Editors' pick

Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power

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Editorial Review

Onstage, to rock is her role
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, September 14, 2012

You may go to “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts expecting guitars, but you’re more likely to find yourself wrapped up in leather and Lycra.

Organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and remaining in Washington through early January, “Women Who Rock” spotlights more than 70 female performers who, through their songwriting, voices or performance style, changed the direction of music. Almost no men make an appearance in this show, and they’re hardly missed.

The wows here are delivered by the tangibles of the rock-and-roll life -- the original song sheets and personal notes, yellowed magazine covers and battered instruments of giants the likes of Joni Mitchell, Heart and Loretta Lynn. But it is Janis Joplin’s surprisingly delicate velvet spaghetti-strap dress, hand-beaded by Joplin herself, Patti Smith’s ramshackle, duct-taped military boots and even Britney Spears’s microscopic, obscenely flesh-toned jumpsuit that steal the show, making these heroines present in a way that few other objects could.

There’s another argument, of course, for paying close attention to these famous duds: As with the gowns of the first ladies, there’s loads of meaning in the spandex, spikes and short dresses favored by rock stars.

The leg-baring mini-dresses of Tina Turner epitomized the sexual freedom embraced by young women in the 1960s, while Mama Cass’s enveloping, hippie-dippy muumuus soothed the troubled flower children of the latter part of that decade.

“Women Who Rock” displays two floor-length gowns worn decades apart by Aretha Franklin, both so demure it’s immediately clear that the Queen of Soul was a minister’s daughter. Round a few corners, and there’s Joan Jett’s circa-1981 leather jacket, which she donned for the video for “I Love Rock and Roll,” studded with pro-choice buttons. And though it’s nearly obscured at the end of the exhibition, the glittering, seafoam-green Armani bodysuit that Lady Gaga wore to the 2010 Grammys is worth a stop: Pantlessness never looked so cool before Gaga arrived in her alien-like get-ups and meat dress, making a case, purportedly, for self-esteem for all. The exhibit suggests that fashion, and these women’s influence on it, are as instrumental to their fame as their catchy choruses.

In its breadth, “Women Who Rock” is almost intimidating, covering just under 100 years of music and genres ranging from gospel to punk to today’s Auto-Tuned pop. (The show is divided into eight eras, including the girl groups of the ’60s and the counterculture movement.)

Splashed across the cheery flamingo-pink and orange walls are significant dates in history, including the arrival of the pill, Indira Gandhi’s rise to prime minister of India and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The exhibit, however, fails to connect the litany of events with the evolution of music (and also largely takes a pass on addressing sexism and misogyny in rock music). Yet there’s little else to quibble over.

Maybelle Carter’s acoustic Gibson guitar, whose neck bears Carter’s name inlaid in pearl, Lady Gaga’s modest first piano and Meg White’s candy-colored bass drum underscore the musicianship of many of these women. “Women Who Rock” also offers numerous examples of songwriting in action. Janet Jackson and Stevie Nicks are among those who scrawled out hits on ruled paper, though the most charming songs might be Joni Mitchell’s, written in the practiced, graceful cursive of a journal entry and as elegant as her lyrics themselves.

“Women Who Rock” also gives due to a particularly fruitful time for women in rock and punk, in the 1980s and ’90s, when Kim Deal of the Pixies and the Breeders, Liz Phair, the women of Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth rose to prominence as bassists, guitarists and drummers. It’s a pleasant surprise to see these musicians, mostly obscure to the mainstream, represented here. Their frayed, grunge fashions remind viewers that many of the women in the exhibition roughed it in tour vans, playing in boozy bars, lugging their own equipment all the way. Who knew then that they would prove to girls everywhere that they could rock just as loud as men?

The workmanlike ethic of rock-and-roll women
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Thursday, September 6, 2012

The most memorable items in the “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts aren’t the sequined, barely there or beehived looks of Britney Spears, Cher and the B-52s. They aren’t the Gibson L-5 guitar of country artist Mother Maybelle Carter, or the Epiphone electric of rocker Joan Jett.

