Exhibit Showcases Rock-and-Roll through the Feminine Lens
Billie Holiday's fox fur stole hangs here. But that is only the beginning of the high fashion pieces mounted in cases around the meandering, red-walled gallery. Madonna's conical-breasted corset by Jean Paul Gaultier, Loretta Lynn's high-necked frilly dress, Joan Jett's red leather jacket and Cass Elliot – better known as Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas – is represented by her iconic mu-mu.
Band mate Michelle Phillips brown suede boots, Siouxsie's (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) audacious black-and-white faux fur head-to-toe outfit and Rihanna's black leather studded bustier round out the myriad clothing items, which are joined with sheet music, session sheets, appointment books, many guitars and even hand-written scores that cover every inch of the walls inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts' groundbreaking exhibition, "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power," on view through January 6, 2013.
The exhibit takes on the monumental task of telling the story of rock-and-roll through the feminine lens, looking at the careers of the women who have rocked us through the ages from the 1930s through the present in a display that is so detailed and dense that one visit is just not enough to take it all in. Divided into eight eras, this exhibition, organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, attempts to cover the history of this classic American music form from its very inception.
Born from the Blues, as so many rock stars have attested to, "Women Who Rock starts at the beginning, looking at musical pioneers like Holiday, blues women Bessie Smith and her mentor, Ma Rainey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the section "Suffragettes to Juke Joint Mamas: The Foremothers/Roots of Rock." It pays homage to women like Mother Maybelle Carter, whose personalized guitar stands in testament to her early country music recordings dating back to 1927.
"Get Outta the Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock and Roll Emerges," tells the story of women whose names may not be as familiar – LaVern Baker and Wanda Jackson, the latter who is credited as the first female rockabilly star. Brenda Lee, known as "Little Miss Dynamite" was known to belt out a tune, handling rockabilly, country and pop standards equally convincingly from a very young age. Baker, the niece of blues singer Memphis Minnie, garnered her accolades with a huge hit single,
"Tweedle Dee" in 1964 and also sang the popular "Jim Dandy." Little Richard credits singer Ruth Brown with the vocal style he adopted, catapulting him to fame and fortune.
Moving on in time, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s/Girl Groups" not only looks at the groups like The Shirelles, The Supremes and The Ronettes, but also those who penned those hits that memories were made of. Names like Carole King, who had a career as the writer of well known songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "The Loco-motion," "One Fine Day," and "Up on the Roof," which made her a central figure to the girl groups along with her co-writer, husband Gerry Goffin, long before she launched her own solo career in the 1970s. Ellie Greenwich is a lesser-known name, but her songs, "Leader of the Pack," "River Deep-Mountain High," and "Be My Baby," co-written with Jeff Barry, made her a key creator of hits songs for girl groups of the 1960s.
The other sections are equally packed, showing biographical videos and wall text in the artists' voice. A theater in the center showing a constant loop of performance videos from Holiday to LaBelle, rounds out an exhibit where everything must be taken into account. Each gallery sports record albums emblazoned with pivotal historical happenings that coincided with that era, to put things into a global and political context. Many of the advances made, historically and particularly relevant to women, crept into their music. How many people knew that Loretta Lynn made a song called "The Pill" on her 1975 album, "Back to the Country?"
After the '70s, women took over rock-and-roll. Grace Slick became lead singer of Jefferson Airplane making anthemic songs "Somebody to Love," and "White Rabbit," laying the foundation for singers like Madonna and Lady Gaga to stand firmly on.
"Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power," is an all-inclusive exhibition. Icons of R&B like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner stand side-by-side with rockers Melissa Etheridge and Tina Weymouth. Through their stories, certain commonalities emerge. Most of the women featured started their ascent to music as children, often coming out of the church and were undeterred by a male-dominated field. And all of them laid one stepping stone for the next woman to stand on.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., and is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and visitors over 65. The museum admission is free to members and youth 18 and under.