Other than the fact that the title is shamelessly trite, I’m not sure what to make of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ current exhibition, Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power. Whether or not the guitars and get-ups are bitchin’, I think there are certainly a few things about the exhibition’s content that are potentially problematic. And despite the fact that I haven’t in fact seen the exhibition with my own eyes, I have no qualms with launching into a discussion about it.
I mean, I would go see it if I lived in D.C., OBVIOUSLY. I suppose I would probably encourage people to take their children, especially their girls, to go see it too. But at the same time, I’ve already got criticism for this exhibition I admittedly have limited knowledge about. Here’s my pre-assessment, for what it’s worth:
First and foremost, the collection was put together by the fine folks over at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, who have historically been, oh, less than supportive of women in the movement. As in, nearly 90% of the institution’s inductees are male. I’m not necessarily STOKED about an exhibition created by people who traditionally aren’t as excited or educated about women in rock, and who now need to cover their ass as they’ve come under scrutiny this past year.
Secondly: Madonna, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood… I’m sorry, respect to these ladies’s talents, but c’mon, what is this, Women Who Rock Lite? From my discussions with visitors of the exhibition, RNRHF focused VERY heavily on pretty-faced vocalists, including the likes of Cher and Faith Hill. For the record, if you’re glamorous and have a mind-blowing voice, more power to you. But I’d personally be interested to see broader musicianship represented- drummers, bassists, even some “less traditional” rock instrumentation. Similarly, I think concentrating on singular “it girl” frontwomen further obscures some of the more forgotten all-female acts like, oh say, the Liverbirds or Shonen Knife.
That said, I know there is material from more legit names like Ma Rainey, Wanda Jackson, Patti Smith, and Kim Deal. But if I visited the exhibition, would I see anything from Irma Thomas? Mia Zapata? Odetta? Ari Up? What about more controversial women like Lydia Lunch or Eve Libertine? Or rockin’ women from non-Western regions like As Mercenárias or Las Ultrasónicas? Or women of American Indian/First Nation descent? (I’d personally vote for Jeneda Bennally of Blackfire!) Finally, where my dykes at? I could go for seeing Phranc or Team Dresch in the mix. The problem I’m getting at is that the topic of ALL “Women in Rock” spanning the last 100 years, well, that’s ambitious as fuck. And if you’re going to tackle it, you better have a serious commitment to representing the diversity of the movement. Naturally, that’s difficult to do, but from what I’ve heard/read, this exhibition doesn’t even approach diversity in terms of region, ideas, and ethnic/socio-economic background.
“Community relevance” and “emphasis on the local” are also emerging as critical standards among contemporary museums. But do I even have to ask if the exhibition features D.C.’s legendary all-female ’80s punk unit Chalk Circle? (Again, I haven’t actually visited the exhibition, so if it does, someone please alert me and I will gladly bite my tongue / kick my own ass.) And hell, I’d go so far as to call an omission of Dischord‘s Autoclave and Slant 6 criminal. I do wonder if the NMWA changed the content at all from when it showed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Lastly, while museums are moving towards greater integration of technology, I also heard from multiple sources that the whole exhibition was “far too much video,” which I could see coming off as pointless as we all have YouTube at home.
In any case, had I been involved on the curatorial side of this exhibition, just some of the babes I would have included are:
[Dance-rock heroine Grace Jones.]
[Lo-fi French-turned-New-York chanteuse Lizzy Mercier Descloux, aka Rosa Yemen.]
[Pioneering all-female '60s garage act the Luv'd Ones.]
[Guitarist/goddess (not vocalist!) Poison Ivy of the Cramps.]
[SF's very own Tribe 8, holding it down for queercore / dyke punk.]
['70s Soul legend Ann Peebles.]
[LA's relentless all-female punk supergroup Castration Squad.]
[Experimental '80s singer-songwriter and performance artist Laurie Anderson.]
Final thoughts? I’d like to personally recommend a DIFFERENT exhibition that I also haven’t seen: the Music and Liberation Exhibit, which is currently on display in Glasgow and seems to me much more focused than the Women Who Rock show. From what I know about the curators/organizers, it might be better received by folks who want to get their think on about women in music. But we can’t all live in Europe. For those interested, Women Who Rock will be showing through January 6th at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which, for the record, looks like a wonderful institution.
Other than the fact that I’m openly criticizing an exhibition I haven’t seen, am I being ridiculous? Lingering questions:
1. As someone who hosts an all-female radio show out of what I consider necessity, I wonder if we as a society are ready for a more holistic approach to talking about women in the arts. But how do we get to a point where we aren’t considered “women in rock” but simply “rockers in rock”? Is creating a museum dedicated soley to women (or any other marginalized group for that matter) progressive or regressive?
2. Is it worth trying to educate people about music they’ve never heard before in this setting? At least when you haven’t heard of a visual artist, you can look at an object of theirs on display and “get something out of it.” However, it doesn’t seem very practical to set up “listening stations” and force people to spend several minutes listening to songs completely out of context for the first time ever while in the museum.
3. Does popular culture belong in museums (especially ones that are regarded as “History” or “Fine Arts” museums)? If museums have a mission of education, what good is including pop culture? Could that be a slippery slope into an exhibition on reality TV shows, and if so, would that be a bad thing?
4. Rock ‘n’ roll was founded on ideas of rebellion, transgression, and reckless abandon… what sense does it make to try to reign a free-wheeling fringe movment into to a packaged-for-mainstream-masses exhibition?