She's EMP, She's EMP
She Might Be Dead

Randy Woods

Lump sat alone in a boggy marsh

Totally motionless except for her heart

Mud flowed up in Lump's pajamas

She totally confused all the passing piranhas

-- "Lump," The Presidents of the United States of America, Seattle, 1995

These rather silly rock 'n' roll lyrics, springing forth from one of the silliest rock bands to come out of the so-called "Seattle grunge" explosion of the 1990s, kept running through my mind when I visited Seattle's latest monument to its own new-found affluence: Something called the Experience Music Project, or "EMP," for short. A silly, pointless, but infectious, song for an equally silly, pointless, yet strangely compelling new building that has metastasized next to the city's landmark symbol of modernity, the Space Needle.

EMP has been called many names since its grand opening in July: The Lump. The Blob. The Collapsed Lung. The Abortion. One thing EMP has not been called is Boring. Designed by the iconoclastic architect-of-the-moment Frank O. Gehry, the EMP is a building like no other in Seattle, or even North America.

Seemingly oozing across the crowded public space upon which it is constructed, the outlines of the EMP contain almost no right angles, or even straight lines. In some places, the metal skin -- brightly colored in gold, silver, purple, light blue and fire-engine red hues -- rolls like the folds of a silken gown. In other places, the metal appears ripped apart by a devastating, internal explosion. Atop it all, metal tubes and sheets of blue-green glass twist and cascade along the roof, spilling over the edge. All of the structure seems in motion or about to slide onto the sidewalk, which is paved directly up to the building's billowing skin. At first glance, it seems more beast than building.

So, what the heck is it?

This "project" began as the brainchild of Seattle-area man-child Paul Allen, co-founder of the Microsoft empire. A lifelong Jimi Hendrix fan, Allen has invested huge sums of his silicon-based wealth in collecting as much Jimi-stuff as he could find, resulting, today, in the world's largest single memorabilia collection of the highly worshiped guitarist. The only thing he was missing was a nice, public display case to show off his obsession. Since Hendrix was born and raised in the Seattle area, Allen decided a Seattle-based Jimi Hendrix museum would do the trick, (even though Jimi reportedly hated his soggy old neighborhood and could not wait to leave it behind).

Allen may own nearly every last tangible scrap of Hendrix's legacy, but he quickly learned that he did not hold sway over the man's actual estate. After many years of dispute with Allen, Hendrix's relatives successfully barred the multibillionaire from using the Hendrix name. Some people would have stopped pushing the issue out of deference to the family's wishes, but Allen was undaunted.

Suddenly bereft of a central theme, Allen decided to expand the concept of the museum and embrace a wider spectrum of popular music, including blues, gospel, soul and country -- the combination of which later became rock 'n' roll and pop music. With renewed vigor, Allen began collecting a mountain of rock-themed tchotchkies, the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture. Since the country had already swooned over the wildly popular "Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame" in Cleveland, which essentially did the same thing, Allen resorted to the latest technological fad -- interactive video and audio -- to bring people in.

The result is a $240 million disjointed mess that has undergone so many thematic changes and makeovers that no one can really find a good reason for why it was built. Is it a museum? Is it a theme park? Is it art? Even the name, "Experience Music Project," has the bland, soulless imprint of an image consultant committee. (Are you reading this, Alan Parsons?) For the steep price of $20 per person, the EMP offers you the same chronicle of the rise of rock music and its many tangents -- punk, metal, new wave, disco, glitter, folk, hip-hop, etc. -- that you can find in any of the dozens of well-written rock history books. EMP, however, goes one disturbing step further, letting you act out your alleged fantasies of being up on stage. They give you, the untrained musician, access to real instruments, a real sound studio and a virtual reality experience of jamming along with famous rock legends.


Gehry's skin deep beauty

The element of the EMP that often elicits the strongest negative response from many Seattlites -- the bizarre physical presence of the museum -- is probably its strongest feature, although it is far from a masterpiece, or even a true success.

The 140,000-square-foot museum is covered in 21,000 stainless steel and aluminum shingles, each individually sized, shaped and cut according to unique dimensions calculated by a three-dimensional computer imaging program used to develop the precise contours of fighter planes. In fact, the EMP has been described as the first building of its size to be entirely conceived and designed without the use of paper -- a techno-geek factoid that surely must have been one of Allen's deciding factors in green-lighting Gehry's design.

The bold, sculptural lines of Gehry's architectural style work well with the raucous, nearly-out-of-control sound of rock music. The churning, chaotic nature of the EMP's candy-colored shell is off-putting at first, but then so are over-amplified and over-repeated rock chords. After the initial shock, the power and energy of Gehry's design, like rock music itself, pulls you in and wraps itself around you, sometimes in a literal sense.

