"Alternative Vote" Is Music to My Ears

Thomas Friedman Is An Advocate Of Alternative Voting
Krist Novoselic's column on music and politics runs every Tuesday on Reverb. Check back on Friday when he writes about what he's been listening to.
When I started playing in a band, we considered the type of music we were playing as "punk." In the mainstream world, we knew punk was about being banished to the fringes. There were labels like "hard rock" or "heavy metal," but those were better suited for bands like Judas Priest and The Scorpions--two great bands, but still part of the status quo. Punk fit our sensibilities as people and the kind of music we were into, bands like Black Flag and Flipper.

Hard rock and heavy metal are pretty definite in the kinds of music they refer to. But by the late '80s, punk developed a panoply of sounds. How do you categorize bands like the Butthole Surfers or Scratch Acid? As the Northwest music scene developed in the same period, it became clear that the sound was a new blend of heavy music. Enter the term "grunge."

Grunge means an amalgam of rock and punk with a distorted guitar sound and a connection to '60s groups like Blue Cheer and the Sonics. But again, grunge is also the stuff that grows on the shower curtain. I guess it's about who you'd ask?

Grunge exploded out of the Northwest U.S., but somehow along the way it became categorized as "alternative" music. At the time Nirvana broke through, I looked at the implementation of this term as a device to maintain the status quo. Instead of a "New Wave" of music naturally displacing the old order, the new music conveniently got tagged as "alternative." The semantics merely made the new bands an alternative to a musical regime whose time had passed. But this kind of trick does not last long; culture is always changing and what was once alternative eventually becomes mainstream. Today, considering the vast diversity of the information revolution, is there really an alternative kind of music anymore?

The term "alternative" isn't unique to music, obviously. We have alternative medicine and alternative forms of education, and now the term has reared its head again in the field of politics. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed a reform called Alternative Voting in a column last month. He's basically proposing an election system also known as instant-runoff voting, ranked-choice voting, or preferential voting.

So many labels! If I had to choose, I would go with the name Alternative Voting - hey, it has worked for things I've been associated with before! Alternative Voting, as Friedman is promoting, is a certain kind of ballot design and tabulation method that accommodates a voter's various preferences on a single ballot. In other words, you get more choices between candidates. There are plenty of places to get into the debate of what kind of election will meet the desire for change in the US today. What is important is that Friedman is considering the rules for elections and proposing changes. I'm looking for a new kind of politics, and perhaps that's at the root of my passion for election reform. I know I'm not alone, either; all kinds of polls show that people want an alternative to what's going on in our democracy.

In the end, perhaps the term "alternative" actually benefited the bands of that moment. As far as the music scene went, people were looking for something different.

Krist Novoselic is the chairman of FairVote, and the former bassist for Nirvana.

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