What is taboo? In the 21st century, it is hard to believe that the word taboo means anything. In America, sexy fashion trends and R rated films constantly push the boundaries of what is shocking. Popular culture encourages jaw-dropping images as a means of effective advertising and memorable moments. It is hard to believe that today’s public could find anything shocking, but alas, museums that serve the public must grapple with this. The boundaries of what may be over the edge are blurry when historically taboo topics like sexuality come up.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio sounds like a hip place. With exhibits on the Beatles and special collections displaying Lady Gaga outfits, creative ideas abound. It isn’t hard to imagine that a place dedicated to one of the most complex and often outrageous cultural constructs would be careful about their content. An exhibit entitled ‘Women Who Rock’ was recently deinstalled after a year long run on two floors of their gallery space. This exhibit focused on female impact on rock and roll music, starting from the early 20th century and moving up to the present. Featuring specific women as cornerstones for eras of music, the blues frames the entire exhibit as the birth of rock and roll. Specifically titled “ Suffragettes to Juke-Joints; The Foremothers” this section features women like Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday, and discusses what made them the forbearers of the last one hundred years of music. With numerous video and audio components, this exhibit is highly interactive and appealing to a wide variety of audiences. While the lives of these women are extremely interesting, the biographical information that presents these women does not tell the whole story of the blues or the sexualized and often shocking nature of its content.
In the suggested reading portion of this exhibit, a text entitled “ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis appears. While this book focuses on three important women of music (similar to the exhibit), a very different story than the exhibit writes appears. Davis shrewdly assesses the lyrics of blues music, which often describes both sexual love and female sexuality. Blues, one of the most popular 20th century secular music forms, was a platform for African American female expression. While the roles of all women were greatly changing in the Roaring Twenties with suffrage, Davis suggests African American women found their freedom in sexuality. Slavery had all but destroyed female reproductive rights and personal partner preferences in violent and oppressive ways. Sexuality was a form of exploration and freedom that blues music gave a voice to. Unfortunately, this lyric analysis did not make it in to the labels in explaining these Foremothers.
Can the general population not handle the rest of the story? Our highly sexualized culture suggests we can. With a glorification of half nude women in most current music videos (be they rock, rap or country music), all appearances suggest an independent, sexualized woman is not shunned in today’s popular culture. Why can’t a museum address these intimate issues? While Davis’s complex and rich text can be suggested for “extra” reading, it seems unusual that the exhibit would not touch on what the book contains. Visitors may not assume this type of information will appear on the wall, but it doesn’t lose any historical value in creating discussions about both origins of blues writing and the historical context in which they where created. It may be a disservice to history to ignore something sticky and gloss over what may be uncomfortable. Sometimes the rest of the story is just a little bit more interesting.
Bessie Smith Image: http://www.bluebeat.com/albums/39969/Womans-Trouble-Blues-Disc1
Beyonce Image, Columbia records. Photographer: Klinko and Indrani: http://www.beyoncefan.com/lyrics/dangerously-in-love-lyrics/baby-boy-lyrics/
Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: First Vintage Book Edition, 1999.