Towards a Social History of Drummer Stereotypes

The Tuesday Series of Music Research Seminars 2016

Tuesdays, Large Music Room, 80-82 Bedford Street South, 4pm


1 November

Towards a Social History of Drummer Stereotypes

Matt Brennan (University of Edinburgh)

The modern drum kit is just over a century old.  Given this short life span, it is astonishing not only how profoundly the drum kit has shaped musical culture over the last hundred years but also how little its cultural significance has been examined by music scholars. This is perhaps because, as respected percussion scholar James Blades once suggested, “opinions remain divided regarding the merits” of drumming in popular music “despite its commercial success” (Percussion Instruments and Their History, 1970, p.460). I propose it is precisely the drum kit’s populist appeal that has led to musicologists dismissing the instrument as being unworthy of serious attention. 

In the talk I propose to tell the history of the drum kit and drummers by deconstructing seven drummer stereotypes corresponding to seven punch lines of common drummer jokes. It investigates the origins of typecasting drummers as dumb, noisy, illiterate, uncreative, male, broke and replaceable. Tracing the historical roots and subsequent trajectories of such stereotypes uncovers the hidden politics of the drum kit and its impact not just on popular music, but on musical culture as a whole. 

My overarching approach is to understand the social construction of the drum kit as a technology. As Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld have noted, “the introduction of new technologies and instruments provides a way of probing and breaching the often taken for granted norms, values, and conventions of musical culture” ("Sound Studies: New Technologies and Music," 2004, pp.639-640). The drum kit is precisely such an instrument: the drum kit shaped culture, and culture shaped the drum kit. 

Matt is a Chancellor's Fellow of Music at the University of Edinburgh. He was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow prior to taking up his current post, and has served as Chair of the UK and Ireland branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM). He is the co-author (with Simon Frith, Martin Cloonan, and Emma Webster) of The History of Live Music in Britain from 1950-1967 (Ashgate, 2013), co-editor of the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education (forthcoming December 2016), and the author of a forthcoming monograph on the history of American jazz and rock journalism (Bloomsbury, February 2017). He is also a drummer and is currently writing a book on the social history of the drum kit (under contract with Oxford University Press).