Nearly one year ago, on a Sunday that seemed like any other Grammy Sunday, all of Canada (that care about such things) found itself aflame with national pride over The Arcade Fire. The band, tiny in comparison to its goliath competition, surprised even themselves by winning the evening’s most esteemed accolade, album of the year. In fact, it was the first time a Canadian band had managed such an achievement. In the process, two things happened — locally, the Canadian music industry was forced to take stock of itself and, perhaps more important, the music world as a whole was faced with a new paradigm of where the Venn diagram of commercial and critical success intertwine.
The group’s massive upset also managed to disprove years of stereotypical Grammy rhetoric. Namely, that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was an out-of-touch dinosaur that relegated those artists that were most deserving of its glory to off-telecast consolation.
All of which makes the case of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon so interesting. At a time when the music industry’s most star-spangled night had finally achieved the kind of acceptance commercial placement has among so-called independent artists, Vernon’s taken a moral stance against the award. And, with four nominations, including best new artist and song and record of the year, seemingly painted himself into an awkward corner.
The ruckus began months before the nominations were announced. Speaking with New York Times writer Jon Caramanica, Vernon took a strong position against the awards, referring to them as “ridiculous.”
“You should not be doing this,” he said. “We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending this is important."
Bon Iver "We Are Music" Grammy Spot from stereogum on Vimeo.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people in that room, their art is compromised by the fact that they’re thinking that,” he continued. “And who is that award given by? It’s like they think it’s literally handed down by the musical-history gods … And it’s just not important and people spend too much time thinking about it.”
Ultimately, Caramanica chose to omit the quotes from his story, publishing them instead on a NYT blog when Vernon was nominated. Considering the context of the quote and stating that he believed he had no chance of being nominated at the time, Vernon was faced with a dilemma. He chose the aggressive tactic, turning down an invite to play during the awards by attacking the intentions of the performance.
Surprisingly, to Vernon and historical context, the public tide turned on Vernon who came off looking like an immature “artiste” rather than the staunch defender of pure artistic intent.
This, perhaps more than any cultural indicator, shows a turning tide and, in some ways, it’ll be interesting to see if Vernon shows up on Sunday (something he said he’d do because he knew his parents “would think it would be stupid of me not to go up there”) but, in the world of puritanical artistic stances, this proves a new precedent of forced hypocrisy.
Hell, if even the staunchest of Grammy haters, Neil Young, (a man who once referred to the Grammys as “jive — a buncha people handin’ each other awards and talkin’ about how they made the best record”) would turn up to accept his award for best art direction on a boxed or special limited edition package in 2010, how could Vernon not do the same?
Ditto Metallica, who notoriously put a “Grammy Award LOSERS” sticker on their …And Justice For All album after it lost the initial best hard rock/metal performance vocal or instrumental award to flute diddlers Jethro Tull, but went on to become the winningest group in the category.
In fact, he doesn’t need to search as far as Kevin Bacon to see how forgiving the Grammys can be of their detractors. Speaking with Access Hollywood last year, Vernon’s sometime collaborator Kanye West went on a typical Westian rant on that year’s Best Album category. “Where’s our instant replay clock?” West pondered. “Why are the last four Albums of the Year: Taylor Swift, Dixie Chicks, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock? Like, you know, with all due respect … that’s inaccurate.”
And here we are a year later and West is leading all challengers —including the year’s biggest commercial success, Adele — with seven nominations.
Gallery: Grammy nominees
Let’s also not forget that Vernon’s four nominations came at the expense of more mainstream nominees like Jill Scott (who, finding she was blanked, went on a Twitter tirade which ended with her needing to reaffirm God’s existence), which puts Vernon in the position of being his own enemy.
Of course, whether Vernon chooses to simply accept the paradigm shift is up to him. But it may behoove the talented artist to take a note from his beautiful, sparse music and take a step back and take stock. For, in a world where Arcade Fire can beat Eminem, hypocritical redemption is only a nationally televised performance away.
• Watching the Grammys this year? CBC Music has assembled an amazing array of guests — top music writers from some of our nation's best music publications and newspapers, CBC personalities and radio hosts, and musicians ranging from poet laureate-rappers to members of Sloan. Join us at 7pm EST on Sunday, February 12.