Rock for the Ages Does popular music belong in a museum? Our columnist finds out.
(MONEY Magazine) – Every college has a student who turns out to be the self-anointed music authority, and at my school that student was me. I was the college newspaper's rock columnist, I managed the on-campus record store, I had a show on the college radio station, I proudly filled my record collection with obscure LPs, I planned on being a professional rock critic. I was, in short, one of those super-opinionated music snobs who annoy the hell out of everyone.
I'm no longer so annoying (at least I hope not), but my snobbery still pops up occasionally, such as when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened in Cleveland a few years ago. The way I saw it, rock's raucous nature was antithetical to a museum's academic, culture-under-glass approach. Besides, the Hall of Fame would surely focus only on the industry's most established, mainstream artists, like a museum version of Rolling Stone magazine. What could be worse than that? I wanted nothing to do with it.
And I wasn't alone--many other music fans (okay, music snobs) had similar reactions when the hall opened, which illustrates the inherent problem when pop culture begins acquiring a mantle of respectability: You run into the classic conflict between high art and low art. After all, I wanted rock and roll to be taken seriously--that's why I'd become obsessed with music in the first place--but not so seriously that it lost its edge. I initially assumed that the hall couldn't maintain that delicate balance, but I began having second thoughts after visiting a few small, lovely music museums, like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. (see the box on page 162). So when another, supposedly hipper, rock museum called the Experience Music Project opened in Seattle last year, I was intrigued by the possibilities. I decided to visit Cleveland and Seattle and see for myself.
Let's start at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (1 Key Plaza, Cleveland; 888-764-7625; www.rockhall.com). The six-floor pyramidal structure, with its exhibits tracking rock's early influences and history, assorted audio and video kiosks, and an endless array of instruments, stage costumes, set lists, performance posters and rare LPs, is a memorabilia hound's dream. I spent three hours roaming around and could easily have stayed all day if not for an impending blizzard. And while the hall occasionally confirmed my worst fears (c'mon, an entire display devoted to Billy Joel?), overall I was impressed with the diversity of coverage. Any music museum where I can strap on some headphones and listen to the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground back to back can't be accused of being too mainstream. Other highlights included a room devoted to the proto-rock bluesman Muddy Waters; a hilarious video display showing censorship-minded politicians ranting against rock's supposed threat to national security, a nook highlighting one-hit wonders (artists with only one hit recording), wreckage salvaged from the fatal crash of Otis Redding's tour plane and an excellent audio exhibit devoted to pioneering rock deejays, including Cleveland's own Alan Freed, reputed to be the first to have used the term rock and roll (which is how the hall came to be located here in the first place).
My skepticism fading, I checked out the hall's upper floors, which are currently devoted to a huge John Lennon exhibit. This show, which will run through September, includes several of Lennon's guitars, original handwritten lyrics to over 30 of his best-known songs, dozens of his drawings and collages and even the bed in which he and Yoko Ono held their famous 1969 bed-in. It's all a bit sentimental, but I also found it genuinely affecting. At this point I gave in--the Hall of Fame, I decided, isn't so bad. In fact, it's pretty cool.
But the Experience Music Project (325 Fifth Ave. North, Seattle; 877-367-5483; www.emplive.com) is even cooler. Although EMP's audiovideo booths and memorabilia displays are similar to the hall's, EMP's coverage is more surprising, less predictable. One exhibit, for example, traces the Pacific Northwest's musical heritage, which ranges from "Louie Louie" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; another explores the history of the guitar; and there's much more coverage of punk rock. Moreover, EMP's exhibits tend to be more exhaustive--the hall's comprehensive view of rock history is wider, but EMP's is deeper.
And as befits a facility bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, EMP also features a great technological gimmick: a hand-held gadget called the Museum Exhibit Guide, which is distributed to every visitor and includes headphones and a small keypad. By pointing the MEG at an artifact, you can download an audio file with more information about the item. Moreover, your individual MEG unit is keyed to a unique number on your ticket stub, which lets you use the MEG to create your own personal "bookmark file" of artifacts you'd like to learn more about. After you go home, you can log on to EMP's website, enter your ticket-stub number and access a list of Internet links pertaining to your bookmarked items. It's an ingenious system--the only downside is that the headphones discourage conversation and therefore have an isolating effect. My suggestion: Start out wearing the MEG and see how you like it. If you decide not to use it, the exhibits still offer plenty of conventional information.
Interactive technology also figures heavily in EMP's Sound Lab, a big rumpus room packed with musical instrument booths, each with its own touch-screen video tutorial. The idea is to spur creativity, overcome inhibitions and help people feel music-empowered. It's a dynamite concept, and so much fun! I spent half an hour playing the drums, something I'd always wanted to do. My friend Sasha was initially a bit tentative on the guitar, but soon the tutorial had taught her to play "Louie Louie." It's all such a blast that it's hard to imagine anyone not having a good time. And as I looked around the room, I didn't see a museum--I saw a bunch of people happily making a racket. Now that's rock and roll.
Paul Lukas is still an occasional rock critic but thinks travel writing is much more fun.