X-Factor almost ruined Bon Iver for me. I don’t even watch the show. I couldn’t care that the Australian version boasts both Scary Spice and a washed-up Ronan Keating (mature-aged women the world over swoon) as judges. I am not moved in the slightest by the show’s attempt to claw back ratings after another talent-show juggernaut, The Voice, rolled into down and totally obliterated everything standing in its path (Ronan, you ain’t got nothin’ on Keith). But I am affected, seriously affected, by the fact that a 16-year-old girl, who herself claimed fame by winning a talent competition when she was 12, can record a version of ‘Skinny Love’ which is then transmogrified by a contestant on said television program, introducing the track to a whole nation of people who might not otherwise have heard it, turning the now-16 year old ‘Birdy’ into a major celebrity here in Aus (#1 album, #2 single) and effectively reattributing the track in the collective consciousness to the Australian X-Factor Top Ten finalist Bella Ferraro by way of Brit Birdy by way of some dude who locked himself in a cabin in Wisconsin for a while a few years ago.
‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, more than many albums of the past decade or so, connects on a particularly primal level. Battling illness, heartache and loss, the conditions that birthed Justin Vernon’s debut album make for the strap-line of any Hollywood movie but the results, pared back, tragically raw and intensely human, culminated in an album about as removed from the expectations, hype, trends of the biz. Those are always the best albums – the ones produced in bedrooms, cobbled together on the back of serviettes, written for particular individuals with no intention that anyone else should ever hear them. Michael Angelakos’ ‘Chunk of Change’ EP, recorded for his then-girlfriend for Valentine’s Day and a precursor to all the Passion Pit excellence that would follow, is another example that comes to mind. It’s the unforced intimacy of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ that made it so precious – as though we, by some fluke record label distribution error, were being let in on secrets whispered to a lover, lust plucked out on twanging acoustic guitars, falsetto highs scaled not for exhibitionist purposes but out of frustration, passion, absence.
What Birdy has done with this track is admirable, in a sense. There are hundreds, thousands of tweens, kids and others who might follow the path of appropriation and reappropriation right back to its hibernating origins in that cabin in Wisconsin in the winter of 2006, discover Bon Iver and love him for all the reasons outlined above. But in many other senses, Birdy and, unfortunately by extension, the entire X-Factor enterprise, is the target of my scorn today for talent-showing the hell out of what is a fundamentally private, painful song. Call it vetazzling. Instead of diving deep into Bon Iver’s sentiment as his guitar seemingly falls away only to emerge with the next phrase, Birdy’s driving piano never lets up; it is too certain, too much of a safety net. Instead of the evocative growl, roughness on ‘I told you to be kind’, we get mellifluous, pitch-perfect vocals that slide where they should shudder. Birdy, I guess, has won again in making me, not even an X-Factor groupie, re-evaluate ‘Skinny Love’ with fresh ears. After it’s double vetazzling, the truth of an axiom my grandfather never tires of using rings clear: ‘the remake is rarely better than the original’.
Bon Iver – Skinny Love