The old cliché about music is that it brings people together. It’s a unifying force in our lives, something we can often discuss with people we have little else in common with. However, I sometimes find that music is just the opposite for me. A lot of the time, music is alienating: It’s the band you love that nobody else seems to know or the band you hate that everyone else seems to love. Both seem to happen to me all the time.
In 2011, no artist represented that idea more than Bon Iver. The band, led by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, released their self-titled second album this year to rave reviews from the music press and fans, topping many year end music lists in the process. He was the subject of countless magazine covers and articles, Facebook posts, and was even nominated for the Grammy for best album, signifying his breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness. Living in St. Paul, which is right in the heart of Vernon’s midwest stomping grounds, it seems like everyone loves Bon Iver.
Except for me, of course. In the months since his last album came out, I’ve been carrying around a horrible secret: I kind of hate Bon Iver. I haven’t told anyone because I’ve been afraid of possible retribution (Bon Iver’s fans are an intimidating bunch) and, in general, it’s hard to tell someone that you think one of their favorite artists sucks. Especially when it seems to be the favorite artist of half the campus where you spend most of your time.
It wasn’t always this way. Bon Iver’s first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t my cup of tea, but I at least respected what went into it. The story of Vernon secluding into a cabin after having his heart broken and just writing music in isolation appealed to me, even if it was a tad corny. I didn’t like it, but I saw the appeal because it came from such an honest, genuine place.
I can’t say the same for his self-titled second album, which has baffled and frustrated me pretty much all year. It’s a long way from the spare, “cabin” arrangements of his first album, instead opting to bury his voice under layers and layers of glossy 80’s style sheen. For the most part, you can barely understand what Vernon is singing about through the album. This works for me if you’re a musical genius like Kevin Shields or Radiohead; it doesn’t when your album sounds like it was produced on a synthesizer made in 1983.
Most of all though, though, Bon Iver is just so… dull. Nothing about it grabs my attention. This is incredibly subjective, of course, because different things are interesting to different people. But I have an incredibly hard time picturing anyone getting pumped up to listen to Bon Iver. The same could be said about a lot of folk music, but at least most folk singers have concrete lyrics that I can grab on to so there’s an actual meaning to their songs. Any emotional connection I could make to Bon Iver was typically buried under a synthesizer, a guitar, a saxophone solo, autotune, and the washed-out production.
It’s rare that I outright dislike an album that is so widely acclaimed, so I thought a lot this year about why I had such an intensely negative reaction to Bon Iver. For awhile, I looked at it as sort of a character flaw. Maybe I’m just biased against Vernon and his bearded white male folky brethren, or just wanted to hate the album because it was popular. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand the album’s complexity, similar to how I don’t get Animal Collective.
These are all still valid possibilities, but I also think Bon Iver just lacks pretty much everything I look for in music. To illustrate this point, and to try to figure out why I hated this damn album so much, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to my favorite albums of this year.
At the very top is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which is probably the most sensible comparison to Bon Iver. These are the two most acclaimed albums of the year and both are primarily folk-influenced. Both have been called boring by a lot of people, yet I found Let England Shake incredibly powerful and moving while finding Bon Iver tedious. It’s really in the conception where PJ blows Bon Iver out of the water: She made a searing portrait of war in her homeland. Bon Iver made… what exactly? Another folk album where a white guy sings about how sad he is? Where Bon Iver’s lyrics were either cliche or impossible to understand, PJ’s grabbed me and jolted me and had a visceral impact. Let England Shake was my favorite album this year because of its ambition and literary depth. Bon Iver had neither of those things.
That might have been an unfair comparison, since Let England Shake is an amazing album by one of my favorite artists. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be EMA, whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints was third on my list and was also somewhat folk-influenced. I don’t think any song this year jolted me and made me say “who the hell is this?” the way EMA’s “California” did when I first heard it. It was raw, bold, and confrontational, lyrically and musically. It pulled no punches, which is something I really love in music.
Bon Iver is a far cry from that idea. To say Bon Iver pulls punches would be an understatement. It doesn’t even punch at all. It just kind of sits there. There is no attempt at standing out, no hint of challenging listeners, none of the sense of emotional catharsis that I thought Past Life Martyred Saints had. It has absolutely no boldness or originality. It’s just another in a long line of indie folk albums, the type that we hear seemingly thousands of every single year.