In one of Gehry's most ingenious uses of his limited footprint, a short stretch of Seattle's famous, but nearly useless, two-stop monorail -- a 1962 World's Fair relic that linked the old fairgrounds and the Space Needle with the downtown area -- is actually consumed by one corner of the building as it curves in towards it's home base. The jagged edges surrounding the short tunnel make every monorail departure seem like an eruption from within the EMP beast.

Entering the museum on foot, visitors are confronted by an inner shell of more confounding, shapes -- this time, mostly in hues of yellow and gray -- that houses the actual exhibits. While most of the ground level is wrapped in clean, brushed aluminum and smooth wood accents, the jagged outline of the outer shell is always apparent overhead. The crazily curved I-beams, sprayed-on insulation and other structural elements are left out in the open, much like the inside of the Statue of Liberty. The utilitarian look gives the interior spaces a (dare I say it) "grungy" feel appropriate for the run-down, decaying clubs from which much of rock music originated.

Where the design fails, however, is in its lack of cohesiveness. Unlike the graceful unity and flow of Gehry's other masterworks, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the beautiful, undulating metal forms that drape over and tear across the skin of the EMP are divided into six very distinct modules, housing different exhibits within. Not only does each module have a different pattern of folds and ripples, they each have a different color, which, at nearly every angle, is jarring to the eye. Just as the viewer is taken in by the roils of the cool, powder blue module, the eye slams into a wall of pinkish-purple mirrors, which itself is thrust up against a mass of silver.

Perhaps much of this disorganization comes from the fact that Gehry admitted he was not a fan of rock music; his forms, he said, are more influenced by classical music than pop. According to the EMP web site, Gehry looked for inspiration for his design mostly through physical means, rather than through an interpretation of the actual music. In an effort to "understand rock 'n' roll," he purchased several guitars and cut them into random chunks to use as models for the six different sections the project called for. Noting the gaudy colors often used in electric guitars, Gehry kept these vivid hues as a motif in his final design. The result is an overt, not-entirely-melted melting pot of contrasting superficial images rather than a subtle distillation of what it's like to be a 15-year-old strumming out your first power chord on your new Stratocaster.

Herein lies the central problem with creating a building dedicated to the spirit of rock 'n' roll -- rock music is inherently against all forms of rigid structure. Rock is about tearing things down, not building them up. It's about living for the moment, not preserving the past. Gehry, with his whimsical abstractions, is arguably the architect most suited to attempt to capture this relentless motion, but perhaps it is beyond even his estimable grasp. Basically, rock music doesn't age well, and I think the same may be said about Gehry's multi-colored exercise in whimsy some day. Like a song from Journey or Styx, EMP's look may be phenomenally popular in its day, but will probably look pretty foolish in ten years.


Tune in, turn on & shut up!

The insides of the EMP, however, have much more basic aesthetic problems. The most outwardly Hendrix-inspired element of the building's interior is the so-called "Sky Church," named after a utopian concept envisioned by Hendrix: "A place where all kinds of people, regardless of age, background or interests, could come together to appreciate music," according to the EMP web site. Despite these high aspirations, the finished product, which anchors the rest of the loosely connected EMP rooms (referred to, pretentiously, as "icons" in the EMP literature) is rather underwhelming, and somewhat disorienting.

Rising 85 feet tall, the Sky Church seems much taller than it is wide, giving viewers a vague sense of vertigo as they stare up at the cavernous vertical space while ethereal New Age music (a rather odd choice?) swirls all around them. One wall is almost entirely consumed by an enormous video screen, displaying laser-light graphics and splashing, spinning computer-generated images that could easily have been created in the days of the movie "Tron." The only interesting detail in the room was a series of umbrella-like disks hanging from the ceiling that gradually rose and fell in slow-motion, like cloth-covered pistons.

The most aggravating aspect of the Sky Church's layout is the lackluster entrance. While most large-scale places of worship force visitors to enter along the longest axis to emphasize the height and deepen the perspective of their grand halls, the EMP merely tears a gash in the side of its supposedly reverential chamber and allows visitors to wander in through a line of utilitarian turnstiles that could be found on any average subway platform. The designers completely waste the chance to fill visitors with the awe that is promised by such a huge space by letting them just saunter in sideways, providing them with an oblique, foreshortened view of the video screen.

Among the many other high-tech public attractions offered within, Allen's two most ambitious "icons" are the "On Stage" and "Sound Lab" sections, which, respectively, give visitors a chance to reproduce the feeling of performing in front of an adoring "virtual" audience, and then to record this fake performance to embarrass future generations for decades to come.

