Sex Cymbals

by Jessica Faulds

I know the “list of grrrls who rock” format is totally tired. The whole thing smacks equally of affirmative action’s cough syrupy good-for-you social values and Seventeen Magazine’s “from behind the kit, you can check out his butt” tween wisdom. It’s a tough line to walk when in some circles, gender binaries themselves are passé, while in others, even vaguely socio/political discussion is quickly drowned in the Hipster Runoff lexicon of quasi-ironic Dadaist lulz.

This list isn’t meant to summarize the best or most quintessential drummers. Female drummers aren’t so amorphous that they can be summarized in terms of five other women’s experiences. Instead, this is a list of ladies who illuminate some different aspects of the lady-drummer experience.

1. Karen Carpenter

Neither the yacht rock renaissance nor being covered by Sonic Youth can make The Carpenters cool. While acts like The Stooges and Patti Smith were kick-starting American punk, Karen and Richard Carpenter were distilling schmaltz to its purest form. But Karen Carpenter, today known for her singing voice, was also quietly messing with the status quo from behind the drum kit. It’s difficult to say why her unconventional position in such a conservative scene didn’t create more ripples. Maybe it had something to do with a relentlessly cheerful and disarming persona (see video). Karen Carpenter did fine, despite playing an instrument that often de-feminizes and draws unwanted attention. But then, detractors slide off a self-deprecating smile like grease off a griddle, and Karen herself made a point of noting that she was no “women’s libby”.

In reading interviews, it seems to me that she strained to reconcile her image as the “feminine fox” with her innate talents and desires. So is it extrapolating too much to then note that Karen died, at age 32, of heart failure resulting from anorexia? Possibly. The spotlight is a harsh place to live. I can only speculate that toeing gender lines exacerbated an existing sense of scrutiny. Cause of death aside, Karen’s untimely demise was a tragedy, especially because she had the drum chops and the voice to go on to less cloying things, and maybe, given more time, she would have.

2. Sheila E.

I was first introduced to Sheila E. by my high school band teacher, who highlighted her significance in two points: 1) she wore heels, and 2) she used them to kick cymbals. Admittedly, that’s pretty great, though far from comprehensive. As a child, Sheila benefitted from having Tito Puente for a godfather, and as a young adult played with Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock.

She is probably best known, though, as a drummer for Prince’s band, which seems to have been haven for all sorts of gender-bending androgynously sexual dance-funk mayhem. Prince melded electronics and acoustics, shoulder pads and pantsuits, machismo and falsetto. This world of contradictions seems just the place for a highly trained musician who still, at times, plays like Animal from The Muppet Show. With Prince’s support, Sheila went on to front her own band, releasing several albums, including one called Sex Cymbal. Nuf sed, right there.

3. Terri Lyne Carrington

Terri Lyne Carrington is the savant of this list. She exists in defiance of that dark shadow of a thought lurking in our collective, regressive unconscious that no woman drummer is, or perhaps can be, as good as the best male drummers. Carrington is a monster, in the jazz-nerd sense of the word. She had her first pro gig at age 10, received a scholarship to Berklee at 11, went on to play with jazz giants, and even to hold one of those surreal jobs as house-band drummer on a talk show (Arsenio Hall’s).

Admittedly, she lives almost exclusively in the jazz world, where pushing yourself to your technical musical limits is a daily occurrence. Still, she shows up. When some bro says to me, “You’re good, for a girl,” I will hereby always think of Carrington when I answer, “No, I’m not.”

4. Meg White

Why include notoriously not-amazing drummer Meg White? She pushes the beat, she’s simplistic, and do her wrists even bend? She’s also a hate-magnet and a fantasy object who probably stars in as many X-rated fanfics as music videos. “Her boobs are more in time than her drum playin,” says SoulTravellers, another genius on YouTube.

Sure, perhaps she’s not the drummer most deserving of her own custom drum head design (or skit in a Jim Jarmusch film), but pop artists are rarely the most proficient musicians. Meg White is just a more pronouncedly extreme example of an inverse relationship between technical skill and commercial triumph.

Meanwhile, the existence of the “Meg White Effect” (whereby all female drummers are compared to Meg White) is attributable to a simplistic attitude towards women musicians in general — not to White herself. Lots of girls give up when they’re in the shaky early stages of learning, for fear of perpetuating the stereotype of the shitty girl drummer. Meg White apparently never left the shaky stage, and hopefully she’s birthing a new stereotype: the girl who plays anyway.

5. Chloe from Smoosh

So this is how it’s going to be: girl-children picking up sticks and starting bands and getting write-ups in Rolling Stone. The latter step is optional, but still, with technological advances and the rise of slacker-parents with musical gear, the future looks pretty good.

Whatever you think of Smoosh, the family-band of girls who are more Hanson than Hanson brothers, there’s no denying that Chloe (the band members don’t give out their last name) is already more capable than most drummers in the indie scene. When the novelty of the act wears off, she’s still going to have a pretty hefty arsenal of skills and, more invaluably, is never going to feel self-conscious when she picks up her sticks.

Now imagine what a few more angsty teen years and shows alongside acts like Deerhoof might do. I’m hoping Chloe heads for the spazzed-out fringes of the musical world she’s currently sitting in the middle of, but if she doesn’t, I’m certain some other girl will.

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