From "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop": The Rolling Stones "Exhibitionism" Review

"Exhibitionism -- The Rolling Stones," the internationally touring show of Stones memorabilia, has just opened the U.S. leg of its itinerary in New York City. "Delivered by DHL," staged at what the press release refers to as "the iconic Industria in the West Village," with "the U.S. dates proudly sponsored by Jackson" (Jackson National Life Insurance, a leading provider of retirement products), this extravaganza represents yet another item in the Stones' extensive product line. Moreover, it is in itself both a product -- with tickets priced at $37 -- and a marketing mechanism, accompanied as it is by a store selling Stones merchandise at a wide range of price points. Thus it charts the Stones' trajectory from "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop."

I thought highly of their music back in the day, still value what I valued then, but it's hard to convince me that the Stones have released anything that mattered since -- at the most recent -- Some Girls in 1978. (Name a necessary Stones album that came later. Steel Wheels?) In effect, starting almost four decades ago they became a tribute band to themselves, with millions of fans apparently prepared to pay top dollar for tickets to their shows in order to clap along as Mick Jagger -- who has led a life of luxurious, pampered privilege for the past half-century -- announces that he can't get no satisfaction. Poor baby. A line that once resonated as working-class rebellion today sounds like the whining of an aging spoiled brat.

What, then, constitutes the target audience for this show? Geezers like me? (I'm five months younger than Mick Jagger.) Today's teens, young enough to be our grandkids, for whom the Stones are animated relics? As a septuagenarian I'm gratified to see that, like me, they're still at it, have gotten ever better at their craft, and (unlike me) can still pack stadiums. But that wouldn't incline me to spend money on a quick glimpse of "over 500 rare and personal items of the Rolling Stones, detailing their creative lives across 9 galleries spanning fashion, film, recording and art." So I don't understand this project's demographic appeal, though I gather it's doing well.

The promo describes the show as an "interactive & immersive music exhibition." That's not the impression it made on me. This show has very little to say about the music and music-making of the Rolling Stones: their songwriting, vocal and instrumental techniques, differences between live and studio performance, the evolution of their music over time. In a brief video near the outset, the present-day Stones pay tribute to the black music they appropriated for their early success, and honor some of the musicians who made it. This is prefaced by what struck me as a silly installation purportedly replicating the ratty one-bedroom flat that Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards shared in London's Edith Grove district starting in 1962, complete with heaps of unwashed dishes in the sink, soiled linens on the bed, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. Intended to suggest that they came up through hard times, presumably giving them something in common with the American musicians whose music they covered, it comes across more as a short, self-indulgent frat-boy spell in "Animal House" before their almost immediate success. By 1970 Jagger had made enough money to buy "Stargroves," a manor house and estate in Hampshire, with servants to empty the ashtrays, wash the dishes, and do the laundry.

There's a gallery full of guitars and amps, and a recreation of one of their early recording studios, both of which I think will interest no one save musicians. The simulation of a scruffy, nondescript "green room" has a certain poignancy, until one remembers that the Stones have enjoyed much more lavish backstage digs for most of the past half-century. There are handwritten set lists by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, fanzines and fan mail, the sleeves of 45s, a miniature drum kit in a suitcase that Charlie Watts used for hotel-room rehearsals, and more. But none of it illuminates in any way the creative process from which the music emerges.

On the other hand, the show excels at tracing the band's move from club rock to stadium rock, and the corollary transition from pure music-making to image-making to spectacle. Indeed, there's a case to be made -- implicit in the evidence this show provides -- that the Stones' genius for the spectacular, and not their ability to produce new and urgent music, has kept alive and thriving a group that otherwise relies for its drawing power on its repertoire of golden oldies.

Granted, it's a spectacle (and an image) that has music at its center, as one wall label insists. But the show quickly dispenses with its musical component in order to concentrate on the the trappings that have come to surround it: the creation of the Stones' instantly iconic logo (those fleshy lips and broad tongue), the images of the Stones themselves as constructed through photographs for album covers and tour posters (overseen mostly by Jagger and Watts), the garb they wore in live performance and videos (dozens of costumes on mannikins), the various films about them (excerpted in a separate screening room, with narration by Martin Scorsese, who made one of those films himself), and the ever more elaborate structures and accoutrements they subsidized for their indoor and outdoor stage sets.

The care that the Stones have taken to craft their individual and collective images becomes immediately evident in the costume galleries -- where we see them quickly abandon the matching hound's-tooth jackets in which manager Andrew Loog Oldham outfitted them in favor of silk scarves, gold lamé jackets, edwardian tunics, and other colorful, flamboyant, idiosyncratic options -- and the section devoted to album covers. Perhaps more than any other musicians of that era, the Stones not only constructed their own unique fashion "looks" (with Mick's gender-fluid wardrobe and persona surely the edgiest and most influential) but collaborated actively from the outset with photographers, cinematographers, and eventually videographers to embed their bad-boy personae in the public consciousness. Toward that end, they worked with picture-makers as diverse as Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol (who designed the notorious zipper cover for Sticky Fingers) and photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank, whose gritty feature-length film Cocksucker Blues they would end up censoring. 

More than any band before them, and arguably better than any band since, the Stones understood and profited from carefully calculated strategies of branding. Surely it's no accident that Jagger studied business as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, and, though he never got his degree, became one of its most successful alumni, having managed the Stones himself since 1971. In that regard, the show has much to teach contemporary artists in any medium, along with professionals and aspirants in arts management, product design, marketing, rights licensing, and related fields. I see those as making up the show's true constituency; were I overseeing this project, I'd concentrate some of my outreach there.

As for the show being "interactive & immersive": Not really, and I consider that an opportunity missed, given that the Stones have ready access to the cutting edge of digital tech. Some tablets and headphones available outside the facsimile studio give you glimpses of the recording process. And the last space in the show offers an exuberant 3-D video of the Stones performing "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" at London's Hyde Park in July 2013.

Otherwise, the visitor just gets to look at artifacts in cases. There are way more artifacts, not to mention more interactivity and immersion, at the American Museum of Natural History. The tickets are cheaper (indeed, you can pay what you wish), you don't have to show up at a set time, and you can stay all day.

The show will run Nov. 12 - Mar. 12 at Industria, 775 Washington Street, New York City. You can reserve tickets online at the "Exhibitionism" website,

A.D. Coleman, Posted 11/22/2016

© Copyright 2016 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,

Photograph © A.D. Coleman 2016