Blog Post

Authenticity, alter egos and Bon Iver: a short attention span essay

I find Bon Iver's records eminently listenable. But I also find they lack some unnameable quantity of soul.

Or maybe the better way to put it is that they intentionally emulate (or aspire to capture) the most soulful bits of a soulless era for popular music, the 1980s. At the time, increasingly digital-sounding music was considered a good thing—progress rather than an abomination. Perfect sound forever!

Need proof?

Viz the massive success then enjoyed by Bruce Hornsby and his Range, probably Bon Iver's most oft-cited influence.

Well, eventually "perfect sound forever" (that sales slogan was used to convince people of the necessity of the compact disc) met "Perfect Sound Forever"—and the (supposedly ascendent) indie rock aesthetic was born...

But that's an entirely different blog rant.

What I'm here to talk about right now is how/why Bon Iver as a live proposition is such a different sounding thing than he is on record. I mean fuuuuuuuuck, look at this:


What do we think of this band?
Uh, here's a hint: We think a whole lot of this band!
Actually let's break the narrative for a second and realize that the above didn't even feature Justin Vernon's band—rather it was a collaboration with The Roots—and let's furthermore call a spade a spade. None of these people playing behind him are a band; in each case, what they are, is his band.

(Oh, geez, no pun intended with that phrase—this kind of thing will get you in trouble these days:

End parenthetical.)

Point being the records by the "band" Bon Iver are masterminded by Justin Vernon & then re-created by a very capable (emphasis on the VERY) live band. The major falsehood of these albums is the band concept. Even the game show Jeopardy is on to this ruse:

But perhaps the falsity is what he's going for?

Let's consider the vehicle of a band as one more way that Vernon is able to plot out creative space for himself. It's allowed him to dabble freely in groups such as Gayngs without the high stakes expectation for his Bon Iver records; and, eventually, it will allow for the inevitable solo albums which will follow when/if a backlash against Bon Iver sets in, or when boredom (his own, his fanbase's) sets in. (That process may begin this very weekend if he happens to win a Grammy on Sunday night...)

(There is plenty of precedent for this. If Tom Petty & Bruce Springsteen & Palace Music (aka Will Oldham) can go solo even though everyone already thought they were solo artists, so can Vernon. Hell, to extend the rock-historical lineage into speculative history, maybe it would have made more aesthetic sense if some of Neil's albums were credited to just plain Crazy Horse.

Songs like that are more than Neil Young, alone. End parenthetical.)

Anyway, I'm rambling again! It's my blog and I can do that if I want to, but I know it gets kinda snoozy & hard to follow, so let's take another awesome music break:


Basically, what I want everyone to consider while reading this post is the notion of authenticity. Does such a thing even exist in the performing arts? I'd argue it does not. There are just different depths of falsehood.

Some related admissions: I kind of liked Madonna on last weekend's Super Bowl halftime show. (She seems to be simultaneously stealing MNDR's thunder, quoting Toni Basil & engaging in the deeply self-referential self-promotional hijinx of hip-hop.) And I don't get why people are so pissed about Lana Del Rey. (It's kind of like being angry about blue Gatorade. Everyone can agree that in the right mood it can taste pretty delicious. But did anyone really ever think it was natural?)

To summarize: real vs. fake = whatever!
Good vs. bad = priceless.

Good music always wins out in the end. And, right now, think what you will about the records he makes as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon in the live sphere is operating at a place of goodness so far beyond his indie rocking contemporaries, ya' gotta just let your tongue hang out & your drool pool where it may.


Note: That song wasn't as good as the other two of his that I posted. Sorry not to end on the highest note.

Happy now?

Alec Hanley Bemis's picture

Alec Hanley Bemis lives in Brooklyn, NY but spends a lot of time in California. He obtained his B.A. in History from Yale University. His writing has appeared in LA Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Spin,, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2001, he co-founded Brassland, a record label that documents the work of a growing community of musicians, including The National and Nico Muhly. Currently he continues to run Brassland, consults for the UK-based music company All Tomorrow's Parties, co-manages The Dirty Projectors, and acts as general manager at Cantaloupe Music. In the past, he has taught in New York University's graduate journalism program, produced projects for the new media-design firm, Funny Garbage, and written for Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.