I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I’ve never loved anything more than Ariana DeBose’s BAFTA opening performance on Sunday night. I can’t physically stop rewatching—I’ve passed through initial shock and intrigue, I’m over the hump of enjoyment, and I’m into morbid fascination, rubbernecking the awkward audience responses, dissecting the intricate hand-ography. We should each of us count ourselves lucky that we have lived through the most iconic and haunting rendition of “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” segueing into a rap serenading female BAFTA nominees of all time. I feel like we witnessed history in real time. This is our Waterloo.
DeBose’s much-memed performance was many things. For some it was a hot mess, a lesson in the importance of breath work, a ruched fuchsia jumpsuit. For me it was a fascinating spectacle, a tale of human resilience in the stony face of adversity, a sage reminder to us all of the brutalities of show business.
I’ve been trying to split the converging threads of the moment—Ariana herself; Ariana’s lyrics; the people the lyrics are about—but they are so aggressively welded together that each attempted rewatch is like playing every key on a piano at once.
It’s clear that Ariana is working her arse off. But her stylish asymmetrical haircut mirrors the discord between a performer giving it her all and a theater full of uptight Brits. The notoriously black-tie BAFTA attendees weren’t quite ready for an Americanized hype-girl she-rap. (I’m not sure they ever will be.) There is a notable disconnect between her and them, an excruciating tonal chasm between the starlet and the stars. There is something fundamentally American and very un-British about public displays of affection, and a rap PDA presented with balls-out vigor in skintight hot pink really got the Brits squirming in their seats (while they silently rehearsed self-deprecating, humility-riven, Olivia Colman–esque acceptance speeches). Retaining a stiff upper lip while you are rapped at is a tough acting gig even for the most well-trodden actors, leaving us with mortifying cutaways to Viola Davis and “Blanchett Cate” with faces set to anthropomorphized question marks.
The rap itself is the next brain tickler, and any lyrical forensic analysis raises more questions than answers. What does “Jamie Lee, you are all of us” even mean? Are we all apologetic nepo babies, were we all in Halloween H20? It’s also hard to think of a less incisive insight than “Charlotte Wells, we love Aftersun” or “Ana, you were great in Blonde.” Overall, it felt like a Billy Crystal Oscar serenade with the speed turned up and the funny turned down—which sounds harsh but also gave us the greatest lyric of all time. Halfway through the rap, time stood still and we experienced true greatness, a moment of transcendental rapture in a sea of chaos. Stop all the clocks, “Angela Bassett did the thing.”
It’s been three days, and “Angela Bassett did the thing” is still loop-the-looping through my head, crop spraying my waking hours with its mystifying lyricism and beguiling satisfaction. I’ve never felt more bonded with my overly online comrades, a community in thrall to the majesty of the moment, the did-ing of the thing, the campier-than-a-row-of-tents campiness. Henceforth, Angela Bassett is no longer two words; the now obligatory did the thing suffix has been added to Dictionary.com. I still don’t know where to put my residual “Angela Bassett did the thing” energy. It’s like I’ve swallowed a beehive and they’re busying themselves making honey in my stomach; it’s keeping me buoyant like a life preserver. I’d like to thank the Academy for believing in me, in all of us, for giving us “Angela Bassett did the thing.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s cabaret, DeBose has deleted her Twitter account, which is an incredibly odd thing to do when you’re the internet’s main character. This is her big week, and it’s a shame she’s not enjoying it (if with her tongue in her cheek) as much as we are. This will all have blown over in no time, and she’ll have missed all the fun. Fingers crossed the sabbatical is just half a day’s vocal rest, and she’ll be back serenading the acting elite shortly. The “Angela Bassett did the thing” energy is real, but its embers need stoking and I don’t know what the internet will do without more doses of DeBose.