In their heyday, Nirvana were atypical rock stars. It’s heartening to see that Krist Novoselic, as much as Dave Grohl, has persisted in evading the lame clichés, the tedious spectacle of mainstream rockers behaving like grey-haired apes. I talked the other week about Bruce Pavitt’s continued efforts to support grassroots music (his book Experiencing Nirvana will split profits with The Vera Project http://www.theveraproject.org/) — it’s another case of a denizen of the grunge scene continuing to make a worthwhile contribution to things that are important to them.
In the case of Krist, his long involvement in political causes is well-known particularly from his publication of the exceedingly readable Of Grunge and Government. At the time of Nirvana, Krist arguably formed the band’s heart contributing substantial amounts of its humour and leading the band into several of its political engagements notably against censorship laws and the raising of substantial funds for Serbian rape victims. To see him move on to the FairVote organization (http://www.fairvote.org/) has been heartening.
The generation that had come of age in the time of mass movements wrote the script regarding Generation X; they defined the youth of the late Eighties and early Nineties as some kind of passive, uninspired and morally/socially disinterested mass. This was always a simplification, one that could just as easily be applied to any generation, based on an inability to comprehend a generation that didn’t use massive organisations as their key method of political expression. That reaction was certainly real; it was a move away from bodies that imposed a set persona and character upon their followers. Instead individuals were equally capable and willing to commit time, money, energy to causes — they just didn’t feel that being in favour/against one issue meant they were part of a single congealed mass (left wing, right wing, etc.), nor that it meant they automatically agreed with other related or unrelated causes or issues.
The ‘slacker’ tag overlooked the fact that the scene from which Nirvana emerged, and a substantial amount of work within the alternative music scene, was focused on causes not as easily reduced to mass appeals for cash. A lot of the ‘new politics’ couldn’t be solved that way given they were about attitudes rather than the presence or absence of a political permission, or a physical element. Krist exemplifies Generation X, showing the forebears of modern activism that, despite not lining up alongside the megalomaniacal LiveAID style of action, a generation wanted to seek change and had decided to do so by focusing locally, attending to the lives of those around them rather than to distant abstracts, and were attentive to things that were less photogenic, less interesting to TV news, but were no less worthwhile.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that there weren’t weaknesses in the political nature of the generation. The absence of a specific organisational identity — such as a political party, a cohesive movement with an administrative core, a trade union, a web of think tanks or entities (as existed for the U.S. Conservative Movement) — while laudable in theory (anti-hierarchical! Individualistic! Open to opinions and debate!), made it very difficult for conversations to take place with the wielders of actual power. In a world run via conversations between organisations, where organisations act as the proxy for individual voices, it’s hard for diverse cacophony to have an impact. Again, however, the trajectory of Nirvana — or perhaps Krist specifically — shows a move from individual awareness, to initial actions (marches, protests, concerts, speeches) to committed organisational politics via a defined body.
I take the message of Nirvana to be to engage positively and soulfully with the world. Seeing Krist Novoselic use his middle age, not to turn into another embarrassing wreck, but to fight for something…It’s good to see Nirvana’s heart still beats.