In the end, I’m left wondering what it says about the state of indie music today that something like Bon Iver is so widely adored. Is this really what we want from music? Is this what we’re willing to accept from artists? I don’t doubt that for many people the album had a profound emotional impact. Personally, I expect more. I want music that challenges me, excites me, is bold and original. In other words, I don’t want Bon Iver.
20 thoughts on “Confessions of a Bon Iver Hater”
Dude, stop beating yourself up. Bon Iver is Groupthink + Emperor’s New Clothes in full effect.People who have no fucking idea think his voice is ‘so beautiful’, like Jeff Buckley, but the comparison is a massive insult to Buckley. I don’t really care if he keeps making naff records and people lose it over him, except that he is taking up the space that should be reserved for genuinely great artists. He might not be a war criminal, but I’m not quite sure how he lives with himself (Prolly by going and getting stoned with rap stars).
But I commend you for really thinking about why you dislike his music. But don’t lose a second’s sleep over it. BTW, check out an Aussie band, Husky, you might like if you dig folky/pop stuff.
I can’t really think of another artist that has infuriated me so much, the only equivalent that comes to mind is that film, Broken Flowers, with Bill Murray, from a few years ago: a terrible, pretentious void that people fell over themselves to praise.
And remember, hating an artist ‘together’, is just as cool as loving an artist ‘together’ 🙂
I feel the same way. I’ve noticed all the social media ‘likes’ and music stream postings on this band, I feel surrounded by folks that love the band… and when I hear them I feel like it’s this pretentious crap that makes me want to punch someone. And for some twisted reason (peer pressure?) I really want to like it… but each attempt to listen to it makes me hate them more. It’s just awful. I’m really surprised at how strongly I feel about this. =/
I googled “I hate Bon iver” just to see if those people existed ….they do.
Im a musican and I find his stuff very interesting, and lyricly quite fun similar to a lot of Damien rice stuff where the lyrics are just there for interpretation, as for the instrumentation I wasn’t so sure about at the start but it has grown on me. All in all I don’t think you should really ever hate an artist because they are popular ( as long as they arnt complete shite) these guys have their music and people like it. Doesn’t mean you should hate it. As for comparing it to other artists I also dissagree with that because it’s like saying da Vinci is better than van gogh, neither are better it’s just the observer prefers.
THANK you. I’ve been trying to articulate my feelings about Bon Iver to a friend. I’ve devolved to simply pointing at this post and saying things like “GAH” and “THIS”.
I personally think you’re an idiot. Bon Iver’s album was beautiful. It didn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard. There’s 80’s synth on one song, not the whole album, and that song is freaking brilliant. I like PJ Harvey and EMA so I don’t really get why you hate Bon Iver so much. I don’t really like Animal Collective either but I’d never write an article designed to make everyone that’s an Animal Collective fan sound like they’re pretentious or just bandwagoning because they’re a fan. So you don’t like Bon Iver. Cool. It doesn’t make you better than anybody that does.
It wasn’t really my intent to insult Bon Iver or his fans. I just found his album incredibly frustrating and had that feeling of missing out on something that everyone else is loving. So I decided to look into myself a bit and analyze why this music didn’t have the emotional impact that it had on you and so many others compared to the music from 2011 that did. Obviously it’s all subjective and these are just my opinions (and they may make me an idiot — sometimes I feel like one for not getting his music).
There were some moments when out of frustration it sort of devolved into easy Bon Iver hating. I regret writing those parts because it’s easy and cheap, and went against what I was trying to do when I started writing this thing. It’s been fun reading people’s responses to this article and seeing how a piece of music can be so divisive.
Don’t feel so bad. Guess who made the top of this list:
I’ve been raging about Boner Eater since the first time I listened to “Flume” and couldn’t hear the music through his “no pretense-pretense.”
I mainly hate him because of his popularity which many of his fans attribute to him being “so beautifully down-to-earth.” In reality, it couldn’t be more obvious that everything he is doing is calculated to capitalize on hipster culture and its ironic tendencies (read: produce shitty music).
It’s nice to finally see him at the top of one of these lists, where he belongs.
“I mainly hate him because of his popularity.” This is the problem with people regarding music today. You should like an artist because of their sound it shouldn’t matter how popular they are but some only go for the popular artists while some only go for the unknown. If you don’t like it fine, but don’t call something pretentious to just because it aint to your taste
OMG!!!! I don’t understand this Bon Iver thingy. Fawking voice sounds like a bunch of air. Not a real singer in my eyes. I tried listening to his songs again and had to just hit the square symbol (STOP)…. Anyways, it actually makes me feel so depressed just listen to this music.
