One thing you can say for the organizers of the Brit awards, Britain's version of the Grammys: they sure know how to throw a party. In putting together Wednesday night's ceremony, they followed all the rules:
1) Mix up the guest list. Invite some of the popular people that everyone else can't help but like (Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue); Add some folks who are quirky enough to amuse but not so bizarre they creep people out (Amy Winehouse, Gossip's Beth Ditto); and then toss in a few of the too-cool-to-care crowd to sit in a corner, get drunk and mock the whole affair (Arctic Monkeys).
2) If the music's no good, give them plenty else to look at: every performance should come with lasers, fireworks, odd costumes and moving sets. It's all about distraction, distraction, distraction. Except when it comes to Amy. Don't mess with Amy.
3) Don't let anyone outshine the host.
To be fair, with the Osbourne family doing the MC'ing, the Brit committee hardly needed to worry about that last point. We would have happily watched Ozzy, Sharon, Kelly and Jack for the whole two hours presenting the awards, accepting the awards, performing all the musical numbers just to see what rock's wackiest family was going to do next. Would Sharon swear? (Naturally.) Would Ozzy mess up his lines? (Yep, both of them.) Would Kelly and Jack fight? (Alas, no.) Would Kelly and Sharon? (Almost…)
Getting four family members, all born-and-bred attention seekers, together on stage was a stroke of evil genius. Ozzy spent the whole evening grinning and waving into the audience, Sharon hyper-enthused like a game show host on speed and Jack looked mortified at having to hang out with his parents. In a family of black sheep, it was Kelly who stood out. Casual, cheerful and poised, she was the glue that held the show together, however precariously.
The Brit awards, the biggest night in the British music industry, differ from the Grammys in one big way: they are unashamedly patriotic. There are two sets of awards, one for British artists and one for international artists, i.e. everyone else. Which means that while a British singer like Winehouse can sweep the boards at the Grammys, you'll never see an American artist taking home more Brit awards than the British nominees: there are twice as many British-only prizes as international ones. But this isn't about Britain protecting its own; it's about celebrating the specific strengths of the British music industry. After all, the world already has the Grammys, with more money, publicity and recognition than any other music awards can hope to muster. You can try to compete in the world arena and lose or you can stay home and try to have some fun.
And so it was that the Arctic Monkeys took home Best British Group and best British Album for Favorite Worst Nightmare. The Sheffield quartet is known for boycotting the Brits in previous years maybe, just maybe, because it used to be a dry ceremony. Their first award came early in the night, but by the time it came for them to collect for best album, the organizers may have regretted lifting the no alcohol rule. Watching Sharon and Kelly trying to corral four drunk 20-somethings towards the podium was, in the words of sponsor Mastercard, priceless.
It was a twofer for the Foo Fighters, also, who picked up gongs for Best International Group and Best International Album for Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, beating out bands like Arcade Fire and Eagles. The award for British Female Solo Artist went to witty singer-songwriter Kate Nash, while Kylie was crowned best International Female Solo Artist, reminding a nation that has so fully embraced her as one of its own that she is, in fact, Australian. International Male Solo artist went to Kanye West, who's riff on humility "it doesn't feel natural, but I hear it works for a lot of celebrities" made for one of the funniest speeches of the night. And super-producer Mark Ronson won British Male Solo Artist, ignoring the fact that he only ever does collaborations Winehouse, Lily Allen and Robbie Williams have all worked with the preternaturally youthful producer. (And before you ask, Winehouse didn't win anything because she wasn't up for anything: her Back to Black album that so wowed Grammy voters earlier this month came out in Britain in 2006, so she felt the love at last year's Brits.)
It all fell apart, though, during the awards for best British Live Act and British Single. In a misguided attempt at inclusiveness, the public votes for these, so instead of being a barometer of quality, the awards are all about the size of a band's fanbase. Which is how Take That the '90s boy band that came back from oblivion a few years ago minus their most famous member, Robbie Williams beat the likes of Muse and The Kaiser Chiefs for British Live Act and triumphed in the best British Single category. They may as well have called them "The Band Most Likely to Scare Your Parents" award and the "Most Fans Who Can Be Bothered to Vote For This Award" award. Sometimes, democracy is no good thing.
Thankfully, Take That didn't take to the stage to try to justify their best live act win. The artists who did were many things thrilling, confusing, off-key but never boring. With help from Klaxons (whose wardrobe could only be described as futuristic Navajo) Rihanna performed a dark, brooding emo-dance version of her hit Umbrella. On the opposite end of the pop spectrum, Kylie's rendition of her latest single Wow was all bright and shiny, totally making up for the unfortunate Joan Rivers-esque hairstyle and a dress so slinky the only dancing she could manage was a side-to-side shoulder shrug. British Breakthrough Act winner Mika as always, channeling Freddie Mercury opened the show with a greatest-hits medley that took in three different set changes and a guest appearance by Beth Ditto. And the evening ended with another medley, this one by Paul McCartney, who was there to pick up the Outstanding Contribution to Music award. Looking chipper despite having spent the last week in court wrestling with Heather Mills for his millions, McCartney did what he does best: he entertained. What started with Paul and his ukulele doing Dance Tonight ended with Paul, a piano and the population of London's Earl's Court Arena doing Hey Jude in what was essentially a giant pub sing-along.
But the night belonged to Winehouse, who sang two songs, even though she wasn't up for any awards. Her snippet of Valerie with Mark Ronson was technically brilliant, but the fresh-out-of-rehab singer just couldn't engage, not with Ronson, not with the audience and not with the song. Staring out into the middle-distance most of time, she was just phoning it in. But back on stage half an hour later was a whole other Winehouse. On a set stripped bare just her, her band and a red velvet backdrop she belted out Love is a Losing Game in that raw, smoky way she does, making eyes at the TV cameras and sucking the audience into her fragile, tortured world. She may not have picked up a Brit, but she was rewarded with the loudest applause of the night. Winning, it seems, isn't everything.