You know what every art form needs? A Hall of Fame. To show that taste can and should be mandated. Sure, there aren’t tangible levels of achievement and statistics like there are in sports, but why let that stop you. Fuck it, one Hall of Fame isn’t even enough, at least for rock music. Let’s build two!
It’s the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame vs. The Experience Music Project in a showdown for the ages.
Winner gets the mild respect of an unknown blogger.
So which one is better? Which one truly teaches fans about that old time rock and roll? Let’s break. this. down.
This one’s a laugher. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, which, as we’ve all learned from the LeBron sweepstakes, is a gaping hellmouth waiting to suck us all to oblivion. The city has a tenuous tie to rock history, and anything calling itself the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame should rightfully only be in New York or London. Plus, there’s this:
Meanwhile, the Experience Music Project is in Seattle, reflective of its “alternative” take on music. Seattle is a perfectly nice city in the Pacific Northwest, with a much stronger rock history than Cleveland can claim. The EMP is located in an ugly, concrete-filled, tourist-trap area along with the Space Needle and some other nonsensical museums, but that’s still a fair ways better than being trapped in the Mistake by the Lake. Hey, guys, The Cleve is turning it around! We’ve got a new ballpark, and the Browns are coming back, and we’ve got the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame! Yeah…not so much.
Both institutions are housed in intriguing pieces of pop art disguised as architecture. The Hall of Fame resides in a glass pyramid/tower designed by I.M. Pei:
Gehry’s design generated significant controversy in Seattle, but given its location in a concrete field in the shadow of the Space Needle, it’s not like the EMP needs to fit in with any zoning standards or neighborhood norms.
I actually like both designs, even the ridiculous pounded-metal candy mess that is the EMP. At least it’s not attempting false reverence and trying to look like the Met, with marble columns and shit.
Both designs have significant impact on the experience within. While the HOF’s glass pyramid is a missed opportunity to bring to life Bill Simmons’ idea for a tiered hall of fame (Springsteen and The Hold Steady on the top floor, Night Ranger just below…), the building does add layer and texture to the standard trip to the museum. As you ascend from the basement to the top of the pyramid (which houses the highlighted special exhibits) you move into and out of the light, re-emerging from dark display rooms into the main glass sanctuary.
Meanwhile, being inside the EMP is like entering a post-industrial wasteland, and I mean that in the best possible way. The building’s guts are as odd as its exterior, transmitting strange shadows throughout the cavernous foyer. The only downside is that most of the EMP’s exhibits are housed in fairly standard museum rooms that don’t take advantage of the bizarre metal shell surrounding them.
The Driving Force
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as an institution, was co-founded by Jann Wenner, the publisher of the rotting corpse of Rolling Stone. The same Jann Wenner who saw fit to personally write a review giving Mick Jagger’s solo album Goddess in the Doorway five stars. So let’s just say the Hall is not exactly free of bias, or inner-circle glad-handing and back-patting.
Allegations of underhanded dealings abound at the Hall, typically related to the selection/induction process for artists. (Granted, some of these allegations come from The Monkees, but still…) Wenner seems to use the Hall as his plaything, honoring those artists he sees fit for inclusion in The Story of Rock and Roll.
There’s also this, from Wikipedia:
Wenner also received some controversy when he fired notable rock critic Jim DeRogatis in 1996 after DeRogatis published a negative review for an album by the, then popular, band Hootie and the Blowfish. Wenner was reportedly angry because the band’s record label, Atlantic Records, bought lots of advertising in the magazine and were expecting a good review for the band’s sophomore effort, Fairweather Johnson. Wenner pulled DeRogatis’ review from the magazine. Asked by the New York Observer if Wenner was a fan of Hootie and the Blowfish, DeRogatis responded that Wenner “is a fan of any band that sells eight million records.” Wenner fired DeRogatis the next day.
Anytime you can enter a dispute with DeRogatis and come out looking like the bad guy, you’ve really achieved something.
The EMP, meanwhile, was founded by Paul Allen. It’s difficult to be as rich as Allen without compromising a significant portion of your soul, and Allen certainly earns demerits for that whole Microsoft thing, but he seems like a better all-around dude that Wenner. He’s well-known for his charity work and his commitment to the Pacific Northwest.
The HOF exists to canonize what by rights can’t be canonized. A hall of fame for baseball or basketball makes empirical sense. Success in sports can largely (though not entirely) be judged by fact, by statistical record. Athletes are elected to their respective halls of fame based on their accomplishments. There exist (or should exist, since most sports can’t seem to ever get this shit right) easily defined criteria for induction.
We can’t, however, judge artistic greatness by album sales or tour grosses. So we rely instead on opinion, because that’s all we have. In essence, that’s why the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame shouldn’t exist in its current state.
According to its mission statement, the HOF “exists to educate visitors, fans and scholars from around the world about the history and continuing significance of rock and roll music.” That’s partially true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. If the HOF were simply a museum, an educational experience, there wouldn’t be a problem. But by calling itself a “Hall of Fame,” and by holding inductions in the manner it currently does, the institution resembles a giant, pyramid-shaped fraud.
