Play It Loud:
Rock Legends and
Lost Opportunities
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It can hardly be coincidence that the Met’s Instruments of Rock and Roll exhibit shares a title with Brad Tolinski’s latest book, Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. While there may be a few drum kits, keyboards, saxophones, and synthesizers in the mix at the Metropolitan Museum, it’s essentially an epic axe collection, including guitars picked by such diverse players as Wanda Jackson and Eddie Van Halen. With almost two hundred objects in the catalog, there’s something here for every music lover to drool over. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming.

The rooms are dark and mazelike, stuffed with so many musical treasures it’s hard to know where to start. The longer you wander, the more holy relics you stumble upon, and the clearer it becomes what the exhibition lacks: clever orchestration. It’s an ironic oversight, considering the website’s lip service to rock and roll’s emphasis and influence on style. While the website also provides a guide to the galleries, the design scheme isn’t at all obvious in the physical space, where instruments sometimes seem to be grouped at random or simply stashed wherever they’ll fit. The exception is the “Creating a Sound” gallery, which features four stage rigs and video screens where artists appear to tell the stories behind the instruments they’ve loaned to the museum. (Particularly charming is Keith Richards’s chuckle at the recollection of the acid trip responsible for the paint pen embellishments to his black Les Paul—the poster axe for the exhibit.)

Apart from the “Creating a Sound” gallery, the most effective presentation belongs not, surprisingly, to the “Creating an Image” gallery but to Jimi Hendrix’s “Love Drops” Flying V, which is mounted to align with Hendrix’s silhouette on the wall behind it, and the double-necked Gibson EDS-1275 and striking black dragon suit arranged on a mannequin in Jimmy Page’s signature pose from live performances of “Stairway to Heaven.” There’s no ignoring that artists are unevenly represented, but that’s beyond the Met’s control—some guitar gods are more munificent than others. Considering the long history of axenapping, it’s remarkable to even see so many storied guitars together, never mind the other instruments and gig posters and musical memorabilia.

Still, such a comprehensive collection draws attention to what’s not there. Sometimes the empty spaces are almost more exciting, as is the case with the “Micawber” Telecaster, conspicuously absent because it’s on the road with the Rolling Stones for the No Filter tour. Other omissions are more puzzling; it’s strange that there should be such a dearth of David Bowie, given that the exhibit runs concurrently with exhibitions on camp fashion and lunar photography. If anybody could sit comfortably at the circle of that Venn diagram, surely it would be Ziggy Stardust. But there’s no need to be greedy: Play It Loud is a feast for the hungriest rock aficionado.

After the main course, the meandering galleries terminate in a dark room where a floor-to-ceiling screen flashes through concert footage from the last hundred years of musical history. Unfortunately, this montage—like the rest of the exhibit—draws attention to its own shortcomings. The footage itself is delightfully eclectic, but cut together with little attention to narrative or continuity. Clips from the 1940s follow hard upon 21st-century jumbotrons, while that iconic moment from “Stairway to Heaven” recreated right behind you is rudely interrupted by an inexplicable smash cut to St. Vincent. It’s an odd note to end on: musical whiplash and vague disappointment that the whole exhibit isn’t better designed.

The disappointment sharpens, perhaps, for those with a point of comparison. The Met’s website boldly claims that “For the first time, a major museum exhibition examines the instruments of rock and roll,” but that isn’t entirely true. So You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970, which ran from September 2016 to February of the following year at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, may not have been devoted to musical instruments exclusively but rock and roll was so integral to the exhibition that attendees were equipped with headphones which played different audio depending on where they walked in the space. Cues were triggered not only by gallery boundaries but by individual objects, from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper suits to news coverage of the Kent State shooting. Records and Rebels not only streamlined the journey through the galleries, but seamlessly integrated audiovisual and tactile elements to offer a truly immersive experience. For anybody lucky enough to see both exhibits (pardon the humble brag), it’s painfully apparent that the Met could and should have done better.

Be that as it may, Play It Loud is still worth the pilgrimage. It’s not very often so many Holy Grails are gathered under one roof, so if you’re the sort of person who gets hot and bothered seeing a good axman’s best weapons up close, you should book your tickets before the exhibition’s over on October 1. It’s an impressive collection, and a rare opportunity to see rock and roll take its place in the ranks of high art.

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text