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Government & Politics

New Exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Traces The Mix of Music and Politics

photo of John Lennon's giutar

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a new exhibit examining the interweaving of music and politics, just in time for the Republican National Convention.

"There has never been a successful movement for social progress that hasn’t had a great soundtrack."  

Those words from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine are part of the new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looking at music’s sometimes contentious relationship with social issues and elected officials.

  “Louder Than Words” features photos, video clips, handwritten lyrics and news coverage of everything from the payola scandals of the 1950s right through to earlier this year, when several high-profile artists canceled performances in North Carolina over the state’s LGBT bathroom law.

photo of FBI letter on payola
This FBI memo on payola from the 1950s comes from a time when the government was seemingly trying to legislate rock and roll out of the mainstream.

  In between, there’s a variety of pieces ranging from the guitar John Lennon played on “Give Peace a Chance” to the censored, racially charged video for Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.”  Karen Herman curated the exhibit.

I'm a Man
“We had a few areas on subjects and topics that we color-coded to give people a little bit of a sense if they just wanted to see certain pieces,." says Herman.  One of them is social justice and racial equality, we have war and peace, gender and LGBT equality.”

Herman goes on.  “Rock and roll and gay rights converged in 1969 during the Stonewall riots.  But there’s a really cool rock and roll connection: while the raids were going on at the bar, the DJ was playing ‘I’m a Man’ by Chicago.  And they kept playing it until the power was cut.”

I Have a Dream
The 1960s are well-represented in the exhibit, and not just by rock and roll artists.  Herman says Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson was involved in a key moment of the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When he actually wrote that speech, the ‘I Have a Dream’ was not part of that speech.  He had said it in other speeches, but he was not going to say in the March on Washington.   On the dais, at some point, he was speaking and she yelled out, ‘tell them about the dream, Martin.’  And that’s where he then put the ‘I Have a Dream’ into that speech right then and there.”

Protest songs are just one part of the exhibit.  Herman points out that much of “Louder Than Words” also looks at music as a mirror of a changing society.

“You have Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and they’re all very specific," according to Herman.  "They have their own voices.  And they also had a lot of people pushing against them saying that they were way too sexually explicit.  But actually what they were doing was using their voices in music, which is something – a lot of times – you didn’t see.”

Both Madonna and Chrissie Hynde are Rock Hall inductees, as are the majority of artists in the exhibit.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s very conscious, like ‘Oh, I’m a big star now.’  But I think they understand that they have a power now, that they didn’t have before," says Herman.  "That gives them a responsibility.

“One of the things that I did notice as we were doing this is, we went out to a lot of artists to ask for their political voice.  And a lot of them didn’t want to do these interviews.  And I think part of it is that they want the music to stand on its own.  Their political message is in their songs, and that’s enough.”

photo of Village People costumes
"Louder Than Words" looks at music's use in furthering not only civil rights, but gay rights as well.

Fortunate Son
The songs, though, are the core of “Louder Than Words,” and Barry and Betty Clifford from Painesville noticed that the 1960s – when they were growing up -- are heavily represented.

“I think it really just evoked a certain intensity to the situation.  I think the music was all different in the ‘60s.  I think that there was such a variety.  It wasn’t like the ‘50s: the ‘40s went to the ‘50s with a very nice transition.  [With] the ‘60s came everything: folk, rock and roll, blues, everything became alive then.”

The Cliffords say artists today do not seem as politically engaged, but Maria Asher from Parma says it’s just taken on a different form.

“There’s so much with social media and there’s so many other motivations, I think, for being politically active.  I think [it’s] different than when it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  [A] little bit more organic then.”

Curator Karen Herman agrees that artists are still politically active today, and she points to the rise of hip-hop as a new way for artists to make a political statement.

“If you look at some of the earlier civil rights voices, a lot of it is coded language.  You may not even know they’re talking about how bad something is or how much discrimination they’re feeling.  But then when you finally get up to rap, it’s in your face: these artists are not holding back.  Chuck D famously said, ‘it’s CNN for black people.’”

The “Louder Than Words” exhibit will be on-view at the Rock Hall through November 27.  It will then re-open at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. just before the Presidential inauguration in January.