Is rock music truly an art? This question has never met with a straightforward answer, either by the musicians themselves or the many who venerate them, and it hangs over the massive bulk of the Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame here in Seattle. The EMP is a 140,000-square-foot campus, designed in lurid hues of sheet metal. With all its roller-coaster contortions and polished lumps, it certainly commands the attention. Many seemingly well-adjusted and intelligent people have convinced themselves that the building itself is an art form, and a strangely beautiful one at that. It is not beautiful, though neither is it ugly. It is merely absurd. It is a 60’s rock-music confection, straight out of the type of psychedelic poster that once would have extolled Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix, whose detritus is much in evidence inside.
The earliest exhibitions on view offer the strongest argument for a distinct rock-music art, partly because the hand-written lyrics of the likes of Hendrix, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan make clear how these academically modest young men so thrillingly exploited the turbulent Western youth culture produced by affluence and the Vietnam War. It is affecting to see the little scraps of schoolbook paper with their blotted slogans that, in the case of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” went on to be numbered among the rallying cries of the revolution. You marvel again at how unexceptional were many of modern rock music’s progenitors, and how disproportionately vast was their influence. The early frailty of the whole enterprise is evoked through newsreel scenes, such as that of Dylan performing in November 1961 at Carnegie Hall. In the days before a shouted “Howya doing, New York?” sufficed, he’s heard actually conversing with the audience members, because there were so few of them.
In the course of the next ten years rock began to take itself very seriously, and a whole industry sprang up to package it. To pass further into the EMP is to enter a world that is seemingly devoted as much to the marvels of science and technology as to pure music. There are giant video screens, banks of flashing lights, and hydraulic platforms that go up and down—“the tools of today’s rock ’n’ roll performance,” a sign informs us. Even as simulated on film, many of these concerts are like looking through the pinhole of a scenic souvenir charm at some rhinestone-clad Las Vegas revue, with the lead singer in the role of a combined stripper and giant aerobics-class instructor, urging us all to clap along to the painfully overamplified beat.
With the postmodern period, however, the threads of the EMP begin to unravel. At the very heart of the building is a shrine devoted to the dismal season of grunge and its many latter-day imitators. The names on the concert posters loom like hieroglyphics on the wall of a tomb: Blood Circus, Cat Butt, The Germs. Amid this roll call of comic-opera chancers, only the late Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana, have any serious claim to durability, let alone permanence—and even that owes as much to Cobain’s suicide at the age of 27 as to the beauty or power of his artistic sensibility. Judging by the rapt awe with which he’s depicted, it appears that both the EMP curators and much of their audience now take to this violent, self-loathing heroin addict in a way few would have suspected during his lifetime.
From then on the museum, much like the craft it celebrates, goes rapidly downhill. “Highlights” include an amorphous sculpture composed of smashed musical instruments and computers, insofar as there is any longer a difference between the two; a softcore porn video that informs us it somehow “empowers” the women therein; and several rooms emblazoned with the promise of “Educational Resources and Curriculum Connections,” which largely consist of rows of PCs playing homicidally violent video games. This is a reflection of the antisocial nature of most modern youth culture and, for that matter, of modern music, which has largely disowned its role as an emotional pick-me-up for a weary public, and offers only a relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves.
As the visitor finally leaves the EMP’s last sheer-walled room, unrelieved by windows and hideously lit by several dozen flashing neon tubes, it’s almost a physical relief to be back outside in the rain. As a rule, modern museums are generally grim and forbidding places that look as if they were built to prove the proposition that “form follows function”; the function here is apparently to browbeat us into believing that rock music as it has developed over 50 years has some solemn, quasireligious appeal—its relics and vestments are simply too significant to be overlooked. Taking a final glance at the “Sky Church”—a display of agitated white blobs projected onto the ceiling, accompanied by the unearthly thud of a sound akin to that of several thousand anvils being irregularly struck by hammers—I left unconvinced by any claim to have been in the presence of art. It may well be entertainment or even, for some, a lifestyle, but that’s not quite the same thing as finding a universal truth and sharing it with people.