(UN)COMMON OBJECTS: POP MUSIC'S SACRED STUFF
Experience Music Project call EMP-LIVE for times and prices runs Sat., May 4-Sun., Oct. 20
FREUD WAS RIGHT, of course; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But not all tobacco-related materials are created equal. Take, for instance, the pipe: If a common model made from wood and metal once belonged to legendary crooner Bing Crosby, its significance as a cultural artifact can far outweigh its bland physical presence. That unextraordinary-looking pipe, along with a host of other items, has a well-guarded place in Experience Music Project's latest exhibit, "(Un)Common Objects: Pop Music's Sacred Stuff," which gives equal space to the mundane and the sublime. Certain artifacts, such as the 1968 Electro-lux vacuum played on stage by Phish's John Fishman, are inherently ordinary, while others, like Michael Jackson's sequined glove, vibrate with the power of instantly recognizable iconography.
It's a small collection, less than 50 objects in all, and the first special project curated by the newly hired Ann Powers, a hometown girl recently returned from years as a prominent music journalist for the likes of The New York Times and Village Voice. Unlike some of the more specialized temporary exhibits, though, "Sacred Stuff" covers a wide cross section of American popular music, from Elvis' (sadly not blue suede) shoes to Fred Durst's Yankees cap. Major pieces, like Madonna's now infamous Blonde Ambition tour bustier and John Lennon's granny glasses, are wall-mounted alongside more obscure items, like the model airplane used on the cover of Hsker D's Metal Circus and Tony Conrad's original battered paperback copy of The Velvet Underground, whose title inspired Lou Reed and John Cale. Certain common accessories dominate: Glasses from Bono, Bootsy Collins, and Joey Ramone, along with the original pair recovered from Buddy Holly's fatal plane crash, are grouped together, while hats are scattered across the room, ranging from Devo's red plastic stack and Felipe Rose's Village People headdress to Garth Brooks' 10- gallon bucket and Kid Rock's pimp fedora. Many of the more random selections, like the hilariously underwhelming foot-high stage model of Stonehenge from Spinal Tap's 1983 tour, get kicked up to 11 by the narration that accompanies them on the EMP's audio MEGs—in this case, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls offering an original account of the accidentally tiny prop's ill-fated creation. Some pieces are startling simply for their size: Jim Morrison's snakeskin jacket is fitted to itty-bitty Britney proportions, while it looks like even Shaq would need an extra pair of socks to fill out Gene Simmons' gargantuan KISS boots.
Inside the room, it can get hard to separate the objects from their associations; certain bits turn viewers in on themselves, triggering all kinds of highly personalized memories of the time and place the pieces recall. Some of the best stuff, though, seems to be whatever we haven't seen a million times before; without the numbing affects of overexposure to fill in all the blanks, some objects resonate more deeply with the personality and even ordinariness of the superstars who once possessed them, instead of merely serving as pop-culture mirrors. Which, in its own way, makes them the most sacred of all.