When veteran singer Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, feminist music fans raised a collective cheer. Long known to cognoscenti as a powerful and indelible voice of the girl group era — that’s Love singing backup on the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” — she had nevertheless languished outside the official annals of rock. Indeed, of 619 individuals inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 55 (less than nine percent) are women.
“Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland (through February 2012), takes aim at this erasure of women’s and girls’ contributions to rock and roll histories, shining a spotlight on more than 70 artists, from “foremothers” like Billie Holiday to contemporary standouts like Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae. Billed as the world’s first museum exhibit of its kind, “Women Who Rock” features a range of fascinating artifacts, from instruments such as Wanda Jackson’s Martin D-18 guitar to costumes — Madonna’s iconic gold bustier from her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour; a red sequined number worn by gospel-rock legend Mavis Staples — which shed light on how women have used self-display for artistic expression.
Jewish women turn up in unexpected places here. We learn that Carole King played a particularly prominent role in the 1960s girl-group era. We discover Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who owned and ran the influential independent Scepter label, which released hits by Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles. We find out about Genya Ravan, born Genyusha Zelkowitz in Lódz, Poland, in 1940, whose group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, broke barriers in the 1960s when they signed with Atlantic Records, becoming the first major-label all-female band whose members played their own instruments.
And then there are the fun “who knew?” moments. Like Bette Midler and Carly Simon, Amy Winehouse — the English soul singer noted for her big voice and bad-girl antics — never changed her name. But Pink (born Alecia Beth Moore), “Mama” Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen) and Lesley Gore (born Lesley Sue Goldstein) all did. And who knew that indie music trailblazer Ani DiFranco, a professed atheist, was born to a Jewish mother? Or that Marianne Faithful is the daughter of a half-Jewish (on the maternal side) Viennese baroness?
At its heart, “Women Who Rock” is about shaking up established narratives, whether of rock and roll as an expression of masculine freedom from domesticity or of the electric guitar as a phallic instrument. The exhibit’s inclusion of Jewish women is particularly refreshing given that the Jewish story in rock and roll music is so resoundingly masculine. So too does “Women Who Rock” suggest an alternative to male-centered accounts of “black-Jewish” relations. Rock and roll is in its roots an African American form, but Jewish women have been on stage and behind the scenes since its inception.