A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to see Bon Iver at the Hollywood Bowl. I feel painfully cliché saying it, but I’m a massive fan of Justin Vernon’s work. His releases as Bon Iver shape how I write, think about and listen to music. Toward the end of the set, he hurriedly grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat at the very front of the stage under a single light. What proceeded was a rendition of “Skinny Love,” intensely more aggressive than the soft song we all listened to in high school and might have cried to. This new version caught me off-guard. The guitar was repeatedly, frustratedly struck; the vocals sounded like an argument. By the final verse, he had stopped playing guitar and was practically shouting the lyrics at the audience. I felt a kind of awe I have never experienced watching Justin Vernon reclaim his song from all the hearts that have twisted it and taken it as their own, the myriad erasures of its truth obscured by our desire to relate to what we hear.
I left the concert wondering: Can we relate to someone’s artwork properly? Can we ever relate to someone’s artwork the way they hope we will? Are feelings elicited by art — and specifically music — capable of being legitimized, or even delegitimized?
There is no way to know for sure. But the best we can do is expose ourselves to as many sounds as we can, keeping in mind that they are never going to be our own.
Art, and especially sound, fills a gap between our emotions and our capabilities to articulate them. So then surely closing our ears to all the possibilities limits our interactions with the depths of ourselves. I am a musician because often, language is not enough. A single note on the piano or a single line in a song can evoke an innumerable quantity of emotions, and the binary of “legitimate” or “illegitimate” cannot appropriately catalog them. Music that occupies the fringes of our societies so often influences the more commercial and acceptable sounds of the time. The sonic zeitgeist would not exist without everything it fails to represent.
Therein lies the subtext of that moment at the Hollywood Bowl. Here’s a man who has won Grammys and collaborated with some of the biggest names in the music industry, and yet constantly has to reclaim his own work and re-express its power, its depth, its ugliness. Did we misinterpret Justin Vernon’s words? Is there such a thing as an accurate interpretation of music?
Even when the money that can be made is more important than the sound, music fundamentally invokes the sharing of an experience, of a concept. Thus, artists must acknowledge that their work is inevitably going to be judged, interpreted and consumed. That notion manifests in its reliability: there will always be music that is more easily accessible. Perhaps our tastes in music are in fact veiled and simplified by the kinds of music we are able to access in the first place.
In seeking new music to listen to, we search for a sound that we can somehow relate to or resonate with. Many of us will not grant the sonic space to something we don’t want to hear, will not allow for an artistic endeavor to present itself on its own terms. But when we only hear what we have already decided we want to hear, we forget how much more there is, both in what we’ve decided to listen to and in everything we’ve cast aside; the amount of content we disregard contains an infinite number of statements, ideas and experiences, and they should be given a chance to affect us the way music of our own preferences does.
The spaces we grant to the likes of Childish Gambino and Radiohead to experiment and push boundaries shouldn’t be as exclusive as they’ve become, completely ignoring works by groups like G.L.O.S.S., Tommy Genesis, Hot Sugar or Prayers. Listening to such groups can be something that is so rewarding and emotionally confronting that hearing the work on its own terms should be done more often, even if we can’t relate to it. Yet so often I am struck by the intensity of peoples’ responses to sounds they don’t like. We shouldn’t discredit the validity and necessity of music just because we don’t personally like it. Even if we don’t want to hear it on repeat, we must acknowledge the importance of sound.
Hearing Justin Vernon reclaim his song that night reminded me of the importance of granting artists the space for authenticity — even if it’s at the cost of hearing something we might not like. Delegitimizing a work of art because we aren’t personally interested in it is one of the most ignorant things we can do. The version of “Skinny Love” I first heard in high school left me in awe of the power of a quiet song; but I can no longer hear the standard version of the song without Justin Vernon’s frustrations from that live performance bleeding through, pulling the ground out from under me and yelling into my ear “it was never for you.” Yet, simultaneously, I hear, underneath that claim, “I know my message has been compromised.” It may be naïve, but never getting a concrete answer — nor ever fully understanding the work — is not a good enough reason to stop listening.
Karim Sharif is a junior English major and Critical Theory and Social Justice/music composition double minor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.