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Did Bon Iver and Solange Knowles Switch Seats at the Table?
Solange has emerged as the people's champ with her first No. 1 album. But how did she end up the underdog in the first place?
On Sunday (Oct. 9), Billboard announced that Solange Knowles had scored a last-second victory on the Billboard 200, moving 72,000 equivalent album units to debut at the No. 1 spot with A Seat at the Table. It was an unqualified (and much-reported) moment of triumph for an artist who has often found her words and work marginalized over the years, and validation for a brilliantly realized album that nonetheless cut against the grain of Top 40 trends; not difficult, but certainly challenging to listeners, both musically and conceptually. It also provided for an interesting contrast with the artist she came from behind to best for the week's top slot: Bon Iver, who bows at No. 2 this week, with 71,000 units sold of 22, A Million.
Going strictly on their one-line bios, if you were asked to identify who, between Solange Knowles and Bon Iver architect Justin Vernon, would be seen as industry insider, and who the frustrated rebel, you'd almost certainly guess Solange as the former and Vernon as the latter. After all, Knowles is the one who shares a last name with the biggest pop star of the 21st century, who had a major-label debut album with production from Timbaland and the Neptunes when she was just 16, and whose musical roots in R&B, pop and hip-hop ensure that her sound never never strays unrecognizably far from the mainstream. Meanwhile, Vernon is an experimental folk auteur whose origin story involves a near-mythical extended disappearance into the woods. It shouldn't be hard to pick the Popular Kid of these two.
As evidenced by the critical enthusiasm surrounding Solange's chart-toppling, though, it appears we'd have it reversed. And in reality, it makes more sense than you'd initially think: Though Vernon has the indie backstory (and the indie label, Jagjaguwar) to his credit, he also the two gold-certified LPs, the Grammy for Best New Artist, and the backyard music festival. He's been covered on The Voice. He's been parodied on SNL (by Justin Timberlake!) And thanks to his appearances on two of the last three Kanye West albums (and Kanye referring to him as his "favorite living artist"), he seems closer to the Throne's inner circle than Beyoncé's own sister. By comparison, Solange is an outsider and a lone wolf — an artist without a real crossover hit, who hasn't guested on a more high-profile track this decade than a Janelle Monae title track. She's the one who feels like the underdog, the one whose unlikely mainstream success people are naturally inclined to root for.
Of course, Vernon helped his cheering section little with his recent words in The Guardian about the older Knowles. The singer-songwriter's cred-grasping call-out of the Queen's corporate sponsorship ("I’d prefer Beyonce didn’t do a Pepsi tour. Do not take two million dollars from Pepsi and be a role model for young girls") may have been celebrated 20 years ago for its hard-line stance on artistic integrity. But in 2016, Vernon's words were viewed as sanctimonious and downright hypocritical, given his own history as a Bushmills brand ambassador. What's more, being a white male tut-tutting a black female for how she handled her business affairs invariably smacked of a combination of privilege and mansplaining. Even Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold -- one of the few figures in 21st-century folk to approach Vernon's level of mainstream visibility -- was publicly critical.
Solange, on the other hand, has become one of the leading voices of protest in pop -- not just on A Seat at the Table, which contains some of the most discussion-provoking examinations of black identity (and American identity in general) found on record this year, but in interviews and particularly on Twitter, where she's been fiercely protective of her music, her culture, and herself. There's little doubt that Solange's protests of cultural violence and musical tributes to slain victims of police shootings ring as more relevant to the contemporary discussion than a global pop star and a global soft drink innocuously joining forces.
Really, though, even if the narrative is tilting towards Solange and slightly away from Vernon, it speaks pretty well of the American public's capability to embrace innovative, demanding pop music that each have one of the two most-popular albums in the country this week. Even if Bon Iver's persona is more establishment than it was when Vernon first emerged, that's hardly reflected in the music, which is further left-of-center than ever with 22, A Million's obscured vocals, gleaming arrangements, unpredictable structures and abstract titles. It seems likely that Solange and Bon Iver would be big fans of each other's new works, and we should be grateful that the mainstream has expanded enough in 2016 that even if they've shuffled chairs a little, there's still plenty of room for the table at both of them.