April 12, 2017
Mick Jagger sang “it’s only rock & roll, but I like it.”
The lyric doesn’t do justice to the power of rock, but an exhibit at the Newseum – “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” – beautifully and accurately captures the long (and sometimes stormy) relationship between music and politics.
“Through the objects and through the stories of the musicians behind them, I think we tell an important story about how musicians have the power to change social attitudes and, dare I say it, change the world a little bit,” said Cathy Trost, Senior Vice President/Exhibits and Programs at the Newseum.
“Louder Than Words” relies on 164 artifacts, films and interactive exhibits to tell the story of rock and politics from the 1950s to the present. That story addresses the role of musicians who shed light on everything from human rights to hunger to women’s rights and racial inequality.
“I think the exhibit shows that musicians are participants in a full-throated democracy. They believe they have the right (to speak out) and they exercise it,” Trost said.
The sleeveless jean jacket Dee Snider wore when he testified before the Senate Commerce Committee 32 years ago is a vehicle to tell a story about musicians who have played a role to preserve free speech. Snider warned against the use of labels on albums with so-called offensive material. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” made the Filthy Fifteen, the list of the “worst” songs as identified by the Parents Music Resource Center, the group supporting warning labels.
How ironic that Rep. Paul Ryan used the same song on the campaign trail in 2012 – 27 years later, and a video in the exhibit called “Rockin’ For Office” delves into the use of music in political campaigns.
Sometimes the use of music by politicians is unauthorized, Trost said.
But not always. President Bill Clinton – who’s saxophone is part of the exhibit – used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” during his 1992 campaign. The campaign’s use of the song renewed interest in the 1977 hit and played a part in convincing the band to get back together.
“Louder Than Words” also is a powerful reminder of the freedom musicians in America have to express controversial ideas. It’s a freedom the members of Pussy Riot don’t have in their native Russia. Two members of the Russian girl band ended up in jail for nearly two years for the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility” after they sang a protest song and danced in front of an altar in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2012.
“We enjoy a freedom that others don’t,” Trost said. “Artists really suffer in other countries when they express unpopular points of view, and we need to recognize that the freedoms we enjoy are not enjoyed by all.”
It’s only rock & roll? I don’t think so, Mick.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Newseum collaborated on “Louder Than Words,” which opened last year at the Rock Hall in Cleveland then moved to the Newseum in January. The exhibit will remain on display at the Newseum through the end of July.
SoundExchange is a co-sponsor of the exhibit.