I’ve been in the depths of a Bon Iver binge for a few days now, though they are by no means a band that is new to me. Bon Iver is that one of the few reasons I wake up in the morning. Also, like another who left a comment, I too searched “I hate Bon Iver” just to see what would pop up. I’m trying to gain perspective on the band by checking out why people dislike them. But before exploring why I enjoy Bon Iver, I should probably mention a few things in the interest of full disclosure and to set the stage for why I do enjoy listening to the band.
Firstly, I’m by no means an authoritative source on music. In fact, compared to many of my peers, I often get stuck inside a musical bubble where I only listen to certain bands or albums for days on end, even for months or years, before branching out to find others. The worst case of this for me was The Beatles, which I almost listened to exclusively for the vast majority of my childhood into my teens- roughly a decade. From there, as many teens have done before me, I turned to punk rock bands like NOFX, Pennywise, and Bad Religion. I even listened to Green Day for a day or two, but I was turned off of them by peers who mentioned that they ‘sold out’. I had a thing for conforming to non-conformists and naysayers (yes, I phrased it that way to make it sound as stupid as it is). So, for all of this, take what I am saying with a grain of salt as far as music is concerned.
Also, besides getting obsessed with certain musicians, I also become obsessed with not seeking out time to listen to any in particular. A major past time of my youth was playing video games, so often I was content just to listen to the soundtrack of whatever I was playing. For a long time, even into high school, and despite being in a choir, I didn’t listen to anything in particular. I spent so much of my time not listening to particular bands that I can hardly even recall who I listened to during these years. Now you have more reason to doubt my ability to judge music.
Unfortunately, I feel the need to explain a bit more of who I am. As is apparent, one of the big things that defines my musical tastes is a lack of listening. Bon Iver sounds new and unique to me, and unlike anything I’ve heard before. Another thing that defines my taste (or lack of) probably has a lot to do with my mood. To put it briefly, my mood and general state of mind is abnormal as determined by my doctors. And to be less cryptic, I have schizoaffective disorder, which is a mixture of schizophrenia like symptoms (delusions, hallucinations) and a major mood disorder (in my case, depression). So it is the case that I have been and part of me still is, to a point, crazy, and yet, sad.
With all this in mind, perhaps now we can finally come to an understanding about why I enjoy Bon Iver, and even get ‘pumped up’ to listen to it. It has a lot to do with my personality traits that seem to favor music which matches my feelings- this tends to be whatever is downbeat and relatively ‘soft’ sounding. It also has a lot to do with my lack of experience in actually listening to music- like I mentioned before, Bon Iver sounds new and different to me from anything else I’ve heard before. But, to be fair, it also strokes my ego. You seem to have quite a bit more knowledge of music than me, so I accept that Justin Vernon could very well be just another white guy who sings about how sad he is. I do the same, and listen to the same, because I am among the increasingly cliche population of sad white guys that have and probably will continue to flood the air waves with their likely trite melancholy.
From what I understand, Justin Vernon doesn’t have a whole lot to be sad about that also makes him stand out from the crowd. He locked himself in a cabin to make music after breaking up with a girl. It is the case that I am not in a unique position either to be sad. It is simply the case that I am sick. But I’m not sure if sadness requires there to be a unique reason behind it for it to be authentic. Context of sadness may make something a bit more interesting, but I still feel like, if the feeling is there, regardless of what caused it or how unique the cause is, it has some merit behind it. To be a little philosophical, this is because we are empathetic, communal creatures, and as such, feelings felt by an individual are felt by the group. Therefore, because I have felt sadness (and such sadness is ubiquitous for me), I enjoy downbeat music, and it follows that I enjoy Bon Iver because they are downbeat and evoke varying degrees of sadness. Vernon may not be unique in his sadness, but I still find his music authentic.
To wrap things up, I’m still on a Bon Iver binge, and I won’t be able to tell when I stop listening. It may be the case that I put on an entirely different sounding album once I finish writing. Or I may listen to them for another week or two, or a month without really listening to anyone else. Because of my naivety when it comes to music, I enjoy Bon Iver. They sound unlike anything I’ve heard before. It is also the case that I enjoy them because they are downbeat and evoke feelings of melancholy (if not outright sadness). Novelty and mood are why I enjoy Bon Iver, so I hope I’ve shed some light on the issue.
I can’t stand that overrated pompous self important pretentious shit.
I wanted to fucking kill myself when I heard a bon iver song which popped into my spotify.
