For Kristen, a few weeks ago

A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?”  My reply was “That fucking guy.”

Bon Iver getting in touch with nature and, therefore, himself; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.

This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.

I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.

I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.

People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.

I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.

Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Miranda July, you are not the mother!; image courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com

A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.

Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.

Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.

As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.

It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.

I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.

9 comments

  1. Myles McNutt

    This is a fantastic piece in general, but I want to pick up on one thread in particular (in part to keep from losing an entire day picking up on every thought-provoking kernel).

    In regards to our obsession with back story, my mind turned to Behind the Music, or for that matter even Pop Up Video. I still remember learning about the bandcest within Culture Club from the video for “Time,” and it’s amazing how many little trivia details have stuck with me over the years.

    Now, of course, the internet has evolved to the point where these backstories are collected on Wikipedia, or easily accessible through magazine features (like the one I read about the subject of this post in the New York Times). They’re everywhere…well, maybe not everywhere, but certainly broadly available.

    However, I guess I’m wondering if these BSDSs (Back Story Delivery Systems) aren’t themselves coded in relation to gender/race/ethnicity/status/etc. How does VH1’s audience define who they choose for the Behind the Music treatment, and for what audience are they framed once chosen? I know that there’s been discussion about a gender divide on Wikipedia, but wouldn’t there be similar inequalities in regards to race and ethnicity?

    Just one thought of many – tremendous stuff, Alyx.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks, Myles! It’s so interesting that you brought up Behind the Music (and Pop Up Video, for that matter). I was talking about the show recently with Kit, Evan, Nick, and Cheech–specifically talking about some of the more infamous ones (ex: Mötley Crüe). I’ve also watched five episodes in the past month, something of a rare occurence since I’ve been without cable for several years (I watched the Courtney Love episode at a friend’s house). I think generation and generic expectations play a big part of framing back story on Behind the Music. Speaking generally, it seems that the most outrageous episodes have focused on predominantly white rock musicians (Crüe, Metallica, Oasis, the Go-Gos, etc.) whereas episodes about contemporary pop musicians are considerably more mediated, as there are demands placed on pop stars to be palatable and relateable, but from on high. Obvious exceptions to this would be Leif Garrett and Bobby Brown but even then, they were rebelling against their images by behaving badly (i.e., like rock stars). I also think cultural relevance plays a big part in what a subject is willing to talk about. Britney promoting In the Zone would be choosier with her words than Stevie Nicks, I’d imagine. Actually, I wonder if questions are screened before certain artists agree to be on the show.

      Interestingly, four of the most recent episodes I watched were pop artists of color–two entrepreneurial minded hip hop artists (Ice Cube, Missy Elliott) and two Latin pop stars (Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias). The fifth one was Adam Lambert, who was still occupying something of a marginal identity position as a gay man. With the exception of Iglesias’ episode, which had almost no dramatic pull whatsoever, these episodes all felt very contained and mediated to me. All of the really dramatic elements were quickly resolved and the struggles and inner turmoil tidily overcome. Part of it I’m sure has to do with, as you mentioned, has to do with the Internet breaking a lot of these stories before a show like BTM can. In addition, the show has been a part of the culture for so long that artists are much more aware of the narratives they’re constructing and how to construct candor.

      At the same time, though, I wonder if artists of color–many of whom, as Nitseh Abebe notes (http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/features/narcissism-2011-7/), are pop stars and are breaking on average at a younger age–are more savvy about social networking, marketing, and branding than many rock bands that peaked in previous decades. These artists may be less likely to be forthcoming about really deep, heavy, personal stuff on a show for a network that caters to a mainstream music audience. I also wonder how the cultural impact of VH1’s reality line-up and the problematic race representations on many of its shows may also play into how forthcoming black artists can be, but that’s mere speculation.

      As a tangent, Kanye West would be outstanding on BTM.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Just never got into them, Laila. My glib response is that I could never dance to them, so I just listened to the Pet Shop Boys instead.

      I’ve never really cared for Morrissey as a singer or lyricist. Not for lack of trying either. I made an effort in high school and bought The Queen Is Dead and tried listening to them in college and it just didn’t click. I was a college radio deejay for most of undergrad and have many friends who are Smiths fans, but they were never a group that really spoke to me. I think Johnny Marr is a talented, influential guitar player. I think fan cultures around the Smiths are interesting. And I understand why Morrissey is an enduring figure among queer communities and especially for queer youth. But you can’t spend four years trying to like a band, so I had to move on.

  2. kristenwarner

    Thank you for answering my question! I will have more to say when I’m not bowling over in exhaustion but for now I think I really appreciate you stepping out of the binary I gave you with the “hate or love Bon Iver” and instead focusing on what the components of those who do love Bon Iver are. That was great.

    Yes, yes, it does have everything to do with whiteness and what is acceptable and palatable. As we talked about, blue eyed soul in the past was targeted to what seemed to be a black demographic (George Michael, Michael Bolton (black ladies love him), Kenny G, Jon B, Robin Thicke, Michael McDonald, Justin Timberlake (and his ALL BLACK BAND)) but now blue eyed soul can be palatable within the frame of hipsterness for white folks. The hybridized, sanitized, stylistic of this music genre (I haven’t a clue what it is…the people you named I’ve only heard about but haven’t listened to) allows for a measure of “soul” but also clings to the facets of whiteness.

    That’s it for now..more to come.

  3. Pingback: This week’s nomz | Visions of Arcadia
  4. Monica T

    Just stumbled across your blog, and sweet jesus, you articulate all my hipster friends’ obsession with Bon Iver and why that squicks me so. Brb, reading everything you posted.

  5. Pingback: What I did on my winter vacation « Feminist Music Geek

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