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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