POP / New kids on the block: The New Musical Express's Brats Awards this week are billed as 'a finger up to the music establishment'. Joseph Gallivan kissed cheeks and enjoyed the ritual

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The Independent Online
The Brits Awards are a showcase of British music talent that aims to redress the American bias of the Grammys. The subtext anxiously declares a conviction that our pop industry is not going the way of the British film industry.

The Brats Awards, the New Musical Express's streetwise (or at least, student accommodation-wise) alternative, are similarly reactionary in origin, and share the same subtext. 'These awards began as a lampoon last year in the NME,' the editor, Steve Sutherland, read from a piece of paper by way of an introduction to the ceremony. 'But this year they're a real finger up to the music establishment. We're sick of retro. Stuff the past. This is about the future.' The trophy is a bronze fist with a raised middle digit.

Pop awards already generate a critical atmosphere - there are always four times more losers than winners. When you add the potential scorn of a music industry audience made up of pushy PRs, pluggers, band members and 'Um & Ah' men, it was as well that Sutherland could (without further ado) hand over the microphone to the only act able to handle such a crowd - the comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

The duo have been NME favourites ever since the paper set rolling the comedy-as-the-new- rock 'n' roll bandwagon, and their inexhaustible surrealism proved the perfect antidote to the scripted banalities of normal celebrity envelope-openers. They came out singing a song called 'Trapped in My Flat', then slipped into the old freely associative Socratic dialogue on what kinds of bizarre drugs they take. 'I do tractor fuel, I do. I melt down caravans and inject them.'

There was no escaping the conventions of nominations and awards, however, and the banks of television screens began flashing clips of the Best New Band category, as voted for by the readers. This was won by Elastica, a 'new wave of New Wave' band whose second single, 'Line Up', will hopefully sell more than the 1,500 copies of their debut, 'Stutter'. The second category, Best New Act, decided by the paper's staff rather than the readers, was clearly one of those hair-splitting devices to include a favourite act, in this case Credit To The Nation. This is a black teenage rap trio from Walsall with an authentic Stateside sound, who share the NME's anti- fascist stance. Just like the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, their adoption by the music press has given them rare access to a large white audience.

These two awards are the sliproads leading to the same promotional superhighway that swept Suede from obscurity to stardom without most people having heard their music. Credit's 18-year-old frontman, Matty, resplendent in gold jewellery, made an impassioned speech about 'forgettin' about fuckin' money and getting rid of fascism'. Then, while his pals shuffled back to their seats, he turned and disappeared backstage with his trophy. Vic gave the house one of his bemused looks and suggested he must have 'gone to collect his wages'.

As the ritual wore on, the hosts embraced the role of making just enough fun of the participants to assure the audience that its selfconsciousness and cynicism were in safe hands. Thus, as Bob declared straight-faced that 'Rap music is important because it has twisted music into new shapes and forms . . .', Vic chimed in in perfect time 'Just like Toilet Duck'. Later: 'I wasn't aware that Art Garfunkel was in the audience,' Reeves said as a follicularly-challenged member of Radiohead (NME Reader's Best Single, 'Creep') turned his back to leave the stage. 'Did you know, Malcolm X's full name was Malcolm Xylophone? And Jazzie B was Jazzie Blue Cardigan.' And so on.

The real strength of the Brats was, in the end, not the comic interludes, the trendy cheek-kissing and the free booze, but the fairness of the awards. Cypress Hill, the biggest rap act in the world, got their recognition (Best Rap Act, NME Writers). Worst Record was Meat Loaf for 'I Would Do Anything . . .'. And, whereas the Brits' best dance act nominations are the chart-proven Apache Indian, Jamiroquai, M People, Stereo MCs and The Shamen, the Brats chose Orbital, from a left-field field of Sabres of Paradise, The Orb, Trans- Global Underground and Eat Static.

The biggest cheer of the night, and the only truly humane moment, came when John Peel got up to receive the Godlike Genius Award For Services To Music, as voted for by NME readers. 'I always cry at these things,' he said, then had to step down as he choked back the tears. It's a mark of the esteem in which he is held, as the eternal talent-spotter, that everyone knew he wasn't faking. Even Vic Reeves had no answer to that.

On the big prizes, the Brats and the Brits converge in their nominations. Best Solo Artist went to Bjork; Best Band, Suede.

However, the old traces of seedy music industry corruption can't be entirely stamped out. The Best TV Show - voted by NME Writers - went to The Smell of Reeves And Mortimer. Talk about twisting music awards into new shapes and forms. Just like Toilet Duck.