It’s not just aggressive semiotics or evocative instruments that most move visitors. It’s everyday tools and quotes that tell stories of a get-out-the-house-and-hit-it work ethic. It’s the 1963 Lesley Gore (“You Don’t Own Me”) suitcase that looks like a makeup case but was a gift from Quincy Jones to carry her musical scores. Or the Lady Gaga quote that reads, “They can’t scare me, if I scare them first.”

These are places in the exhibit that are powerful as expressions of how the music is made and packaged, and how it’s negotiated -- not merely with record industry executives, such as Aretha Franklin’s notes from a contract meeting with Clive Davis -- but even more urgently with the culture.

It’s Loretta Lynn’s photo, apple-pie sweet, on the cover of her 1975 birth control anthem, “The Pill.”

The exhibit, which first opened at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, features more than 250 artifacts from 70 artists, plus an additional 10 artists who are included in brief performance bios. Meredith Rutledge-Borger, assistant curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says the idea came from Cyndi Lauper, who was visiting the museum and kept asking, “Where are the women?”

“We’re talking about women as engines of creativity and change in popular music,” Rutledge-Borger said. For example, the names Charley Patton or Robert Johnson conjure up the seminal lonely bluesman, “but those guys didn’t record until well after people like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had million-selling records.”

The exhibit spans eight eras, from “Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas: The Foremothers/Roots of Rock,” about blues and country singers of the 1920s, to “Ladies First: The ’90s and the New Millennium,” as the “the era of the riot grrrl, the rapper and Lilith Fair” reshaped ideas of feminism and empowerment.

The names of women virtually forgotten or never heard of bubble up throughout. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who in the 1930s and ’40s played gospel in public and blues behind folks’ backs, married her third husband at a Washington baseball stadium in 1951 and followed the ceremony with a concert performance. Her windmill guitar style predated that of rock guitarist Pete Townshend by 20 years.

In 1964, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, with lead singer Genya “Goldie” Zelkowitz, became the first all-female rock band signed by a major record label after Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun saw them perform at an Andy Warhol party.

There’s a fur stole owned by Billie Holiday, who was born poor and died poor but had a brief moment of soaring wealth in between.

In a songwriter’s section, handwritten poetry from Joni Mitchell’s notebook reads:

“There’s a lady in the city/

And she thinks she loves them all/

There’s the one who’s thinking of her/

There’s the one who sometimes calls”

The lyrics and outfits and handwritten notes add up to a feeling of triumph -- a fierce assertion by women determined to make their way in the music world. But putting it together presented myriad challenges.

“A lot of people have a problem with women being included because rock and roll has traditionally been a boys’ club,” Rutledge-Borger said. “They’ll say Donna Summer is not rock and roll, Faith Hill is not rock and roll, or Carrie Underwood. My response is this is all music that shares roots with rock and roll. It’s a branch of the big tree.”

Some of the challenges came from the artists. Curators were unable to secure items from Beyonce and Mary J. Blige, who appear only by video. And, as with any marginalized group, there was a central tension: Are we lady rockers or just rockers? There were strong feelings about being ghettoized, Rutledge-Borger said. “I had to talk them down. I really did,” she said. “I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Kim Deal, and I told her, ‘I understand where you’re coming from.’ ” Deal, a member of the late-’80s, early-’90s alternative band the Pixies, wound up sending a bass guitar, a poster and backstage passes for the exhibit.

Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards as part of a protest against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays in the military. She wanted the dress to decay as part of the display, but Rutledge-Borger said she was able to persuade Gaga’s people that it was a bad idea. They got the chemically preserved dress instead.

On a back wall, a quote by Lynn reads, “How do you measure your value?” And playing on continuous loop, performance videos by Madonna give way to Queen Latifah and Janis Joplin.

In another video, punk rocker Patti Smith, aged and cigarette-smoke-hardened, prepares to sing “Because the Night.” She is defiantly unpretty in a way that gives her edge and power and beauty and a backstory too elusive for words, but immediately understood when she picks up the rock guitar.