From the jazz mamas of the 1920s to the bling-bedangled stars of today, “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power,” an exhibit opening Saturday at Seattle’s EMP Museum, illustrates the history of female performers.
There is a bounty of instantly recognizable artifacts: Lady Gaga’s meat dress; one of Diana Ross’ spangly gowns; a futuristic wig worn by Kate Pierson of the B-52s; and Yoko Ono’s sunglasses.
There’s a nod to the Northwest, as well, with a collection of items from Olympia-based riot grrrl band Bikini Kill (a 1995 set list, one of Tobi Vail’s drums), and dresses worn by Ann and Nancy Wilson, newly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as members of Heart.
“Women Who Rock” originally opened at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and draws on the Rock Hall’s substantial collection, as well as items on loan from the performers themselves. That includes the outfit 2013 Tony award winner Cyndi Lauper wears on the cover of her 1983 breakthrough album “She’s So Unusual,” and a T-shirt featuring blues singer/songwriter Sippie Wallace that belongs to Bonnie Raitt.
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The exhibit moves
chronologically, from the “Foremothers of Rock” era (jazz/blues artists like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday), through the ’50s rise of rock ’n’ roll, the girl groups of the ’60s, the psychedelic age, the singer/songwriter genre of the ’70s, punk and new wave, rap and alternative rock. Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar shows that women were playing the instrument years before the hard-rocking Runaways picked one up in the ’70s.
But at times, as you pass display case after display case filled with gowns, jackets, dresses, boots and wigs, it feels like the exhibit emphasizes appearance over accomplishment; Melissa Etheridge is represented not by a guitar or any handwritten lyrics, but by a jacket she wore at the Grammys.
Nor does the show dig too deeply into its subject, simply presenting all the major artists you’d expect (Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Britney Spears); the only act most people won’t be familiar with is Goldie & the Gingerbreads, the first all-female band signed to a major label.
Women have been seen as a novelty in rock because their history is largely unknown; this exhibit could have provided an excellent opportunity to redress the balance, uncovering stories of the lesser-known acts who paved the way for the stars who followed.
Of course, to a younger audience, Janis Joplin will be a new discovery. And the exhibit’s kickoff on Friday, “Blow Out: Women Who Rock Opening Concert,” offers a lively mix of national and local acts. Headlining is an all-star band, featuring members of the Go-Go’s, Hole, L7 and the Muffs, providing backing for rotating lead vocalists, including local performers Star Anna, Choklate and Shelby Earl.
Opening acts include sets by musicians from the ’90s-era Seattle groups whose stories inspired the recent ACT Theatre production “These Streets” (including the show’s author, musician Gretta Harley), and self-proclaimed “teen girl indie band” Bleachbear, a Seattle band fronted by 15-year-old guitarist Tigerlily Cooley.
Gillian Gaar: firstname.lastname@example.org