Song and story. Story and song. In Bob Santelli’s eyes — rather, to his ears — tunes and tales are inextricably linked.
“Some of the best songs are narrative. They’re short stories put to music,” said the USC alum and former music journalist. “They leave you entertained but with a concept to ponder.”
That’s the idea, too, behind the cutting-edge new Grammy Museum, where Santelli is executive director.
“In essence, you have stories here at the museum,” he said, “stories into the creative process, the history of the Grammys, the technology behind the music.”
The interactive museum at L.A. Live, which opened in December 2008, lets visitors listen and learn about more than 100 genres of music, trace the journey of a song through the writing and recording processes, and ponder music’s profound influence on society.
Touch-screen tables, soundproof booths, film clips and computerized maps encourage guests to “get underneath the music and get their hands dirty,” said Santelli, who also has Louis Armstrong’s lip balm, Johnny Rotten’s lyric sheets and JLo’s iconic green Versace gown on display for good measure. “The whole point of all this is to inspire you to think critically about the way music impacts you personally or impacts the culture.”
A songwriting, guitar-strumming Jersey boy, Santelli played Garden State nightclubs, but he longed for the West Coast. “In the late ’60s in Jersey, we were all surfers. It was everyone’s dream to come to California,” said the lifelong Trojan football fan. “I lived and breathed crimson and gold from the time I was a boy.”
He finally made it to USC in 1978, earning a master’s degree in American studies. His focus: the explosive intersection of history, politics and culture with popular American music.
“SC gave me the freedom to create my path. I got the idea there: Why not incorporate elements of American music when you’re teaching history?” said Santelli, who went on to teach at Monmouth and Rutgers universities. “When I taught the Depression, I taught it through the music of Woody Guthrie. When I taught World War I, I taught it through the music of George M. Cohan. And how could you teach the ’60s without using Bob Dylan?”
It was at USC, too, that he began writing his first book, Aquarius Rising, a history of rock festivals. He went on to author and edit more than a dozen books about music, including those on the blues and rock ’n’ roll drummers. He spent years as a music journalist, interviewing legends such as Bob Marley and The Boss himself.
“I would interview Springsteen for hours about his songs, then we’d go out for pizza on his motorcycle,” he recalled.
In 1993, Santelli became a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In 2000, he was named CEO of the renowned Experience Music Project in Seattle, which convinced him that the future of museums is in hands-on — or headphones-on — participation rather than passive observation of dusty old artifacts.
“He is the guru in visioning and developing music museums,” said Neil Portnow, CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who hired Santelli to helm the Grammy Museum. “He is an educator, historian and expert on music, and he is completely passionate about and dedicated to this work.”
Like the grooves of a record, Santelli has come full circle, creating ever-changing exhibitions and amassing countless behind-the-music stories in the futuristic four-story museum just a mile from USC. He still does interviews, leading live Q&A sessions in the museum’s state-of-the-art theatre with music greats such as Smokey Robinson, Dwight Yoakam and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
He still teaches, too, developing family programs and working with school tours at the museum. Next year, he’ll lead members on a tour of the Mississippi Delta to study the birth of the blues.
“Whether I’m standing in front of a classroom or writing a book or creating an exhibit,” Santelli said, “my goal is to show people how music has affected us as Americans and allow them to feel more engaged in the music than when they came.”
The Grammy Museum is located at 800 W. Olympic Blvd., just 17 blocks from the University Park campus. Starting Nov. 6, there will be free shuttle service on weekends for USC students, faculty and staff from Figueroa Street (in front of The Lab) to L.A. Live. For information, visit www.grammymuseum.org