The Sound Lab supplies dozens of electric guitars, keyboards, drums and mixing boards -- held in space by their own clear, Lucite stands -- upon which people can twang, plink and bang, hopefully in a semblance of tonality. In the nearby On Stage area, people can take turns on a virtual stage to record their singing voices or to see themselves up on stage with pre-recorded images of rock stars and cheering fans. As expected, most of these sections are dominated by enthusiastic, pre-pubescent kids who have yet to discover the concept of shame.

Tying all theses activities together is a little toy given to all visitors that only a "Star Trek" nerd could adore -- your own personal musical history "tri-coder." The ungainly contraption, worn over shoulder and across your chest, bandolier-style, is basically a fully functional hard drive (weighing more than a few pounds, I might add). While the bulk of the computer rests on your hip, you can download every piece of information on the drive via a hand-held device that resembled a remote control unit. Just point the unit at any of the hundreds of coded information icons scattered throughout the exhibits, and viola! The entire text of the museum is at your fingertips on a tiny video screen. But wait! There's more! Attached to the shoulder belt is a set of small headphones so you can listen to sound-bites about each A-list musician recorded by various other B- and C-list musicians.

Though some other visitors -- mostly the kids -- seemed to respond favorably to the overgrown fanny packs, most, like myself, just seemed bewildered. Is this where cutting-edge technology is headed? Exchanging informative brochures for heavy, shoulder-punishing computers, which only seemed to work about half of the time? As I wandered through the jam-packed Hendrix shrine, I was struck by the intense overload of information. There were pre-recorded words and music piped in from overhead speakers; outfits and instruments and posters on the walls; dense paragraphs on the wall to explain what each object was; a slightly different version of the printed paragraphs displayed on the hand-held units; and still another version of all the paragraphs put together in the audio sound-bites coming through the headphones. Though the place was filled to capacity, no one said a word to each other as each one tried to figure out how to use the little gizmos. All the words and information came buzzing in and out of my head, none of it registering in long-term memory. I lamented how the technology encouraged people to get lost in their own personal video screens and forego interaction with their friends and companions. It was a depressing commentary on a Microsoft visionary's dreams of the future: Hundreds of people online and receiving information, yet communicating with no one.

Surely the nadir of my visit to the EMP had to be the virtually incomprehensible "multimedia experience" known as the "Artist's Journey." In this section, visitors are subjected to a Disney-esque virtual-reality ride, supposedly through the mind of an artist pursuing his or her craft. When I visited in July, the genre of music being explored was one of the most fun, colorful and engaging I could think of: funk. Intrigued by the sheer audacity of trying to turn this artistic vision into a thrill ride, I stepped into the line for "Funk Blast," not fully prepared for the horror that awaited me.

"Funk Blast" started out poorly, with a video presentation of an announcer dressed much like Venus Flytrap from "WKRP," only with angel's wings on his back, who, as an "Angel of Funk," tried to explain the music in layman's terms. Then it improved somewhat as the video turned to scenes of funk pioneers like Maceo Parker, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and various other musicians from the P-Funk All-Stars and the James Brown Band getting together for a recording session. After these somewhat absorbing interviews, all semblance of information and entertainment began to vanish.

An adolescent tour guide suddenly appeared after the video and herded our group of about 30 people into a square chamber with video screens on all four walls. As we filed in around the perimeter of the room, we gazed upon an enormous, rainbow-colored fiberglass shoe that was used as a prop in one of George Clinton's "psychefunkedelic" stage shows from the early 1970s. Soon we were bombarded from all sides with another video presentation showing how the "Angel of Funk" was going to show two fictional teenagers in a fictional rock band what it's really like to "feel the funk." Egads! It was going to be a dramatic interpretation! I looked for an escape, but the exits to the room looked sealed.

Despite the ardent protestations of the teenagers that they already "had the funk," the Angel transported them, in a flurry of blinding special effects that would make Walt Disney's frozen corpse spin like a top, to what apparently was "Funkytown." The residents of this Funkytown sound stage did, indeed, exhibit funky behavior, as they danced funkily, did funky jigs and did the funky splits behind a funky James Brown impersonator, while zoot-suited men in dark glasses and fedoras swayed on fake fire escapes, playing funky trumpets and saxophones like no tomorrow. I felt like I had been transported to a Carnival Cruise "Vegas-style" revue.

Hoping that the torture was over, I finally opened my eyes as we were led into yet another chamber filled with sturdy plastic seats, complete with roller-coaster-like roll bars that fit over our heads. With my knees slammed up against the seat in front of me, the "ride" began, as the entire platform of seats rose up and moved hydraulically toward another video screen. Again, there was the Angel and the two teenagers. Again, there was no escape. Now the Angel told the teenagers that they, indeed, were supplied with a fresh supply of funk and that they were ready to go on stage. In a swirl of more special effects, our funky heroes were sucked into some kind of time tunnel that (surprise!) twisted and corkscrewed around violently. (Hey, if you have all this flight simulator technology, you might as well use it.) I felt a breeze on my face and realized that it was coming from two air jets on the back of the seat in front of me. These were to further reinforce the illusion of motion, but they only succeeded in drying out my eyeballs. Soon we were "virtually" up there on stage with the teenagers, jamming with George Clinton and James Brown, while the platform moved around in synch with the music, as if we were dancing.

