Women Who Rock Opens at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio 13 May 2011
Women Who Rock Exhibition
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
13 May 2011
When Ronnie Spector sings, hearts – almost half a century later – still jump. That voice, so raw and wide open, bristling with desire and even a hint of desperation, says as much about adolescence coming into flower as any textbook ever written.
It is that brandishment of both wanting, while being the embodiment of being the object of lust, that has always made rock & roll such a momentuous place for hormones on fire. Standing on the lobby stage with her still skinny legs and cascade of dark hair during the opening night of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s latest exhibit – Women Who Rock, Spector’s voice still has all the power, the cutting sob and the molten plea of the girl who must get her man.
While it’s been years since her haunted echo on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” was on pop radop, she remains the sort of siren that gave rock & roll its deep-seeded fertility.That fertility – often sexual, but also political – provides the framing for the exhibition that follows the Rock Hall’s wildly successful Bruce Springsteen show.
Starting with Billie Holliday’s fox head wrap and Maybelle Carter’s gun metal cocktail dress, Women Who Rock offers an elegant core sample of a woman’s place in contemporary music as it evolved from rhythm & blues, gospel and Appalachia through the current confectionary that includes Taylor Swift, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood. Drawm across a timeline that includes significant social developments – the introduction of the Pill, Sandra Day O’Connor becoming the first female Supreme Court Justice – there is a strong sense of how much music reflected the state of the nation.
There is also an interesting timelessness to Women Who Rock: the ShangriLas could have been members of the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Bikini Kill or Sonic Youth – as well as soul sisters to Patti Smith’s strong, yet basic anti-fashion look. And while much of the exhibit centers on clothing, which would seem sexist without considering that much of the museum itself is devoted to the stage wear of the many men who make up the bulk of the major viewing area.
So, yes, there is Stevie Nicks balletomane stagewear, Grace Slick’s fringed leather vest from Woodstock, Britney Spear’s nude, jeweled cut-away body stocking and Chrissie Hynde’s red leather jacket. There are all sorts of sartorial totems, that ground the artists – but also speak to the prevailing aesthetics of sensationalism and style about the moments they emerged from.
But just as potent are the scraps and normal details that spark the music. A notebook of Madonna’s sits in a glass case, while the unremarkable piano a 3 year old Lady Gaga pounded away on sits at the stairway which leads to the exhibition. There is sheet music, old acetates, books – the fuel of the history being collected. But it is in those plain artifacts that the exhibits potency emerges.
Yes, little girls and wanna be rockers play dress up in the name of “looking the part,” and the clothes – for that reason – are so much a part of it. But to inspire and make tangible, to create a context where the on-ramp to rock stardom is viable… that is the real power of Women Who Rock.
With the rise of Garageband, perhaps the physical talismans aren’t as potent. Everyone has a laptop or home computer… a lack of skill can be manipulated in the programming… a lack of pitch can be corrected…. And everything can be fixed in the mix! But the notion that “I can do this…” is born in regular people’s homes. Places where rock stars don’t hang out, where record producers are more elusive than snow tigers.
It has to start somewhere – maybe a song pouring out of the radio, or the sheet music that lets you play your favorite song. Yes, what you wear makes an impact, but it’s that kid sitting at the piano who has to bring the dream to life.
Seeing all the phases and styles, all the truths and roots – Linda Ronstadt has a quote on the wall that proclaims, “You have to prepare yourself for the fact that other people may not be dreaming the same dream.” – is a more potent to what these women have gone through to get here. And it is a fascinating core sample: Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, Fanny, Joni Mitchell, the Runaways, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Heart, Christina Aguilera, Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, the Ronettes, Yoko Ono, the B52s, Marianne Faithful, Meg White, Bikini Kill.
Broken into 8 phases – from Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas through Revolutions, the Counterculture & the Pill, I Will Survive through Ladies First: The 90s & the New Millenium – this is a comprehensive, if not definitive, look at how women have come of age in a decidedly male-driven genre. Smart without being overly clinical, it offers a strong argument for the journey women have made – and the future they will likely navigate in ways that will be just as stunning.