Why the Grammys Are Making Justin Vernon Insufferable

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

Why the Grammys Are Making Justin Vernon Insufferable

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.”


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.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
The Vault
Sept. 17 2014 1:04 PM The War Department's WWII Advice Booklet for Soldiers Headed to Syria
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Football Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.