Bon Iver Acceptance Speech Do-Over

Bon Iver sez: “Sweet hook-up.”

A quick summary, even if you’re not still wondering “Who is Bon Iver?”

This November, the Recording Academy nominated the very deserving Bon Iver for an astounding four Grammys: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Alternative Music Album, and Best New Artist. In December, Vernon said some tough things in a New York Times interview about his reaction to being nominated:

I would get up there and be like, “This is for my parents, because they supported me,” because I know they would think it would be stupid of me not to go up there. But I kinda felt like going up there and being like: “Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending that this is important.”

The Grammys made him into a poster and dropped his nominated song into a commercial, to which he responded:

There’s a big misunderstanding–I don’t want to sell music. But if people are going to be selling music, and they want to sell our music without disturbing the medium of what it actually is, we want to fucking do that. I want people to hear the music that we make. I don’t want to do it in any shitty way.

He was asked to perform on the Grammys with some of his *ahem* peers and not-so-respectfully declined, according to an interview with Billboard:

We wanted to play our music, but we were told that we couldn’t play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else. And we just felt like it was such a large stage. We’re getting nominated for this record that we made, me and Brian [Joseph] and a bunch of our fucking friends, and we were given accolades for it. And all of a sudden we were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that. We kind of said ‘fuck you’ a little bit and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don’t think they wanted us to play… Fuckin’ rock n’ roll should not be decided by people that have that job. Rock n’ roll should be the fucking people with guitars around their backs. And their friends. And their managers.

Then he actually won two Grammys, threw up his hands, kissed his mother, and had this to say.

It’s really hard to accept this acceptance speech. Justin Vernon definitely wants to sell music. He makes a living off of his music. He just started his own record label (Jagjaguwar imprint Chigliak), which is, as I understand it, a type of business that sells (or at least tries to sell) music. Artists need money to pay the bills they incur while making their art. That’s why they sell music for Miller Genuine Draft commercials and pose for Bushmills ad campaigns. No earnest artist wants to prostitute one’s work; there’s also nothing wrong with being rewarded for art that moves people. That’s the goal. Repeat the mantra: started out hustlin’, ended up ballin’.

I understand Vernon’s reservations about the work and intention of the Recording Academy. At worst, the awards and festivities feel like a circle jerk (how masturbatory was the final performance with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, et al trading licks over the end of “The End”?). At best, the honorary nods turn due congratulations into ham-fisted production cheese (like the Beach Boys tribute) and the underdog award recipients feel like vessels for the Recording Academy to penetrate into the hearts and minds of a younger, hipper audience (think Radiohead’s OK Computer or Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs). The very idea of “bestness” in music is pretty bizarre. But why do the Grammys catch all the flack while certain notable Top 50 lists also giving Bon Iver top honors escape unscathed.

Who said you have to be trying to win an award when you make music that’s nominated for a Grammy? It’s an important moment when someone is rewarded for making music that somehow manages to catch enough peoples’ attention that the Recording Academy–whose voters have momentarily escaped being steamrolled by the music industry machine into thinking the amount of money people put into making and selling a record can be a standard by which they evaluate quality–choose to celebrate something that’s surprised and moved them. There’s no shame in being grateful for and gracious with the honor–it is an honor. That there are a ton of excellent musicians that don’t get the respect they deserve goes without saying. So I kind of feel like Vernon pissed on his own moment (because he should be excited about winning that award, for goodness’ sake!) and on a tremendously unique opportunity (because he didn’t articulate his complaints).

If you’re offered the chance to have thirty seconds where the industry you critique must listen to what you have to say, if you’re still given the podium after you’ve shit on them in the press over the months leading up to the event, I feel like you should be better prepared to deliver a clear message. I see that notecard in his hand. He clearly feels like he could not freestyle a thoughtful acceptance speech on stage in front of “a lot of talent in this room” he’d badmouthed. But there’s something missing, given all those quotes. On that stage, at that moment, Vernon could have articulated a position instead of merely suggesting something to an audience of insiders who are so inside they’re outside of the rest of the music world. He owes it to independent music, sure. But he also kind of owes it to the Recording Academy, whose membership nominated and voted for him, who clearly are not entirely seduced by the glitz and flash on the red carpet, who appear to have some level of interest in being more progressive about what they award and why, who may just be hoping–after he spilled the beans to such widely circulated media outlets as the New York Times and Billboard–Vernon ponies up and says what’s on their mind, something like:

This is an incredibly unexpected honor. But as flattered as I am, to be perfectly honest, I feel kind of uncomfortable accepting it. A Grammy has never seemed like a very definitive or even educated judgment about quality music. Especially in my case. Because I would have made this album even if I hadn’t collaborated with Kanye West. But I seriously doubt I’d be accepting this award right now if I hadn’t. So this is kind of an accidental coup, because I’m basically an interloper on an independent label crashing an event designed to promote major label music. And while I’m tremendously moved that my music has reached such a large audience that I could be considered for this award, what I really want to do is dedicate it to a very large population of incredibly talented people making important, beautiful music at this moment who are not ever going to be represented in this forum because people in suits and offices don’t think they can make millions of dollars off of them.

Or something like that. So, yeah, I’d like to see a do-over. But it’s a little late now: Bon Iver went home with two Grammys Sunday night. And I’m thankful for that, even if he’s not.

4 Comments

  1. JoeyC
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    you didn’t even mention Whitney Houston here.

    • Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. So I left it for you! We’re all looking forward to your Whitney Houston memorial post!

  2. JoeyC
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    But it’s hard to accept an award, right? Maybe even harder than refusing one, like Marlon Brando or Fiona Apple. The dude brought awkwardness to the Grammys, which is a kind of refusal just by itself. He made every polished act that was sitting there and nodding look like fools. He said “Jagjaguwar,” which in that room is tantamount to speaking portuguese in a Cracker Barrel. I’d say Justin did just what he set out to: make folks sweat with him for a minute. I bet he’s spray-painting those awards right now and putting his new “matte grammys” on his Pinterest board. The cycle continues.

    • Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Hilarious. You’re absolutely right. Just to clarify, I think the speech is fine on its own. But in the context of what was said in his interviews, I feel like he was developing a narrative he wasn’t prepared to fulfill. If he really wanted to make a statement about the Grammys, that was his opportunity and he squirmed through it. Whatever sweating there was in the crowd was as “What was that?” as his winning was “Who was that?” Like everyone knows they’ve been pranked but no one knows quite how.

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