Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part V: Who Is Bon Iver, Again?


Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.

Greetings to you four from Bloomington, Indiana, a happening college town perhaps one or more of you have flown over at some point. It’s the birthplace of Hoagy Carmichael and David Lee Roth, and the home of John Mellencamp and Jagjaguwar Records, a label which this year released an album called Bon Iver, Bon Iver that you may have heard of. Most critics liked it, some liked it a lot, Rosie O’Donnell wanted more, pop lovers and rockists alike united to sneer at the smoothness of his album’s textures and its ostensibly outré signifiers (I prefer the first album, but am a sucker for the Bruce Hornsby vibes of “Beth/Rest”). At the time of writing, 317,375 music fans have purchased it—40,000 more than Fleet Foxes, 40,000 less than LMFAO. Yet once the album was nominated for several Grammys last month, lots of people microcasted their ignorance of this album on Twitter. Quickly, another person culled this proudly professed ignorance into a Tumblr called “Who Is Bon Iver?” A member of a long-dormant Australian DJ concern accused him of “selling out” for lending his increased profile to something so horrifying as a whiskey concern, even though the accuser’s own group hypocritically endorses deadly mountain calamities.

So what happened? Did the Bro From Eau Claire break through, or is he still a secret? If you follow music on the internet with any regularity, you couldn’t go a day without hearing about him, but if you don’t, there’s a good chance you don’t have any idea how to pronounce the name, and wait, the white guy from Kanye’s album made his own album and everyone loves it apparently? To Twitter! It’s clear why Bon Iver in 2011, just like Arcade Fire in 2010, made ripples critically, popularly, and awardishly—they fit long-established rock tropes into a modern, gently hip, and well-executed form. And it’s also clear that this is happening at a point when with very few exceptions, good weird rock music is the last thing you expect to hear released by a music label owned by a multinational corporation.

Yet the thing that gets me is, for how much we like to talk about differences and similiarities in genres of music, or between groups of music fans, or as you all were chatting about earlier, styles of trolling (I agree with Nick, by the way), Bon Iver in 2011 highlights the clear importance of musical access. I’m sure that Maura and Tom have things to say about this (perhaps Katherine and Nick might chime in as well): Does consistent internet immersion effect our perceptions of an artist’s impact or broader importance? Music has always been social networking, and “virtual” interactions are just another way of saying that humans are interacting through shared culture. Yet at the same time, I know that my online immersion has at times altered my perception of greater musical time—hype cycles, release dates, the speed of acquisition—but I wonder if any of you have stepped back and wondered how much your perception of music is affected by your continuous virtual proximity to other obsessives?

Enough wonkishness for now! This was a pretty great year for indie rock’s self-sustaining middle-class, particularly if your tastes, like mine, trended toward music that piles on the woozy, perhaps even straight-up druggy atmospherics: My top ten is populated by the likes of Wye Oak’s Civilian, Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, and PJ Harvey’s instant classic Let England Shake. These albums mostly fall into the Second Hour of a Potent Pot Brownie region of the Meh-to-!!! Scale of Musical Dynamism, and not coincidentally, many of their lyrics detail various states of bodily discorporation and/or transfiguration. Harvey in particular (no relation) floated above the English battlefields of the first Great War like an angel, and brought the relevance home with a vengeance on the I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how I’m spending my spare time. Part of it was by compulsively listening to Destroyer’s Kaputt, which I’m still not sure isn’t his best album yet, which is one of two great 2011 cultural objects inspired by “some of the more zen moments in Michael Mann films, and the music that would go along with it,” and which boasts in my opinion, the Canadian-born, art-world-atmospheric, late-night confessional of 2011. Sorry, Drake.

Quickly, a brief diversion to address my thoughts on the big pop albums that others have so far discussed:

• Though the 12-tabs-open-at-once hyperactivity of Beyonce’s “Countdown” seems a shoe-in for song (and video) of the year, I like the silky “Love on Top” much more.

• Hi, Rihanna. When I hear your music, I inexplicably want to get updates from my staff while drinking from a plastic travel mug and scribbling on a whiteboard.

• Katy Perry may be Jenny McCarthy with a custom-made David LaChapelle flash drive plugged into her lower spine, but the Dr. Luke/Max Martin-penned “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is nothing short of a perfect pop single.

• The Gaga album is all that is bad about 2011 album engineering and pre-release marketing, but “Born This Way,” “Government Hooker,” and “Edge of Glory” are all that is good about 2011 robo-pop.

• Like it or not, Adele sold 5,000,000 records because her voice, Instagrammed Dusty Springfield vibe (thanks Rick Rubin), and strategically coy “broken heart” signify “realness” to radio listeners tired of ProTooled overproduction. I like the album quite a bit, but I can’t defend the “Love Song” cover (fuck off, Rick Rubin).

That’s a lot of ladies! This is even leaving out worthy 2011 accomplishments by Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, St. Vincent, EMA, Feist (who released her best album yet this year), and my number one album by Merrill Garbus’s Tune-Yards project, w h o k i l l. Go on? Okay! A handful of my favorite 2011 songs come from lesser-known women with wonderful singing voices—Yukimi Nagano’s SBTRKT single “Wildfire” and her stunning T-Boz turn on the DJ Shadow collaboration “Scale it Back”; Lizzie Bougatsos’s collaboration with Hot Chip side project WIN WIN on “ReleaseRPM” and the way she weaves through the mutant disco of main project Gang Gang Dance; and Bubbley Kaur’s colorful, out of nowhere starring role on Cornershop’s sadly-unheralded LP. Am I off in disagreeing with your assessment that 2011 was the Year of The Bro, Maura? Are Tyler, Drake, Bon Iver, The Throne, and James Blake (are these the bros?) enough to outweigh this pretty incredible list of ladies? Devil’s advocate time: Is this a distinction worth making?

Oh, and when are we allowed to talk about the amazing year in rap? Pleeeeeeeeease?

I look forward to the next round! Back to you, boss.