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Every gesture of cultural rebellion one day ends up as a museum display — or so one reflects when wandering from the Met’s galleries of iconoclastic modernism into its lavish display of rock memorabilia, Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock & Roll. Early rock ’n’ roll, so the story goes, was a blast of teenage rebellion aimed against the stifling conformity of the early 1950s; elders scrambled for their smelling salts as youngsters gyrated to the sexually charged beats of Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. A few years later, sick of the saccharine professionalism of Mantovani and thrilled by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, an army of kids bought electric guitars and formed bands.
Rock has moved in dialectical waves of increasing technical sophistication followed by three-chord simplicity. The excesses of ’70s corporate rock, prog rock, and disco were put paid to by the DIY garage ethos of Punk. Punk begat New Wave, which congealed into the turgid bolus of synthesizer-heavy ’80s rock — until the icebreaker of Grunge brought yet another return to the basics. Yet as anyone under 35 can testify, youth today dances to a hip hop beat; rock is a niche culture, and a greying one at that. If rock isn’t ready for the hospice, it’s ready for the museum.
Of the possible approaches to surveying rock ’n’ roll, focusing on the music’s instruments — artifacts that can be tagged and displayed — is probably the most museum-friendly. Perhaps predictably, Play It Loud is largely about guitars, the quintessential rock instrument. There are a few drum kits, the occasional piano or synthesizer rack, and a saxophone, harmonica, or mandolin here and there, but by my rough count guitars make up almost half the objects on display; and if you set aside the abundant concert posters dotting the walls and count electric basses with their six-string cousins, guitars outnumber everything else by almost three to one.
Once you’ve gotten over the feeling that you’ve walked into Guitar Center by mistake, it’s hard not to reflect on the odd ontological status of the instruments on display. Some of these guitars are unique aesthetic objects, highly personal variations on the mass-produced article, or impressive examples of the luthier’s craft guided by the musician’s vision: for example, Jimmy Page’s double-necked Gibson, on which he played “Stairway to Heaven” in concert; Prince’s gold-toned guitar in the shape of his male+female sign; St. Vincent’s angular neon yellow Ernie Ball guitar, designed according to her ergonomic demands. Others are factory-made jobs that have been modified for aesthetic or functional reasons: Eric Clapton’s 1964 Gibson SG (“The Fool”), painted in eye-popping psychedelic patterns; Kim Gordon’s Ovation bass, plastered with stickers, its original electronics ripped out and replaced; and Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” guitar, sutured together from the parts of at least three separate instruments.
Some of the instruments on display mark particular milestones of technological development that would later become ubiquitous tools of the trade, such as a prototype of the Fender Broadcaster (later the Telecaster), or one of the earliest surviving Stratocasters. Others are off-the-rack models that have nothing special about them but their provenance: the Gibson SG with which Duane Allman played that performance of “Statesboro Blues”; the ES-350T with which Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode”; or the Stratocaster with which Bob Dylan scandalized the folk purists at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
The aura that such provenance lends the instruments — onlookers crowd around Clapton’s famous Stratocaster “Blackie” like pilgrims around some splinter of the True Cross — simply underlines the degree to which rock ’n’ roll is embodied in live performance. If, for some, rock performance is exemplified in the various virtuosities of Clapton, Van Halen, and Tom Morello, the exhibition reminds us that it can also be about creative destruction. On display here is a guitar that Kurt Cobain broke up onstage in 1993 and a fragment of the Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix iconically smashed and set afire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Pete Townshend was one of the prototypical guitar-smashers, for whom destroying the instrument became a calculated aesthetic move. He’s represented here by the lucite-encased fragments of a Gibson SG, which he smashed not in concert but for a Annie Leibovitz Rolling Stone photoshoot.
Early notices of the exhibition — including Sarah Rose Sharp’s here on Hyperallergic — drew attention to the paucity of female musicians represented. The organizers have compensated somewhat: Kim Gordon and her Ovation bass are on the cover of the catalogue, St. Vincent’s yellow guitar grabs one’s eyes in the very first gallery, Joan Jett is prominent among the players featured in the video room, and several other instruments played by women are on display.
Nonetheless, the exhibition’s testosterone quotient remains distressingly high. The ambient soundtrack of rock classics, when I visited, had to compete with the constant chatter of earnest boomers mansplaining technical details to their female companions. The diehard gearheads (mostly male) were enthralled by the full-size touring rigs and explanatory videos from Van Halen, Morello, Page, and Keith Richards, but I couldn’t help wondering why we weren’t given a look at how Bonnie Raitt or Tina Weymouth laid out their equipment. Only in the last couple of decades has it become unexceptional to find women rock musicians in roles other than vocal. One wonders if rock music, saturated with sexuality as it has been since its beginnings, will ever be able entirely to extricate its instruments from a profoundly gendered symbolism. Not as long, I suppose, as boys continue slinging their guitars below the belt.
Play It Loud does its best to present rock as a still-living musical idiom, but the show’s emphasis falls heavily on the three decades of the 1960s through the 1980s. As with other recent exhibitions — the Met’s 2013 PUNK: Chaos to Couture, the 2013-2018 traveling David Bowie, and this year’s Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die at the Museum of Art and Design — there’s an inescapable air of nostalgia about it all. Neil Young might have told us in 1979 that “Rock & roll will never die,” but I can’t help hearing Johnny Rotten’s 1977 refrain: “There’s no future for you.”
Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through October 1.