To be honest , In my opinion all of the music listed above I find incredibly shit., so much that I’d rather have silence. Peoples music taste are always going to differ and we shouldn’t judge others for their taste in music. That being said. I dislike Bon iver but i have a massive boner for this one bon iver fan.
The thing I hate about Bon Iver is that he makes me feel so frickin’ stupid. I find his lyrics *~~impossible~~* to understand. Not audibly; lyrically. I can’t make any sense of them whatsoever, and the fact that everyone loves him just makes me feel like everybody gets it except me. ;_;
My husband loves Bon Iver and I literally cringe when the band comes on. We have always had the same musical inclinations and enjoyed a blissful union of respectful appreciation of the others taste even if they don’t quite mesh, but Bon Iver…? I can’t stand the vocals, repeating chord structures, effects, strumming or lyrics. It leaves me with an overall scratching nails on board horrible whining feeling. Music shouldn’t make you feel bad. I listen to everything from Folk, Indie Rock, Punk, Jazz, Ska, Electronica, Blues.. So it’s not a problem with their popularity, genre, or quirkiness. I’ve tried to listen to them repeatedly and they have been left seriously wanting at least by me.
I won’t let my husband play them around me anymore because of the physical reaction of sucky-ness I have when they are on. It’s just something so not right about it…to the point where I could actually say I hate them…and I’ve never said that about a band before. So I understand a little of what you are feeling.
It kills me how people think everyone should like and dislike the same things as they do. If you don’t like something thats your business. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it bad music. Every musician has an “image” thats what the get paid to maintain. They appeal to a certain audience and everyone on the planet cannot be within that audience,Ok so his music style might not be unique enough for your tastes but a lot of stuff people do has been done in some variation before somewhere out there in the world. Lastly everyones ears reacts differently to different sounds we can’t all like the same songs.
‘If you don’t like something thats your business.’
And yet, you still felt the need to come here to try and ‘rebut’ the author of this post.
I got to this site by searching “Bon Iver sucks” in Google. Thanks for agreeing. Why can’t anyone men sing like a man anymore?
I’m three years late BUT I’m going to write this anyway… (I wondered if anyone had troubles interpreting their music, so I googled it and landed here.) Personally, when I think of Bon Iver, I think of a calm serenity, a car ride going for miles, miles, miles, contemplating and deciphering the meaning of everything, just like their music. Bon Iver isn’t for everyone. My parents think they’re boring. My friends don’t understand the emotion created behind the music, which is why I believe people hate certain music. Nobody understands the stigma or what I was feeling when I first discovered Bon Iver, and I don’t understand what everyone else felt when they discovered Bon Iver either. All I know is Bon Iver connects to me on a spiritual level. When I’m having an anxiety attack, I can’t turn to anything else to calm me down. When I’m depressed, or having a flashback from a moment of abuse I’ve experienced, I turn to Bon Iver. Nothing compares and their music is different. Not everyone likes different because not everyone understands. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and say this music is “hipster”. Who gives a fucking shit? This music is raw. Emotional. Fun to interpret. If you don’t like it, don’t write a novel on the reasons why. You might seriously offend some people who need, literally NEED, Bon Iver. Music doesn’t save lives particularly, but the feelings music gives you can. Bon Iver saved mine. I’m not bashing your favorite music, don’t bash mine/ours.
I agree. Bon Iver is a bunch of overrated crap. I love a nonsensical lyric as much as the next guy but only when it doesn’t pretend to hide some deep meaning. Lennon was good at that. And he wrote actual music to go with it. This douchebag does just smoke and mirrors crap, he is a poser of a magnitude, it’s all pretense and no sense, a conglomeration of sounds whereas he is using some imagery intended to please a crowd of fawning insipid idiot sissies which is the modern generation of music “lovers” who have no idea what music or a good lyric is. This is our payment for giving popularity to teenagers who now decide what is and what is not popular and have buried any possibility of next Sinatra or something else that can become an actual classic. It’s all popcorn and chewing gum and fizzy drinks these days. The culture on the way out.
P.S. There is no hatred in the above. It’s an evaluation that is actually quite exact but I do not hate Bon Iver or his fans, I simply understand them more then they could ever understand themselves.
Thank you for this! This group still HAUNTS me to this day. Each time I hear his voice I either gag or feel like I am listening to fingernails running down a chalkboard. I have a friend in California that loves this twit and well……he’s from California. Anyway, I sincerely wish every song of his would be erased from existence.