Why the Grammys Are Making Justin Vernon Insufferable

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Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 12 2012 4:25 PM

Why the Grammys Are Making Justin Vernon Insufferable

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Justin Vernon performs at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 2011.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

In the 83-year history of the Oscars, George C. Scott seems to be the only high-profile nominee who very vocally dismissed the whole process as basically beneath him as an artist. (Marlon Brando later refused an Oscar for political reasons.) The Grammy Awards, on the other hand, seem to give one musician or another fits nearly every year.

Enter Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver. Advertisements for his music are playing all over the country to promote tonight’s 54th Grammy Awards—the soft-rock songwriter has been nominated in three of the biggest categories. And yet, in an interview with Billboard, Vernon made it clear he wasn’t entirely on board. “We kind of said ‘fuck you’ a little bit,” he said, speaking of the response he and his band allegedly had for the award show’s organizers when they asked Bon Iver to perform with other musicians on the Grammys broadcast. The show’s producers “acted like they wanted us to play,” Vernon said, “but I don’t think they wanted us to play.”

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Granted, the evening’s collaborations do sometimes tend toward the ridiculous; this year’s planned Beach Boys/Maroon 5/Foster the People performance has all the promise of the special sort of trainwreck only the stage-cramming Grammys can deliver. But Vernon, who said he had no problem with the collaborators suggested, didn’t just decline to perform. He used the opportunity to put his foot in his mouth, in a manner reminiscent of the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah Winfrey dust-up of 2001. “There’s a big misunderstanding,” he said. “I don’t want to sell music.”

Of course, he spoke these words at an event put on by Bushmills Whiskey, whom he’s been helping sell booze.

Given that Vernon does record his songs and make them available for sale, let’s assume he really does want to sell his music, whatever he may occasionally tell an interviewer. What is his problem then, exactly? Arcade Fire seemed to graciously accept mainstream appreciation at last year’s ceremony—as did MGMT in 2009, when they were nominated for their unexpected hit “Oracular Spectacular.” But MGMT expressed their own suspicions about running the Grammy gauntlet. Singer Andrew VanWyngarden asked a Grammy red carpet interviewer, “If we go back underground, will you follow us?” When MGMT’s less listenable sophomore effort Congratulations came out in 2010, the answer seemed to be “no.”

But in a volatile, largely niche-driven music market—in which a new Decemberists record can debut at the top of the charts—the distance from underground to mainstream has arguably never been smaller. And it seems that, given this pop music landscape, the Grammys are trying to recognize new talent more quickly than they have in the past. Which is all to the good.

But the ceremony’s production team needs to adjust to this new world and get better at working with those artists they actually want to perform—collaborate with them, if you will. (Arcade Fire got the stage to themselves; MGMT was not, so far as I can tell, asked to perform.)

If they manage to do that, maybe indie darlings like Justin Vernon can get over their inner conflicts already—and perhaps get a sales boost at the same time, whether they want one or not.

Update: Bon Iver won both best alternative music album and best new artist; you can watch Justin Vernon's awkward—but also endearing?—acceptance speech for the latter below.

Ben Johnson is the producer of Marketplace Tech from American Public Media.

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