The music of rebellion moves into a museum


Rock and roll has stood for a lot of things over the years. It's been an invitation to party, an emblem of youth and a symbol for rebellion. But one thing it has never been seen as is the stuff museums are made of. Is it reasonable, then, to imagine that millions would be willing to come to Cleveland to look at display cases full of guitars and jumpsuits?

Certainly, the folks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame think so. Why else would they have invested so much time, money and effort in assembling the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum? From the $92 million exterior, designed by noted architect I. M. Pei, to its memento-packed interior, the Cleveland-based Hall of Fame + Museum promises to treat the legacy of Elvis Presley and Little Richard with the kind of respect usually reserved for the likes of Rembrandt and Renoir.

In keeping with its entertainment-industry roots, the building's baptism will be mostly show-biz. Although things officially kick off with a Friday-morning parade and ribbon-cutting ceremony, the highlight of the festivities will undoubtedly be the six-hour mega-concert scheduled for Saturday night at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The show, which begins at 7:30 p.m. (and will be carried live by HBO and Westwood One Radio), will feature performances by Chuck Berry, Bon Jovi, James Brown, Johnny Cash, George Clinton, John Fogerty, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Mellencamp, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Bruce Springsteen -- to name but a few.

But once the festivities end and all the tinsel is swept away, two questions will remain. First, does rock and roll really belong in a museum? And, why should that museum be in Cleveland?

How the Hall of Fame + Museum wound up in Cleveland is simple enough. As the rest of the country snickered at the thought of a rock museum, the Cleveland city fathers actively and aggressively lobbied to have the Hall of Fame built in their city. They saw the Hall of Fame + Museum as the linchpin of a revitalized Cleveland waterfront, while the Hall of Fame directors saw the city as an eager and appropriate location.

From a historical perspective, Cleveland is a near-perfect place for the Hall of Fame. It was, after all, where Alan Freed was host of his famous "Moondog Rock and Roll Party," a nightly radio show that not only introduced thousands of white teen-agers to the glories of R&B;, but forever wedded this new sensibility to the words "rock and roll." Freed was one of the first to see how the music could speak across class, regional and racial boundaries, and the integrated "Moondog Balls" he put on in the early '50s were important steps on the road to civil rights.

Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Memphis and Los Angeles were all more active in the production of rock and roll than Cleveland was. But in a way, that works to the city's advantage, because there will be less risk of hometown favoritism coloring the museum's perspective. Had the Hall of Fame been built in Chicago, the legacy of Chicago bluesmen could easily be seen as over- or underplayed by critics; put it in Detroit, and suddenly Motown would seem to loom too large; move it to Memphis, and its Elvis exhibits would likely be criticized for being either too fawning or too competitive with Graceland.

If not sound, then spirit

Though there never was a Cleveland sound per se (at least, not one the average listener would easily identify), there has always been a strong tradition of rock fandom in the city. And that certainly seems appropriate to the spirit of rock and roll as defined by the museum.

Mere fandom is not what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum is about, however. Even though curator James Henke reports that the Hall of Fame has already attracted the interest of rock enthusiasts from around the world, its purpose goes beyond simply providing a place for people to see a Jimi Hendrix guitar or a Bob Dylan lyric sheet. As a press release put it, the museum intends to "explore rock's ongoing evolution and its enduring impact on global culture."

Just how well it will do this remains to be seen, but the Hall of Fame's plans certainly seem impressive. For instance, an exhibit on Elvis Presley will include a full-size replica of the Sun Records studio in Memphis where Presley cut his first singles. As a display, this mock-up -- complete with vintage recording equipment -- will undoubtedly be eye-catching, but it should also be subtly instructive, giving visitors a look at the process of making rock-and-roll records. And by emphasizing where and how he recorded, the museum will (with luck) shift the focus away from Presley's celebrity and back onto his music -- something existing Elvis museums have largely been unable to do.

It's important that the Hall of Fame + Museum stress the creative process and cultural importance, because otherwise it could easily devolve into a sort of pop music amusement park. Not that the planned exhibits will be without entertainment value, thanks to a heavy emphasis on video displays and headphone-equipped listening stations. But most modern museums boast that kind of gadgetry; what matters is the focus. Because without a clear sense of purpose and a strong emphasis on education and research,the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum could end up as just a more pretentious version of the Hard Rock Cafe.

Institutional thinking

Which brings us back to our original question: Does rock and roll belong in a museum? It has endured long enough to have generated its share of history, and the fact that it is the first truly global popular music has earned it significant cultural clout. But, as David Bowie asked as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began laying its foundations, should rock and roll become an institution?

Part of the rock ethos obviously argues against it. If you believe that rock is the music of rebellion, that it celebrates spontaneity and can only be corrupted by corporate involvement, then of course you'd be appalled by the idea of having an official Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But rock and roll isn't just about disaffected adolescents making a din to get back at their parents; its deepest roots lie with songs that address grown-up concerns such as sexual fidelity and financial insecurity. Besides, an aesthetic as narrow as "rock = rebellion" is ultimately more snobbish and elitist than any Hall of Fame could be, because it doesn't recognize the validity of what many listeners consider to be rock and roll.

In any case, it's not a question of whether rock and roll should become an institution -- its enduring popularity has essentially made that a moot point -- but who should control that institution. And without the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or something like it, only one answer is possible: the record companies. Because so long as albums remain the only artifacts fans have easy access to, the music will be treated purely as product.

With the Hall of Fame, however, it will be possible to view rock and roll as a shared heritage, as something that belongs to all of us. That may seem a bit high-flown for something that often consists of just three chords and a backbeat, but the simple fact is that rock and roll is an essential part of America's cultural identity, and we'd be fools to leave that heritage to the stewardship of entertainment executives.

"Maybelline" may not be the Mona Lisa, but as an essential part of our culture, it deserves the kind of respect only a museum can provide. Here's hoping the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum lives up to that responsibility.

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