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Let’s Talk About Love Week: Excerpt: With the Lights on, It’s Less Useless by Krist Novoselic

Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Love Week. On Day 2 we visit an excerpt from one of the essays that make up the revised and expanded edition, this one from former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Krist loved the original, and was happy to take time from his goat farm in Washington State (yes, that’s right) to reflect on themes of taste and politics. And while seeing Krist out and about has been rarer in the past, last week, frequenters of Greenpoint’s famed dive bar Saint Vitus were treated to a surprise Nirvana reunion show (with vocalists including Joan Jett, J Mascis, St. Vincent, John McCauley and Kim Gordon) after the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center. Here’s to more such surprises from Krist and Co. to come–as long as his goats are cool with it.

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Krist, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl and J Mascis at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn.

With the Lights on, It’s Less Useless
By Krist Novoselic
(excerpted from Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste)

The former bassist for Nirvana, Krist Novoselic knows what it’s like to be at the pinnacle of the calculus of cool, and how quickly that can flip, rendering you the object of criticism rather than the outsider doling it out. Later in his career he moved into a realm that’s in many ways the opposite (though it’s not without its forms of posturing), the earnest and wonky world of political organizing, mostly within the U.S. electoral system, as a founder of JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Musicians Political Action Committee) and a member of other activist organizations. I asked him to reflect on what he’s learned from the two ways of experiencing social tribes and democratic ideals. – C.W.

The first review of a Nirvana recording was bad. I recall it saying that we were like Lynyrd Skynyrd but without the flares. That was a comparison that was bound to upset us. Lynyrd Skynyrd had some good songs (check out the heavy riff on “Saturday Night Special”), but there were other connotations beyond the music. Lynyrd Skynyrd was culturally different than us. The line in the sand was drawn as we opposed the 1970s redneck ethic. The rebel flag of the Confederacy, central in southern-fried rock imagery, was also an icon of “hair metal” of the 1980s. So even if a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd rocked, it had to be held at arm’s length, so as not to contaminate our own ethics and sensibilities. Nirvana’s anti-establishmentarianism was rooted in the punk rock of the seventies and eighties. We had our own symbol of rebellion, the circled “A” for anarchy: The cheerleaders wearing it in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video are not sporting fashion; the display was a conscious statement of values – albeit tied to established power mediums.

Establishment rock needed storming in 1992, and our album Nevermind led the charge. Virtually overnight there was a new musical regime as the bands that drew from the well of seventies hard rock became displaced by bands tied to punk. Yet while there was musical change, many things stayed the same regarding the music business. What if we’d adopted principled independent positions, like the bands Pavement or Fugazi, who refused to sign with major labels? Would we ever have been plugged into the major distribution networks dominating at the time? I don’t think so.

Nirvana’s revolution was in heavy rotation on MTV – a subsidiary of some corporation. Our own label, DGC, was a business division emanating from Matsushita, a colossal Japanese industrial firm. Yet look at band interviews during the Nirvana boom, where we dutifully promote our fellow subterranean bands. We knew we were in the belly of the beast and wanted to effect social change through the power of music. And I feel we got the message through. There seems to have been an impact other than other bands picking up the musical dynamics we knew so well. After Nevermind hit number one, rock music could be about having a social conscience – just like it was a generation earlier. That was a tangible effect. However, it is one thing to have a consciousness of issues and it is another matter to organize them into a movement. We were a rock band, not political organizers. We had roadies, so we didn’t even need to carry and set up our own gear anymore. We played the music but we didn’t organize the show.
To read the rest of Krist’s essay, along with work by Nick Hornby, James Franco, Sheila Heti, Ann Powers, and more, pick up the new edition of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, available now from Bloomsbury.

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