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Women, music and politics join forces in new exhibit
WASHINGTON -- Lady Gaga's famous meat dress has made its way to the nation's capital, along with Loretta Lynn's song about "The Pill" and other relics from music history.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is opening a national tour for an exhibit about pioneering women in rock 'n' roll, tracing the evolution of women artists and their impact on music. It opens Friday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger said the exhibit, "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power" is inherently political, in part, as it highlights many "first ladies of rock" who have spoken loud and clear on women's rights, gay rights and other issues through their music.
"This really is the center of our political life," Rutledge-Borger said during the Washington opening. "Bringing this exhibit here kind of redefines what's important in our history and political life ... at a time when there's talk of women being under attack in politics."
More than 250 artifacts represent 70 women who were "engines of change and creativity," she said, each helping to redefine who could make rock 'n' roll. It features items from Cher, the B-52s, Donna Summer, Stevie Nicks, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna's provocative outfit from her "Blonde Ambition" tour. Other items date back to jazz singer Billie Holiday, first blues recording artists Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and country music trailblazer Mother Maybelle Carter.
Lynn's country song, "The Pill," was considered so controversial in 1975 that her record label delayed its release for three years. Lynn later recounted that doctors told her the tune was pivotal in rural acceptance of birth control.
"We really wanted to make sure this wasn't just a fashion show," Rutledge-Borger said. "We wanted to showcase these artists as musicians."
For the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it's the first exhibit to feature women performing artists, said chief curator Kathryn Wat.
Gaga's dress from the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards -- now dried, preserved and painted to restore its original raw meat color -- is being shown in its political context.
When Gaga wore the dress, she was accompanied by U.S. soldiers impacted by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to protest the ban on gays serving openly in the military. She explained that if people don't stand up for their rights, "pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat."
Beyond the dress's shock value, Gaga's push for inclusion of gays or anyone else who is different helped cement her place as a pioneer, said Rutledge-Borger.
"If you dig a little deeper, there's this important message of inclusion and family," she said. "That to me is really why she's so powerful."
The museum also is featuring Gaga's outfit from the 2010 Grammy Awards, where "Poker Face" won for best dance recording, and her childhood piano. She began taking lessons when she was 4.
"Women Who Rock" will remain on view in Washington through Jan. 6. Then it will travel to the Durham Museum in Omaha, Neb., the EMP Museum in Seattle and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.