Musical Instrument Museum and ASU recognize 'Women Who Rock'

WomenWho Rock A view of an exhibit is pictured at the Musical Instrument Museum. ASU and the museum are working to recognize "Women Who Rock," a new exhibit. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Throughout history, the role women have played in the evolution of music has been one that is often overlooked. The Musical Instrument Museum and ASU are working to change that by focusing on the impact of female artists on popular music.

Originally displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, “Women Who Rock” is a one-of-a-kind exhibition that showcases instruments, costumes and memorabilia of more than 70 groundbreaking female artists. The traveling exhibition is currently in Phoenix until April of next year. Joining the movement, ASU is offering a class titled “Women Who Rock” next spring through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts that will educate students on the essentiality of female artists in popular music.


Stimulating on all levels, the exhibit provides guests with headphones that feed off of televisions, supplementing the learning experience by broadcasting biographical information on artists like Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin. Inspirational quotes from the featured artists are boldly written on the exhibition’s Barbie-pink walls, adding to the experience.


“Some of these artists are best-sellers. Some of them are in here because they did things that no one had done before them," MIM Curator Dr. Cullen Strawn said. "Others are in here because of their innovations, not just in music sound, but in fashion and all of the elements that come together to create popular music."

Some noteworthy contemporary artists are Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga.


“Women Who Rock” includes an assortment of artifacts that highlight memorable moments in pop culture. Among them are Britney Spears’s controversial “Oops!...I Did It Again” outfit the star stripped down to during her performance at the 2000 VMAs, as well as Lady Gaga’s 2010 VMA dress that was made out of raw Argentinian beef. The dress symbolized social change, and she explained to Access Hollywood the gravity of its inclusion in the exhibition: “That meat dress represents part of, a very small, small part of the movement toward equality, and for it to be honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the sh-t.”


With eight eras covering nearly a century of music, the social change in terms of artistry for females is evident. Starting in the 1920s and going through today, the exhibit focuses mainly on changes in U.S. music.

“One of the goals of the exhibition was to show change over a long period of time. ... There’s been a whole lot of musical change, but also changes in our society,” Dr. Strawn said.


A main theme is women taking increased control over the aspects of their careers.

"Not just being a singer or an instrumentalist, but also being a songwriter and eventually becoming label owners, producers, participating more in the business aspects of music which for a long time were male-dominated,” Dr. Strawn said.

Taylor Swift’s handwritten lyrics to her song “Change” are a representation of the unshackling of chains that women fought for over the years to reach musical liberty.


The public response to the exhibition has been overwhelmingly encouraging as society steers to celebrate women.

“People are excited about it," Dr. Strawn said. "They appreciate all of the visual contrasts and the outfits. They love seeing the musical instruments that in some cases they’ve heard on familiar albums or seen in media appearances, concerts and tours."


MIM, the only global musical instrument museum in the world, attracts visitors from all over the country. Brian and Kate Sladek from Chicago visited the museum during their babymoon to Phoenix. The couple was especially intrigued by the exhibit of Meg White from the White Stripes, which includes her infamous peppermint-print drums. They also enjoyed learning about the creative process of songwriting.

“I like seeing the genesis of songs, because you don’t think about how they’re written,” Brian said.

Kate Sladek said she thought is was interesting to see who influenced whom.


Mike Shellans, a senior lecturer at ASU, recognizes the same interest in students.

Over the years, I've surveyed my students in various classes to see what additional types of courses they would like to see offered, and women in rock and pop music was one of the frequent topics mentioned,” Shellans said.

In what he calls a labor of love, Shellans created a new online class, “Women Who Rock,” that will be offered this spring. The class is split into four sections, beginning with early blues singers and chronologically progressing to present-day artists.


Shellans currently teaches the popular Beatles and Elvis online courses that account for over 4,000 enrolled students annually. With such a positive response for male artists, Shellans saw the opportunity to make the courses more inclusive by adding women to the mix.

“I was amazed when I started my research at how often women in popular music were so lightly touched upon in texts and scholarly discussions," Shellans said. "Along the way, I've learned a tremendous amount about a huge variety of female performers."


The female performers who students will learn about in the trailblazing class include: Billie Holiday, Cher, Donna Summer, Madonna, Joan Jett, Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Adele. Shellans will also incorporate musical rarities and B-sides for students to enjoy.

With over 90 female artists discussed, the course provides a comprehensive analysis of popular music history.


The Musical Instrument Museum’s exhibition along with Shellans’ class recognize the undeniable power women had, and continue to have, over the music industry. These nonconventional celebrations of female artists illustrate overdue appreciation for the women responsible for innovations in the world of music, pop culture and society.


Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @MrsMathers94

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