T he Pitfalls of Grammy Fame

On Bon Iver and the perils of Alternative/Best New Artist adoration

By Kluck Chosterman

Bon Iver was just named


My Wife, She Loves Bon Iver!

The Pitfalls of Grammy Fame

On Bon Iver and the perils of Alternative/Best New Artist adoration

By Kluck Chosterman

Bon Iver was just named Best New Artist and Bon Iver, Bon Iver Best Alternative Music Album of the year by National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences voters in the 2011 Grammy Awards.

I'm guessing this doesn't mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country. In fact, if you effortlessly understood 100 percent of this article's opening sentence, you can probably skip the rest of the piece. But there's something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it's speculative and only partially related to music. When (and if) you listen to Bon Iver, Bon Iver by Bon Iver, you are listening to two things: a record that's very good, and/or a record that will someday seem way worse than it actually is. And logic suggests the latter is more likely than the former, even though that's no reflection on the value of the artist.

I'm not really in a position to argue for (or against) the merits of Bon Iver, simply because I've barely listened to Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Had it not won the Grammy Awards, I might not have listened to it at all. It's been on my iTunes since whenever it came out, I know my wife loved it, and I had no problem with it ideologically. I just never got around to playing it. Somehow, the single story I'd read about Bon Iver was about a cabin, so I wasn't even sure what genre of music it was supposed to exist alongside. The only thing I knew was that the words Bon Iver were pronounced "Bone Eevair," which seemed like reason enough to ignore it (not a good reason, but a reason nonetheless). But then it was voted Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album in this awards show, which made me think, I should at least know what it is. So I started playing it, totally uninformed and with no motive beside sincere curiosity. This being the Internet, you can listen to it yourself. If you don't feel like listening to it, here's enough information to pretend like you did:

1. Bon Iver is essentially one person, a somewhat androgynous American man named Justin Vernon. This is his second album. I get the sense that asexuality is part of his hippie aesthetic, because I just looked at the Bon Iver Wikipedia page and noticed that the wiki writer put a lot of effort into never mentioning gender-specific genitalia.

2. Vernon was formerly employed as a cabin-sitter, if that sort of thing matters to you.

3. The music on Bon Iver is focused around its vocal elements. You couldn't dance to much of it, but I can't imagine a social situation in which anyone actually would want to. There are guitars, but they're not overused. It doesn't sound anything like Burial, but it sounds like an album made by someone who believes Burial was awesome. It's a sophisticated interpretation of primitive music, vaguely akin to Michael McDonald (but less funny and with more looping).

4. I have no idea what these songs are supposed to be about. The lyrics are superficially indecipherable. There's one track ("Holocene") where Vernon briefly and convincingly sings like Art Garfunkel. There's another track ("Minnesota, WI") where he repeatedly mumbles the phrase "never gonna break" and it might be the single most forgettable musical moment of 2011.

5. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is not avant-garde, but it is experimental. It has a cultic, serene, stand-alone quality that makes it worth investigating. It's smart. But it will never be popular.

The takeaway from all this, I suppose, is that Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a creative record, made by an auteur with (at least a modicum of) irrefutable talent. But the fact that this subjective opinion has now been validated by the only sector of the media that cares about such qualities puts the 30-year-old Vernon in a strange cultural position. It's possible that he's an authentic genius, and that Bon Iver, Bon Iver will mark the "breakthrough" beginning of a major career punctuated by intermittent moments of meaningful innovation. He could end up like James Murphy or Cat Power. But it's just as possible -- in fact, more possible -- that this will not happen. He will probably just make a bunch more albums of varying quality, none of which will get the collective adoration of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. And then Vernon will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where his singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, "Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought Bon Iver, Bon Iver was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking cabin-sitter? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?"

This will be his retrospective penalty for resembling a potential genius, assuming he never actually becomes one: Vernon will become the punch line for highly engaged music fans who want to make jokes about how they themselves were wrong about him.

At this point in his existence, I can't imagine that Justin Vernon has been able to reap much tangible benefit from his talent. I'm sure he's not rich, unless he was born that way (one of his songs was used in an album of Kanye West and his likeness was in a whiskey ad, but that's hardly a gold mine). There's nothing about his music or persona that suggests he's enamored of the concept of fame and attention. He is, at least within the idiom of rock, a serious artist. So the only things that matter are (a) his reputation among other serious people, and (b) how he views his own work and identity (which is, of course, partially dependent on the reaction of his audience). In other words, his real career starts now. For the next 15 years, he must validate other people's belief in his own brilliance. There is no other option. Because if he doesn't, those same people will view his inability to become transcendent as hilarious. They will look back at Bon Iver, Bon Iver and talk about it like it's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. And they'll technically be making fun of themselves, but he'll be the only person being criticized by name.

I am rooting for you, Justin Vernon. I like your record, and I hope you make many more. I want you to be a genius, and I have no reason to believe that won't happen. But maybe don't sell the cabin, because maybe you are doomed.

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