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Ladies in the House 

The Rock Hall pays tribute to girls with guitars

The name of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's new exhibit may sound like a headline from 1995, but Women Who Rock's intention and scope aren't so narrow.

The Rock Hall's first major exhibit in two years (the previous one, From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, closed in February) spans 90 years of women making music. Of course, it isn't confined to just badass chicks with loud guitars. Blues, jazz, country, gospel, pop, soul, and disco are major components too.

And like most things you'll find at the Rock Hall, the exhibit — full title: Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power — is historical, intended to give perspective and draw the line between Bessie Smith and Rihanna. "There are lots of women on the radio now," says Jim Henke, the Rock Hall's VP of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. "But that wasn't always the case."

More than 70 artists show up in one capacity or another. It might be an old 78 record (Ruth Brown) or sheet music (Carole King) or bongo drums (the B-52's) or panties (Madonna, duh) or even Aretha Franklin's appointment book. Plus, there's the usual assortment of instruments (played by Wanda Jackson, Heart, and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon), handwritten lyrics (penned by Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Stevie Nicks), and clothing, like Britney Spears' nude rhinestone outfit and the thrift-store fashions Cyndi Lauper sported on the cover of her 1983 debut album She's So Unusual.

It was Lauper, in fact, who got the ball rolling on the exhibit, which will run through February 2012. She visited the Rock Hall a year ago and asked, "Where are the women?" (No surprise, then, that Lauper headlines the Rock Hall's annual It's Only Rock and Roll Spring Benefit Concert, which takes place Saturday at Public Hall. Wanda Jackson, Darlene Love, and Mavis Staples are also on the bill. So is, um, Curt Smith from Tears for Fears.)

Curator Meredith Rutledge quickly got busy. It took her eight months to pull the concept together. She estimates that about 40 percent of the items on display in the exhibit were already at the Rock Hall. The rest — including Mother Maybelle Carter's guitar and quite possibly Lady Gaga's meat dress — are being shipped in. The whole thing will take up two floors of the museum.

And even though most artists were happy to help out, Rutledge says there is a "group of women who want to be seen as artists and not labeled as women." But even those grumpy ladies — say, Patti Smith and Kim Deal — ended up contributing items. "They just wanted their opinion heard," says Rutledge.

Like any far-reaching show, Women Who Rock has already pissed off some people. Go-Go's bassist Kathy Valentine fired off a series of tweets last month about her band not being included. The Rock Hall claimed it had reached out but never heard back. The Go-Go's said that's not the case.

Apparently things are resolved now, and the Go-Go's may participate in one of the many events the Rock Hall has lined up for the next year, including educational programs, concerts, panels, and interviews built around the exhibit. The first one, a Q&A session with recent Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love, takes place Saturday afternoon at the Rock Hall's Foster Theater.

Rutledge hopes visitors get a sense of just how important women have been to music. It's not just about the dress Cher wore when she was promoting her "Half-Breed" single, though that is pretty cool, she says. "It's so huge and so skimpy at the same time."

It's one of the reasons the exhibit is divided into eight segments, which pretty much reflect the history of popular music over the past century, covering jazz, blues, and country pioneers, the early days of rock & roll, girl groups, hippies, disco queens, punks, pop tarts, and the group of gals topping the charts today.

There are also interactive elements (like listening stations and a video booth where fans can share stories), films, a ginormous chandelier made up of more than 80 album covers, and a timeline that chronicles the women's movement and its relationship to music over the years. "There really is a storyline to this exhibit," says Henke. "This isn't just a bunch of women and their clothing."

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