Considering proficient female musicians are still treated as something of a novelty, Women Drummers, a history of women trying to break into percussion, at first appears to be greatly needed. Angela Smith’s volume is full of the compelling stories of many women who have tried their hands at the sticks, only to face institutional sexism, but organizational flaws prevent the book from fulfilling its promise. Women Drummers has a dynamite premise and packs in tons of well-reported, resonant stories, but suffers greatly from a lack of narrative cohesion and perhaps too intense a focus.
Though Smith promises to trace a history from prehistoric times through present day, Women Drummers spends most of its time on the last century or so and focuses almost entirely on American artists in different strains of pop and rock music. The basic story for most, repeated for hundreds of musicians, becomes familiar quickly—women encountered systematic resistance in their attempts to become drummers, but some were innovative and successful nonetheless. Reading about how many women had the same struggle is occasionally inspiring, but mostly removes any semblance of narrative momentum: The book functions as an anthology of short biographies, but without an index or a structure that incentivizes the consuming the stories in order, the actual reading experience is tedious at best.
When Smith tries to shoehorn in a broader narrative (complete with hammy references to Hillary Clinton), she doesn’t get very far past surface-level, bland observations about older people not liking rock music and entrenched sexism. Sure, these are important pieces of context for understanding the difficult journey of women interested in drumming, but they’re also mostly obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter. And the almost entirely biographical focus also means that while Smith cites many articles bemoaning women as inferior drummers, it fails to interrogate the assumptions of some of the more subtle misogyny in the coverage she cites, like a profile of The Donnas claiming the band members were just “regular girls who liked iced tea, candy, and watching TV.”
Some of Smith’s stories deviate from the basic template (Patty Schemel’s heartbreaking account of forgetting she was a drummer while in the throes of heroin addiction), but none of them are truly given the amount of space they deserve. Oddly enough, the density of detail detracts from Smith’s ability to situate the specific events and players in that broader context—take the section on Janet Lee Weiss, who moves from Sleater-Kinney to Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks between sentences, without any consideration of the historical importance of either band, particularly for women in music. There are some enticing moments where Smith dives deep into the lives of drummers like “Big Mama” Thornton and Dottie Dodgion for more than a few paragraphs, but they’re too little, too late. Mirroring the still-lacking success of its subjects, Women Drummers is full of promise waiting to be actualized.