Meditations on Popular Music Exhibitions continued

Note to readers: This blog post is a continuation of one uploaded on August 13, 2021 — https://louisarmstrongfellowsblog.wordpress.com/2021/08/13/meditations-on-popular-music-exhibitions/. The two blogs posts should be read as one piece, not two stand-alone pieces. The author retains all ownership rights of the prose.The author also retains the right to use any or all the prose in future works.

THE GENRE NARRATIVE IN POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS

Both New York, New Music and Musical Crossroads offer a genre narrative, meaning they frame or divide material à la music genres. New York, New Music draws attention to music genres at the outset. The exhibition’s introductory wall text emphasizes New York musicians’ roles in developing new wave, pop, hip hop, salsa, and jazz. However, the rest of the wall texts refrain from spotlighting music genres. Instead, they focus on place, either music venues or different parts of the city where certain music scenes thrived. Musical Crossroads highlights twelve music genres in relation to various featured musicians. Those musicians who cannot be associated with a single music genre are designated as “beyond category.”

New York, New Music’s introductory wall text, photo taken by author on July 25, 2021
A portion of the Rock & Roll section of Musical Crossroads, photo taken by author on November 4, 2019
A portion of the “Beyond Category” section of Musical Crossroads, photo taken by author on November 4, 2019

Should curators of popular music exhibitions utilize a genre narrative? In a 2021 New Yorker article journalist Amanda Petrusich makes several interesting points on music genres. One of these points is that “genre is not a static, immovable idea but a reflection of an audience’s assumptions and wants at a certain time.”[1] Another is that digital streaming services such as Spotify have helped create a post-genre world by presenting a new way to organize music – the playlist model. This model, according to Petrusich, is “more in tune with how and why people listen.”[2] As more contemporary musicians and their music become part of popular music exhibitions, it seems necessary to de-emphasize music genres or, at the very least, find a more appropriate way to discuss them in past, present, and future contexts.

INNOVATING POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBIITONS

It might be pertinent to assess whether the contemporary presentation of popular music in museums is archaic and why new and innovative curatorial approaches to popular music exhibitions are not frequently used. Scholar Alcina Cortez claims narratives of popular music museums “need to be based on prior visitor experiences, interests, and knowledge.”[3] The desire to provide visitors with familiar encounters, satisfy colleagues, board members, and sponsors, and fear of disrupting the status quo are all factors that hinder the development of new ways of presenting popular music in museums.         

One way to ensure the creation of innovative popular music exhibitions is to require more curators to seek the help of consultants with music experience or degrees in sound studies, popular music studies, musicology, or ethnomusicology. It has become the norm to have curators with little to no background in music create popular music exhibitions. However, musicians and music studies scholars have much to offer with their on-the-ground experience or knowledge of past and present academic scholarship. Their exhibitions could offer many exciting surprises and eliminate some of the questionable components of popular music exhibitions, such as the genre narrative.

INTERWEAVING RACE, ETHNICITY, AND GENDER TOPICS IN POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS

In many popular music exhibitions in non-ethnic museums, topics related to ethnicity and race are seldom incorporated into the exhibition narrative, and such is the case in New York, New Music. Popular music exhibitions that avoid ethnic/racial issues too often defer to ethnic museums (e.g., the NMAAHC) or curators creating exhibitions featuring BIPOC musicians to present such themes. Gender topics, like ethnic/racial ones, are also often glossed over in many popular music exhibitions. Curators of popular music exhibitions should not solely aim to teach visitors about music history. Instead, they should help them discover how music can shed light on the diverse human experience, social identities, and community building for racial/ethnic and woman-identifying groups.

BRINGING JUSTICE INTO POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS

Since the 2017 MeToo movement, there have been numerous articles debating whether it is acceptable to separate art from the artist, especially in cases where the artist has a history of committing sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and gender violence. Since the MeToo movement, some curators of art exhibitions have attempted to be more conscious of what artists they promote in their exhibitions, and members of the public have made more of an effort to hold such artists accountable. However, it seems that when it comes to popular music exhibitions, curators and public members have been slower to respond and scrutinize. Should popular music exhibitions such as New York, New Music or Musical Crossroads be neutral when it comes to #MeToo in the music industry? How can curators revise older exhibitions and create new ones that provide a more honest and complete picture of featured musicians, producers, label executives, and songwriters? The MeToo movement in industries other than film has developed slowly. Museums with popular music exhibitions should play a vital role in the progress toward gender justice in the music industry.

Chuck Berry’s Cadillac Eldorado is a stand-out object at the entrance of Musical Crossroads. During his lifetime, Berry was accused of sexual and physical assault of women, possessing indecent videos of minors, and illegally filming women in one of his restaurant’s bathrooms. The NMAAHC’s exhibition descriptions of Berry were authored prior to 2017. They frame Berry as a pioneer, whose hits helped define a generation. Photo was taken by author on November 4, 2019.

THE POTENCY OF POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS

Popular music exhibitions that offer auditory or audio-visual experiences in any format can be life-changing. These exhibitions, while noisy, may change the ways visitors engage with sound and listen to others inside and outside museums. Popular music exhibitions that feature BIPOC musicians may indeed be more significant than those that do not. According to scholar Jennifer Lynn Stoever the examination of one’s listening practices is “fundamental for the development of new ways of being in the world and for forging cross-racial solidarities capable of dismantling the sonic color line….”[4] If museums with carefully curated popular music exhibitions served as the spaces where such examination and reflection could occur, imagine the impact. Do enough curators of popular music exhibitions consider their exhibitions’ potency and human significance when designing and implementing them? Popular music exhibitions such as New York, New Music and Musical Crossroads do not have to solely function as spaces of entertainment. If revised, they could potentially impact more visitors in visible and invisible ways, and help their home museums become more democratic, anti-racist, inclusive, and diverse. Music and sound are powerful, and all past, present, and future popular music exhibitions must demonstrate that in various ways.  


[1] Amanda Petrusich, “Genre is disappearing. What comes next?” The New Yorker, last modified March 8, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/15/genre-is-disappearing-what-comes-next.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Alcina Cortez, “The curatorial practices of exhibiting popular music in Portugal at the beginning of the twenty-first century: An overview,” Revista Portuguesa de Musicologia vol. 2, no. 2 (2015), 318.

[4] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 20.

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