Play It Loud: What The Met’s Exhibit Gets Right and Wrong About Rock’s Most Treasured Instruments

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Don Felder of the Eagles was sweating as he picked up the double-necked Les Paul, and who could blame him when Jimmy Page -- the man whose playing made it famous -- was about to watch him play it from ten feet away?

On Monday (April 1), Felder and Page were present for the preview of Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, a new exhibit presented by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame set to open on April 8. They, along with Steve Miller and Tina Weymouth, christened the opening of the staggering collection of rock n’ roll memorabilia, which features guitars and basses they all played and a treasure trove of gear from a selection of their most beloved and respected colleagues.

Felder was the only one to actually play a bit of music for the audience of industry professionals and press that got the first glimpse of Play It Loud, and this is when he suffered a rare attack of nerves. “I’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” he quipped before easing the strap of the guitar over his shoulder to play “Hotel California.” “I’ve never been as nervous as I am to play this guitar in front of Jimmy Page.”

This unabashed adoration and reverence is the backbone of Play It Loud, which relies on the sum of its parts, and delivers -- a triumph and a problem all at once. This is not an exhibit for discovery, but affirmation and recognition. Occasional bits of new tri about the most lovingly worn records in your collection and the “guitar gods” who made them pepper the placards throughout, but Play It Loud reminds us of what we already know and leans on our personal connection to the music we love. Classic rock and all it contains is Play It Loud’s throughline, and the bulk of its ephemera is split between the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix with scores of other notable names thrown in for good measure.

They -- along with their idols, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Wanda Jackson, the bricklayers of rock's foundation -- are represented by pieces that fans will recognize and jostle fellow museumgoers to see up close. The Mona Lisa is the world’s most familiar face, yet thousands crush into a small gallery at the Louvre to lock eyes with da Vinci’s masterpiece and reconcile the painting before them with its gargantuan reputation. The remaining hunk of the hand-painted guitar Hendrix obliterated at Monterey Pop in 1965 inspires the same reaction in Play It Loud -- as does the Gibson SG Special Pete Townshend smashed for his Rolling Stone shoot with Annie Leibovitz in 1973, the Esquire Bruce Springsteen slung across his back on the cover of Born to Run and the mannequin wearing Jimmy Page’s embroidered dragon suit and holding his cherry-red double-necked guitar. These are all in the same room, a cluster of road-ravaged Mona Lisas that would stun on their own but underwhelm as they wait their turn for your attention.

 
 
 
 

As for the guitar “goddesses,” the men have the lion’s share of thrones atop Play It Loud’s Olympus. The women included in the exhibit do not receive the same standout treatment, save for the acoustic guitar bearing Jackson’s name and a piano from Lady Gaga’s Artpop era that was a Tonight Show set-piece. When the initial lineup of Play It Loud was announced in the fall of 2018, the Met was criticized that the released list of names mentioned one woman, St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), and scores of dudes. Neko Case and others were quick to point out that this was an egregious misrepresentation of the genre and the contributions of female artists to popular music at large.

Play It Loud, thankfully, turned out to be slightly more inclusive than expected, with gear from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Sheryl Crow, Kim Gordon, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Tina Weymouth and more sidling up to Paul McCartney’s violin basses and Joe Strummer’s sticker-plastered ax. Jett is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, like several of the men who got their own cases, but her Melody Maker is grouped in with the guitars of other punk pioneers (though it graced the front of the postcard handed to exhibit preview attendees). Same goes for 2018 Rock Hall inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who’s included in a grouping with an ivory custom Les Paul of the same model and make that she used to play instead of singled out.

To the Met’s credit, the introduction in the Play It Loud catalog addresses this while pointing out that this isn’t necessarily a curatorial fault, but an unfortunate demonstration of gender dynamics in popular music. “Rock and roll was for many years a boys’ club,” writes curator Jayson Kerr Dobney and Craig J. Inciardi. “In the 1950s and 1960s, and even beyond, the women in rock and roll bands, were primarily limited to vocals, the reason they were underrepresented in these pages.”

Play It Loud did its best with what it had and flaunted blockbuster names, of course; it could’ve made a more concerted effort to shed light on this disparity by encouraging conversation about it in the exhibit itself instead of relegating it to its accompanying tome. While perusing the collection, I hoped, at the very least, to see a pair of Janis Joplin’s sunglasses, Tina Turner’s fringe or a tambourine once shaken by Stevie Nicks -- all pieces as integral to the fabric of rock and roll as Page’s fancy dragon pants, surely. Had Play It Loud included these artifacts -- perhaps alongside Page’s outfit, even -- it would’ve succeeded in doing its part to course-correct the narrative instead of accepting its flaws and perpetuating that mythology.

Ultimately, Play It Loud is an accessible embarrassment of riches for even the most casual fan, which is a good, if slightly anticlimactic, thing. It demonstrates a need for treating rock n' roll as the high art it is, and presents an opportunity for building upon its strengths for future exhibitions. As a tribute to the Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters who sing and shred on the soundtracks of our lives, Play It Loud shows our most familiar, beloved icons are closer than they appear. It offers rock’s most treasured talismans with limited context, but hey -- at least we’re given a close-up to these divine tools at all. The less-is-more approach -- to simply house these instruments, posters and garments in glass and play the same few songs on a loop -- is perfectly fine when it could, and should, have us screaming for an encore.