Let’s discuss Bon Iver’s criticisms of Beyoncé

When you work in a creative field, you always worry about “selling out,” of dumbing down or not actually believing in the art you’re making just to chase money or please corporate world sponsors. Bon Iver (the brain child of reclusive artist Justin Vernon, who rose to fame as a indie folk feelings translator) is about to release his new album 22, A Million after spending years on side projects, guest features (including some with Kanye West), and building up his Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin.

And in an interview with The Guardian, he bemoans the commercialization that makes up the backbone of the music world now, and specifically namedrops Beyoncé: Specifically, her sponsored partnership with Pepsi.

Now, we want to clarify — the crux of the interview was about his overall discomfort with having to turn to corporate sponsors to fund his own musical career. After all, it’s not as though Vernon’s turned down corporate money before; his 2011 campaign with Bushmills whiskey is even centered in his self-critique. But we want to address the Beyoncé comments because they tap into a larger conversation about radical politics, capitalism, and how women specifically can fund their important work.

Vernon’s specific quote is the below:

"You can never be self-righteous, but it’s okay to be a little righteous. You have to believe in something. Like, I’d prefer Beyoncé didn’t do a Pepsi tour. Do not take two million dollars from Pepsi and be a role model for young girls. Do not do that. That stuff does anger me. And I feel like I am not afraid to talk about that stuff."

We’re sure that the Beyoncé focus could be applied to just about any modern pop star; off the top of my head, I can think of Kanye West and Adidas, Rihanna and Puma, and Drake and Nike. These are all high profile fashion partnerships, but considering that West is a direct collaborator with Vernon, I think it’s strange that he doesn’t namecheck or acknowledge this kind of creative/corporate collaboration and instead shines a spotlight on Beyoncé’s Pepsi deal, even arguing that it somehow disqualifies her from being a role model.

How? Of course, in a perfect world artists wouldn’t have to accept money from nebulous “suits” to make their art a reality. That distaste is what draws us to figures like Chance the Rapper, whose steadfast independence makes him an exception to the rest of not just his field, but also most people. Perhaps Vernon’s ire is in the notion that Beyoncé isn’t involved with a more “creative” corporate sponsor, and instead is delivering Pepsi’s commercial message just because of the money. In which case, I’m willing to bet that most people truly don’t give a shit about that if it means that she can deliver more work like Lemonade on her own terms, and if this allows her to cultivate her work and image outside of the traditional industry press cycle, which Vernon himself is engaging in.

It’s so, so easy to rag on people for trading money for fame, but what about trading money for freedom? Is it so strange to believe that Beyoncé took that $2 million and understood it not as a mandate to sell Pepsi in everything that she does, but instead to take her own art and message to another level? It’s not as though Lemonade is tied to, say, Kraft Foods (which produces Crystal Light); and if Vernon is truly trying to say that the hint of commercialization somehow taints creative work, why not go after Apple Music and Beats, who plant their products in so many music videos and whose control over the music industry is hidden from the general public, versus Beyoncé’s very much outward-facing Pepsi deal?

Something I personally can’t stand is the notion that for people to make radical work worthy of idolatry, they have to divorce themselves from all non-radical connections. That somehow, by accepting compensation or funding for their work from a corporate source, that somehow means their work and their status as an artist aren’t valid or valuable. That somehow, one of the most powerful women in the world doesn’t deserve her audience and influence because she dares to engage with the corporate world, as though she herself is not a corporate force and most musicians especially in this world have to be, that dwindling music sales and changing modes of musical engagement from the general public haven’t led to more artists having to turn to corporate support, whether from Pepsi or Apple or Google or any other large company.

Beyoncé is a black woman making art that explores race, gender, and sexuality on the global scale, and she is and will remain a role model for millions of people because they see themselves, their concerns and their lives, reflected in her music. Pepsi won’t change that. Nothing, at this point, can. And if girls aspire to her level of commercial success, I refuse to blame them or implicate her. After all, the most reliable, best revenge against a world that oftentimes doesn’t acknowledge your personhood isn’t, and can’t always be, peerless non-problematic art. It’s paper.

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