Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Worshipping at the Culture Altar

Last Monday I went to the EMP. That stands for the Experience Music Project, and is this fantastic museum-ish thing right in the shadow of the Space Needle, a gathering ground for music and science fiction and pop culture. Basically, it's a building that was created for me. It's a haven, housing my every interest and love and desire. I think I spent three hours there and was loathe to leave.

Right now they have two music exhibits. One traces the career of Jimi Hendrix, and made me weak in the knees. The other was entitled "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," and was a more incredible and intimate portrait of the Gods of Grunge than I could even imagine. That exhibit left me speechless, and has even invaded my subconscious. Then there was the Guitar Gallery, tracing the development of that sacred instrument from its inception and blues roots through the invention of the electric and amplified rock and fuzz, which made me stand silently, staring, with tears in my eyes.

The entrance to the EMP.

Classic white Fender Strat, used by Hendrix at Woodstock.

Set piece from Nirvana's In Utero tour.

One of Kurt Cobain's guitars.

But the single greatest thing about the EMP was their focus on the collection of oral histories. That aspect fascinated me. I feel really strongly about this, so I'm going to say it again, with emphasis. The oral histories fascinated me. The sheer spectrum of interviews they had collected was vast--they had an entire gallery called "Sound and Vision" that was filled with headphones and computers and mp3 players with files from musicians and actors and producers and authors, all sharing their experiences. These snippets of history were pure inspiration to my soul (especially the few moments where Ray Bradbury discussed the writing process. That alone was worth it). There is something different, something magical about hearing something from the source. This desire to hear stories is what first drew me to journalism in my youth, and continues to make me an enthralled observer of life. So having all those interviews at my fingertips was a rather gleeful experience.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was something I liked even more than interviews with the established and famous. In "Sound and Vision," they had a room where visitors could tape a short segment where they talked about basically anything: how you discovered a band you love, a book that changed how you think, a favorite movie, etc. Outside the room, there was a small screen set up where you could watch the interviews. This man-on-the-street collection even extended to the Nirvana exhibit, where they had a special room with an adjacent booth where fans could record their stories about how they connected with Nirvana.

I could have listened to those casual interviews for days. In fact, I am completely, 100% planning on going back and spending hours in those rooms alone. There's something about hearing other people's stories. You know, people that aren't famous or accomplished in any other way. They have more to prove, are more eager to please, and their desperation to leave their mark makes those snippets far more entertaining. In this world, everyone, and I include myself in this statement (I have a blog, don't I?) is looking to make their mark on the world. Looking for their claim to fame, as it were. And those brief interviews, where people were laying their passions and drives and obsessions on the line, left me completely transfixed. Yes, there was no reason I should listen to these people, but they were there. Telling stories. Sharing small pieces of their identity with an anonymous public.

They were me. I saw myself in them, identifying with their strange, almost compulsive need to share moments that, however trivial they seemed, were nonetheless important to the teller. I chuckled as they laughed, agreed when they credited music or movies with shaping their life. Stories. Connections. A method of bonding despite having no solid foundation, except what existed through mutual appreciation. That's what the EMP was doing--in some colossal scheme, they were creating peace through the collection of oral histories. And that is a cause I can completely support.

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