The annual Brit Awards, which will dominate ITV 1 tonight and, if things go according to plan, the front pages tomorrow, started out in the mid-1970s as a business initiative aimed at selling British music to Johnny Foreigner. Taken strictly on those terms, it's never really worked. The odd Amy Winehouse and Boy George apart, British pop music has never been less attractive to the export market than during the Brits era, and there's something about the ceremony that distills the reasons why.
One look at the members of Chumbawamba throwing water over John Prescott, KLF apparently machine-gunning the retreating figure of Sir George Solti, Jarvis Cocker invading Michael Jackson's stage to wave his nether regions at the King of Pop, or any of the other legendary hi-jinks with which Brit Awards history is studded is enough to convince overseas viewers that this is the kind of speech day from hell that only the British could contrive and therefore largely for domestic consumption.
The venue changes and the job of presenting is passed around like a fizzing cartoon bomb, but the format has remained the same since the late 1970s. Fill a room with people who spend most of the year tearing lumps off each other, ply them with booze, and give them prizes. To agitate further, televise live. That was the case until, in an effort to reach out to America, the 1989 show was memorably presented by Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood and it was subsequently decided that it would be better to have it pre-recorded and edited afterwards. When that became too dull a couple of years ago, the producers went back to broadcasting live.
The Brits' mission is to nudge the non-record buying public into splashing out. Most of us will not actually see it but it's vital that all of us know about it. Therefore the column inches are what counts. I realised this last year when Amy Winehouse packed three frocks for the occasion: one for the red carpet, one to amble through the audience apparently preoccupied with her mobile, and then another one to perform the song in.
If there's one thing Bernard Doherty, the PR for the Brits, doesn't want, it's a smooth running occasion where the right people win and everybody applauds politely. He wants chaos, danger, cat fights and arrests, unbleeped f-words and people falling out of their frocks. This year, with the show fronted by Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, whose experience of fronting a live TV broadcast is about the same as yours, he may get his wish. The lifetime achievement goes to Britain's most highly publicised pop star, 66-year-old Paul McCartney, direct from the divorce court, no doubt pursued by helicopters. Beat that, Kate Nash.
If you're watching at home you may be persuaded by the frantic movement of the cameras and the hysterical applause track that the room is awash with teen spirit and positive energy. It's not. In the hall you're too often struck by the deafening hubbub of small talk, the inability of anyone to make a speech and the overpowering lack of grace that seems to characterise the music business at every level. The elder statesmen of the film business get knighthoods, even seats in the House of Lords; this doesn't happen very much in the music business and the Brits provides a clue why this might be.
This year for the first time I was invited to vote, online of course. I looked at the form for a while and then gave up. Apart from the fact that life is too short to decide whether Kate Nash or the Klaxons have had the most seismic impact on our culture, the notion of nationality in music has rarely felt as redundant as it does now, when everything from the Malian kora music of Toumani Diabaté to unsanctioned bedroom remakes of Radiohead's last album is available at the click of a mouse. Similarly in an age when the iPod shuffles time and alters perspectives, few concepts are quite as foreign as last year.
The theory of the Long Tail holds that the future is about selling fewer copies of more things. The Brits, like all music awards shows, celebrates the ancient idea of the greater popularity of fewer things. It's mass as mass can be. Which suits TV more than it suits music. Furthermore, with ITV in the box seat it's a cert that the show's going to be more about the reformed Take That than whoever I might happen to favour. In an era where TV has, with the help of Simon Cowell, invented the kind of pop that suits its purposes, you would be amazed if this wasn't the case. There was a time when the media served the Brits. Now the Brits, like everything else, serves the media.
David Hepworth is editorial director of 'The Word' and 'Mixmag'