As the platform jerked back and forth, I stared ahead slack-jawed, taking stock of the ghastly situation I was in. Here we were, strapped in with total strangers, immobilized with harnesses, compelled to stare straight ahead like some "Clockwork Orange" torture, involuntarily yanked around in all directions and forced to watch other people dance -- all while being told by our Angel of Funk that funk music was a "feeling," that we should let loose and feel the power and freedom of the music. I was filled with revulsion and anger as I struggled against my restraints. Basically what they were telling us to do was move our bodies -- to just dance, for crying out loud! But, no, this was the EMP, where virtual experiences trump all actual ones. This ride does the dancing for you! It was almost as if Paul Allen were saying: "Why try to 'get down' on your own when you can have a computer show you what it's like to be in tune with the music, what it's like to be uninhibited, what it's like to be cool?"

Now, I'm usually not one to play the race card, but since funk music is so heavily infused with African-American culture, are we to conclude that this is Allen's attempt to show the overwhelmingly Caucasian population of Seattle what he thinks black people must feel when they listen to music? It's a strong accusation, but that is the image I kept running through my aching head as I finally exited "Funk Blast." Here was a rich white man, using images of rich black men to show other middle-income white people what it's like to be a poor black person expressing joy and individuality in a society controlled by rich white men -- the layers of irony are staggering.

The Funk Mothership mercifully, will be retired from the "Artist's Journey" exhibit and replaced by a new musical genre sometime this fall, and will change over regularly about three times a year, the museum says. But I shudder to think what other types of wonderful music will be ruined by this tawdry, carnival-like "attraction."


Share the pathetic fantasy

Through "virtual entertainment" like this, the true, pathetic inspiration of the entire Experience Music Project becomes obvious. As one gazes upon the array of semi-personal sound booths and hands-on guitar displays, one can easily imagine a young, awkward Paul Allen playing air guitar alone in his room, listening to "Foxy Lady" on the head phones on a Saturday night. By going through these virtual motions, EMP visitors are like bit players in Allen's banal teenage fantasies made almost-real courtesy of inflated Microsoft stock.

It's true that Allen has some experience with playing an actual guitar and, in recent years, has formed a rock band called Grown Men, which has managed to release a CD on his own (go figure!). But the sobering fact is that Allen, like so many other arrested-adolescent American males, just does not have the talent or ambition to make it as a real musician. Most of us come to terms with this awful truth at a relatively young age and move on to other endeavors. The middle-aged Allen, however, has come to find that his vast riches can fulfill these long suppressed desires in the "virtual" realm.

My friend Angela, a life-long Puget Sound-area resident and former radio D.J., was upset by EMP more as a matter or principle than a matter of aesthetics. The museum, she said, is yet another blatant attempt by wealthy yuppie wanna-bes to acquire authentic, home-grown rock culture and sell it back to us as a corporate commodity. Walking past a long curve of plexiglass holding various pieces of Northwest-area grunge-rock detritus -- Mudhoney's bass drum covering, one of Soundgarden's drumsticks, a few dozen early Nirvana posters -- she said she felt anger welling up inside her.

"These are all personal mementos, not museum pieces," Angela said. "They should belong to someone who actually saw the bands live -- someone who got thrown up on at a club, someone who earned them. That's their rightful place. Not behind glass where they can never be touched by anyone again."

In essence, the EMP is a vast compromise, and thus it is doomed to cause disappointment from all the demographics it is trying to impress. Had it remained a living memorial to Hendrix's genius, it would make a lot more sense. Had it been conceived by the city or by a legitimate cultural organization, rather than a terminally unhip megalomaniac, it may be thought of as a well-intentioned -- though quirky -- tourist attraction and a matter of civic pride. Had the theme of the museum resonated more strongly with the extremely talented architect, the final vision might have had more clarity.

But none of these things happened during the EMP's evolution. Instead, it tried to be all things to all people. The result is a confusing amorphous blob.

"I wish I could have taken my $20 and gone down to Beale Street" -- the Mecca of blues artists in downtown Memphis -- "and given it to some old street musician," Angela said, wistfully. "I would just ask him, 'Could you please tell me what you know about music?' and I would've learned everything I ever needed to know about rock 'n' roll."

With no concrete idea on which to anchor itself, EMP is really a misguided monument to its creator, Paul Allen -- the quintessential computer geek who could never fit in with society, so he tried to buy it instead.

And that is a sad monument, indeed.



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