It almost sounds like the setup to a bad Bon Iver joke: How famous is Justin Vernon these days? So famous that even him not doing something is notable enough to make headlines.
Such is the case with this weekend’s non-performance by Bon Iver at the Grammys, which “reportedly” (we’ll get to why that word is in quotes momentarily) was passed up by Vernon and his managers because they would have been forced into a collaborative performance with unnamed artists. Fair enough; other collaborations planned for the Grammys include the puzzling pairing of the Beach Boys, who will perform with Brian Wilson for the first time in 25 years, with Maroon 5 and Foster the People, and a tribute to electronic music that will include Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, David Guetta, Deadmau5, and, inexplicably, the Foo Fighters.
But the real troubling aspect of this non-Bon story is how quickly it has spread on the basis of one trivial, flimsy narrative. We’ve come to expect the “reporting” of Bon Iver minutia from Pitchfork, who salivate over Vernon’s every tweet and rush to blog about them, but it appears that Iver fever has caught on in outlets closer to home. In his three weeks at the helm of the City Pages music section, new editor Reed Fischer has managed to file five different pieces about Bon Iver, four of which centered around how, why, and in what promotional capacity the band would be involved in this Sunday’s Grammys. Currently, the most-read post on the Gimme Noise blog is Fischer’s post “Bon Iver ‘kind of said ‘f*** you’ a little bit’ to the Grammys,” which reblogs something Vernon told a Billboard reporter at a Bushmills promotional event and subsequently pats him on the back for his defiance. And now, in the act of typing out that sentence, the echo chamber has grown to a deafening roar and I can barely hear myself think; the blog-to-blog-to-blog game of telephone has practically pushed Bon Iver into meme territory. Look no further than Hipster Runoff’s ridiculous series of Vernon-related posts to see more evidence of that tiresome trend.
Ever since Bon Iver’s four Grammy nominations were announced, reporters have been scrambling to unearth fragments of old interviews with Vernon and position him in various compromising dialogs with himself. For some peace of mind, I thought I might as well do the same and see if any of my conversations with Vernon might help to make some sense of this all.
“People like to write things that sound good, even if they don’t quite mean the right thing.” Ah, that didn’t take long. That’s Vernon talking, in an interview I conducted with him last summer while working on a story about his new album. We were talking about his relationship with Kanye West and his thoughts on how Ye is handled by the media, but the conversation seems just applicable to Vernon’s own PR trajectory now. “There’s too much accountability with the media, it’s not like accountability with friends, it’s different,” he said. “They hold you accountable for something you said or something they thought you were… It’s ridiculous book-burning sh*t, or something, it’s weird.”
Much in the same way that people have expressed concern over the blogosphere’s quick build-up and rabid deconstruction of Lana Del Rey, it seems that Vernon has fallen prey to online media’s tendency to reduce everything into easily digestible soundbites. People want to know whether or not Justin Vernon is a sellout, as if whether you have integrity or have no soul is very cut-and-dry, black and white thing; it makes it easier to rush into writing a hand-wringing report about Vernon showing “signs of duress” and supposing that he’s cracking under the pressure of his newfound fame.
While that Billboard quote has gotten the most traction this week, it’s actually the interview he conducted with New York Magazine at the same Bushmills party that seems closer to his true thoughts on the whole circus. He doesn’t really care about the Grammys, never has, but he’s going to wear a nice suit and attend with his parents because he knows that it’s the kind of thing that will make them proud. Sounds like something an actual person would say, doesn’t it? Imagine that.
I know I’m fighting a losing battle, here, and my attempts to humanize artists regardless of their “stature” doesn’t fit in with the average reader’s expectations of what you might find on a music blog. But as we head into the Grammys this Sunday, it’s something that’s been on my mind and something that I think is worth a harder look.
For now, I’ll leave you with another previously unpublished excerpt from one of my conversations with Vernon, which sheds a bit more light on his character and his (not all that controversial, actually quite typical) thoughts on things like MTV and, yes, the Grammys.
Do you ever feel like there are points where your success is sort of spiraling out of control?
Vernon: Yeah. I talked to Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi] on the phone yesterday for this Under the Radar magazine interview thing, and so I asked him a bunch of questions like that, because I’ve been thinking about it lately. Not about the fame thing, but about the band thing and the career thing, and how much a business becomes a part of what you have to do to stay making money. So I was asking him a bunch of questions, and long story short, he comes around and just says, “I’m not an expansionist.” I’ve just thought about that word for the last three days, and thought that you can just choose to do what you want, versus what there is this magnetic pull in the industry for you to do. It’s not like somebody’s fault or some conspiracy, people just fall into sort of knowing they should make money, and they do forget about a bunch of stuff.
If you ever get to that point where it starts to feel like it’s starting to tip over, how do you reign it in and find your center again?
Well, I never felt like I was tipping over, but I just started to calmly think about it. Like Ian was saying, “Dude, just do whatever you’re going to do, and don’t feel bad about if you f**k up, just try to be a good person.” So that’s what I feel like I’ve been doing. He was talking about what punk music meant back then and how it was real, and how now, punk music is an MTV channel. You gotta think about that sometimes, you know? Punk is a f***ing Grammy award.
What do you think?