Rockin' women shake up new EMP exhibit

The Mahalia Jackson display of Apex pomade is missing one tin of Apex. That’s one of the first things I noticed about Experience Music Project’s (EMP) new exhibit, “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power,” which runs through Sept. 2. According to EMP senior curator Jacob McMurray, it’s something a lot of people notice. 

Jackson, often hailed as “the Queen of Gospel,” sang for the Lord. A bit unusual, then, that she would endorse the Apex brand of hair pomade. But in the 1930s, someone brokered that deal, and she appears in her gospel robes, opposite what were once three mounted tins of the product. 

The top one is missing, leaving an empty hole. I’m probably not the only one to wonder what became of it. Its two compatriots — Apex presumably still sealed inside — have been sitting in the display for 70 years at least.

“I do like the deep history of the exhibition,” McMurray said. “I like that there’s a good focus on the trailblazing women, like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Maybelle Carter, etc., that paved the way for everyone else.”

Traveling musicians

The exhibit, though, isn’t originally from EMP. It started out in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where it debuted in late 2012, curated by Meredith Rutledge-Borger. McMurray and EMP made arrangements to host the exhibit when it began to travel across the country.

Smith, Rainey, Carter and Jackson (blues, blues, country and gospel, respectively) are featured in an early section of the exhibit, “Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas : The Foremothers/Roots of Rock.” That’s followed by “Get Outta that Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock and Roll Emerges.”

This second section covers women active in the crucial years when rhythm-and-blues (originally referred to as “race music”), country and gospel were coming together to form rock music. Figures during this era include Ruth Brown, an R&B singer who lived long enough to advocate for artists’ rights to royalties in the 1980s; and Wanda Jackson, a firebrand rockabilly singer still active today, who credits Elvis Presley with encouraging her distinctive musical direction.

Many performers are represented by their stage outfits, but the exhibit, in fairness, does feature other kinds of archival material, starting with Jackson’s Apex. A centerpiece just inside the front entrance features Lady Gaga’s childhood piano, a modest instrument upon which the pop superstar leaned and climbed on before she could actually sit at the keys. 

Other artifacts include Wanda Jackson’s Martin acoustic guitar, with inset rhinestones; a 1964 Gibson L5 guitar custom-made for Maybelle Carter; and chord sheets written out for the Shangri-Las, a tough-minded quartet crucial to the section “Will You Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s / Girl Groups.” 

Many girl groups cultivated a vulnerable, lovelorn sound. The Shangri-Las had that aspect, but they came on rougher and tougher than most of the competition. That reputation, former member Mary Weiss commented, came in handy when fending off unwelcome advances from male musicians.

“Revolution, the Counterculture and the Pill: The Late 1960s” features some of the most famous women in rock, from Janis Joplin to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin and country singer Loretta Lynn, who released her controversial, sometimes-banned song “The Pill” in 1975 (she’d inadvertently emphasized the availability of birth control, by taking to the airwaves).

The exhibit progresses through the 1970s’ mainstream (with a nod to Seattle’s own Heart), punk, post-punk, the Madonna explosion and Lady Gaga’s echo of the same. Gaga’s famous dress made of meat takes up one display case. Brittle and hardened into crimson beef jerky, it looks like it would crack if anyone tried it on.

More fashion than music

While generally impressive, the exhibit does show some limitations. The reliance on fancy clothes tends to emphasize the fashion aspects of female performers, at the expense, sometimes, of any understanding outside of fashion. 

Also, an amended display of local artists could have been useful to EMP-goers. The Pacific Northwest produced not only Heart but Merrilee Rush, Bonnie Guitar and, later, Visible Targets, Quarterflash and the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, to name a few.

Beacon Hill’s Gretta Harley, who performed at the opening ceremony for the exhibit at EMP, said, “Women are still put in a category — women who rock — instead of being entwined into the broader scope of music.

“I look forward to the day,” she added, “where the deserved numbers of women musicians are respected alongside men as musicians, and not placed in a box of women musicians. Until that happens, women will continue to remind the audiences that we are here making music.”

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