‘Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power’ at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

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-52’s. 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 Charlie 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 richness 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 military policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. 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.

Women Who Rock

will be at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until Jan. 6 and will travel the country for three years before parts return to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum collection.

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