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.”
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?
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.