Before we get started, a caveat: I’m not a huge fan of museums.
I know, what’s not to like about majestic limestone-carved capsules of history? How could you not want to spend hours studying the miracles and wonders of our great civilization’s past?
There’s just something about museums that bore the piss out of me.
Maybe it’s the static nature of it all, like staring at a bug encased forever in amber, wondering what could have been had it just moved a little bit faster across the surface of that leaf, avoiding the brown ooze that would capture its languid pace forever so that someone like me could stare at its mistake a million years later. I’m less interested in the bug than in how the bug could have been stupid enough to get one of its shoes stuck in the goo.
Or maybe it’s all the dim lighting. Or the smell. As soon as I step into a museum, a wave of fatigue washes over me like a fuzzy blanket. My feet — perfectly fine before I stepped inside the time mausoleum — suddenly, strangely become sore as I search among the glass display cases for a place to sit down.
Don’t get me wrong — I like the idea of museums, but most times I’d rather be somewhere else, capturing a moment myself rather than staring at someone else’s captured moments.
So with that caveat firmly behind me, I write about my Sunday afternoon at the Durham Museum and one of its current exhibits: Women Who Rock — Vision Passion Power. According to the handout given to me upon paying my $9 admission, the exhibit — created by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — “highlights the flashpoints, the firsts, the best, the celebrated and sometimes lesser-known women who pushed rock and roll music and the American culture forward.”
Sounds impressive. There’s one problem with the concept, however. No one goes to a rock concert to read about music, just like no one goes to a restaurant to read about food. You go to rock shows to partake, to participate in the experience; not to study it, to consume it. And I say this as someone who has been writing about music for nearly 30 years. I know at the end of the day whatever observations or criticism I level about anyone’s or any band’s music isn’t worth the mark left on a piece of used toilet paper compared to actually listening to the music.
(According to QuoteInvestigator.com it was Martin Mull, not Laurie Anderson or Frank Zappa or Miles Davis, who coined the phrase “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Garth Gimble, you were so right).
When it comes to rock and roll, once you take the actual music out of the equation, all you’re left with is spent drugs, bad sex, inflated egos and broken dreams… and out-dated fashion.
The lasting impression from seeing this exhibit was that the biggest contribution women made to rock music was wearing costumes designed by someone else. Sure, there were other artifacts on display — glossy B&W publicity photos, hand-written song lyrics and studio schedule entries, early album pressings and beat-up guitars. But the majority of the exhibit was dedicated to stage costumes worn by the stars themselves displayed on headless, fist-clenched mannequins, many (most) bearing the stains of last-eaten meals spilled upon their breasts in a drug and/or booze-induced stupor.
On display: Bob Mackie’s indian costume w/feathered headdress made for Cher for her “Half Breed” tour; the futuristic uniform worn by Janet Jackson in her “Rhythm Nation” video; Cyndi Lauper’s Starry Night-painted shoes; a heavily stained sun dress that once covered Mama Cass, and the creme de la creme: Madonna’s cone-tit costume designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. All standing upright like cast-off skins shed on stages across the country, nay the world.
Comment overheard from a klatch of middle-aged housewives who stared with open-mouth wonder at the Pat Benatar outfit: “These women, they were so tiny.” In fact, after seeing these costumes, you would think the average “women who rocked” were only about three feet tall instead of the giants we grew up believing they were.
Just as deflating were the write-ups that accompanied each display, documenting where they were born, their first record and where it was recorded, and the rest of their mundane music history up until around 2010 or their deaths. Academic. Dry. Tame.
Missing was the struggle, the defiance, the heartbreak, the battles won and lost and how they had to fight to be heard. Example: How do you summarize Tina Turner’s career and not mention the years of abuse suffered at the hand of husband Ike and how she ultimately rose above it? I guess it’s not that kind of exhibit.
Some displays felt oddly off the mark, focusing on the asides rather than the achievements. The Joni Mitchell display, for example, concentrated almost entirely on her forgettable debut album Song of the Seagull while virtually ignoring her landmark Blue album. Was the emphasis made on what the Hall of Fame could acquire rather than the star’s actual legacy? Maybe.
Which brings us to the inevitable list of the missing: Courtney Love, Tracy Chapman, Sinead O’Connor, Nico, Carly Simon, Karen Carpenter, Bjork, The Go Go’s, Annie Lennox, Dusty Springfield, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and on and on. The exhibit acknowledges the exclusions due to space limitations, but how do you include an exhibit on country upstart Taylor Swift and not include Dolly Parton?
Most people won’t notice, or care. After all, exhibitions and museums contain only a slice of history, not the whole of history. And anyway, rock and roll’s real museum is the vinyl and tape and CD and mp3 that’s used to record it for play back again and again. The rest is just bugs stuck in amber.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.