The HOF’s true mission is to allow rock’s aristocracy to define history on its terms, and to tell the story it wants to tell. Rock was invented by Elvis Presley and a handful of others, who fused black R&B with white country. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were titans in the field, taking popular music to new levels of artistry and infusing it with literature. Then came the hard-rocking, Zeppelin ’70s, the punk era, the synthed-out ’80s and grunge. You’ve heard it all before.
Yes, there are elements of truth to the tale, but there is also misinformation. And there are alternative versions of history that aren’t represented. If you’re a student of rock, if you’ve read all the seminal texts, you won’t learn anything new at the Hall. Even as pop music has splintered, fractured and reinvented itself in the last 15 years, the HOF sticks to its nuts-and-bolts approach. Walking into that pyramid is like entering a time machine to about 1995, and the march of history simply stops there.
Power tries to maintain power, and the old men in charge of the HOF desperately cling to their side of the story to prove they’ve been right all along.
The EMP was born of a more benign seed: Paul Allen owned a lot of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, and wanted to share it with the public. Sure, he wanted to make money too, and there’s some go involved, but the bottom line is that he just wanted to show off all his cool shit.
As such, the EMP embodies a more progressive spirit than the HOF. The exhibits are more interactive, and leave more open to interpretation. To use a cliché that usually makes me want to puke fire, the EMP shows while the HOF tells. Its focus is also narrower and more localized. It doesn’t try to capture everything that rock and roll has ever meant to everybody.
Moreover, the interactive exhibits (particularly the one that teaches you to play guitar, bass and drums, and lets you play around on your own or with other visitors) imbibe you with a sense that, in the true punk spirit, anyone can do this. That we’re all somehow a part of this story. It reminds you that pop music, as opposed to classical music, was designed to be simple and didn’t require a formal education to perform it well.
When you visit the Hall of Fame, you walk out feeling like you’ve attended a lecture, albeit a pretty awesome lecture. When you visit the EMP, you walk out feeling clean.
Ah…there’s the rub.
For all its advantages, the EMP can’t compete with the HOF in terms of what you actually see when you visit. In the same way that ESPN is a power-drunk institution run by assholes, but they hold rights to most major sports and have huge access advantages so you’re compelled to watch, the HOF is run by people who know people. People who can get things. Things you really want to see.
So while the HOF experience is indeed akin to entering a time machine — it’s one impressive fucking time machine.
The first things you see when you walk in the museum are the Trabant cars from U2’s Zoo TV tour hanging high above your head.
It gets significantly better from there. The entire basement level is comprised of essential costumes, instruments and assorted paraphernalia from lore: Michael Jackson’s costume from Billie Jean, Elvis’s Cadillacs, and Slash’s hat. If there’s a famous photo, video or event from rock history, chances are high that you’ll see the clothes the people were wearing at the time.
And while the mission and the politics behind the Hall are shady, they generally don’t taint the visitor’s experience. Because of the aforementioned access advantages, the HOF contains countless items that you won’t believe you’re actually standing in front of.
The main difference between the HOF and the EMP can best be summarized like this: In the HOF, the most common thought you’ll have is, “Holy shit! I can’t believe I’m looking at the actual ________!” In the EMP, it’s, “Huh. That’s pretty cool.”
The HOF’s special exhibits also excel. For their current Springsteen exhibit, occupying the top two floors of the pyramid, the Hall has collected and displayed everything from the Boss’s iconic Born to Run Telecaster to his writing desk to early drafts of his lyrics. And the Hall makes good use of technology, using a lot of looping films that visitors can enter at any point.
While you may be experiencing the story the Hall’s proprietors want you to believe, you certainly become immersed in that story, and feel connected to moments and artists in ways you can’t just by listening to records. The execution of the visitor’s experience at the Hall is nearly flawless.
I don’t mean to undersell the EMP here, but their scope is so much smaller than the HOF’s that their exhibits can’t help but underwhelm in comparison.
Their standard exhibits aren’t particularly creative, either. “Northwest Passage,” an exhibit dedicated to the history of Seattle music, features nothing more than the standard album covers, set lists and magazine covers. A temporary exhibit devoted to the clothing of The Supremes comes off as limited. But the interactive, creatively focused exhibits truly shine.
“Sound and Vision” is a smallish room with dozens of video monitors and headphones, allowing you to pick and choose exclusive interviews with artists broken into anecdotes about particular themes: touring, songwriting, etc. “Sound Lab” is the performance/practice area alluded to earlier where you can learn the chords to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or go into a booth and test out your vocals on a Queen song.
Oh, and this guitar sculpture might be the coolest single object in either museum:
All the interactivity at EMP should allow for a more personal experience, but that’s not necessarily the case. The HOF contains items, whether photos or costumes or rare recordings, that can take you deep within yourself as you reflect on the meaning thereof. The EMP is fun, and it’s heart seems to be in the right place, but it’s inessential; the HOF is a must.
Overall Edge: HOF. Good intentions are outweighed by money and power. As usual.