The timeline in the Women Who Rock exhibition as it approaches the millennium signals a huge rise in pop music. The section of the exhibition called Causing a Commotion: Madonna + The Pop Invasion follows the emerging dominance of pop music. One of the main artists showcased is Madonna, who took control of her image and career beginning with the release of her self-titled debut album in 1983. Her career took off as she let the world know that she was a powerful force: she produced numerous hit songs that pushed the lyrical boundaries of popular music and choreographed controversial performances for video and stage. Her famous Gaultier cone bra dress, worn during her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour, is featured in the exhibition. Due to its allusions to sexuality and Catholicism, “Blonde Ambition” was forbidden from playing in Italy by Pope John Paul II.
Many of the women showcased here skillfully manipulated taboos just as Madonna did; they also followed her business-savvy lead in creating expansive careers beyond the music industry. In addition to her numerous hit songs, Madonna is an award winning actress, children’s book author, fashion designer, film director, and producer.
Another iconic pop star featured in the exhibition is Cyndi Lauper. Her first album, She’s So Unusual, was the first debut release by a woman to feature four Top 5 singles. Lauper’s outfit from the cover of the album is on view in the exhibition: a red bustier top and peasant skirt adorned with silver chains, alongside white kitten-heels featuring Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on the soles. Like Madonna, Lauper stretched her talents into film and television. While Janet Jackson’s career began on television in the late ’70s, she made her musical breakthrough in 1986 with Control, asserting her social and sexual independence. Jackson’s artifacts in Women Who Rock include the lyrics for her hit “Rhythm Nation,” scribbled across a faded piece of paper, accompanied by her cropped black jacket from the video for the same song.
Like Jackson, Britney Spears began her career in acting, working on the Mickey Mouse Club in the early ’90s at the age of eight. In 1999, she broke into music with her first album . . . Baby One More Time, which was the first of four of her albums to debut at number one. Spears’s shiny, sheer costume from the 2000 MTV Music Awards, when she sang the title track from Oops!… I Did It Again, representing one of the many taboos she has tested. While Spears faced a period of personal breakdown, she re-emerged in 2009 on the “Circus” tour, made a television appearance on Glee, and currently sits as a judge on the X Factor. Her wild and varied career demonstrates what pop musicians do today and the breadth of their cultural influence.
—Brittany Beyer is the external relations Intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.