On this week’s Saturday Night Live, we were treated to the talented Phoebe Bridgers as the episode’s musical guest. Her first song was the excellent “Kyoto”, off of our #3 album of 2020, Punisher. It was an impeccable performance, but where Bridgers and her band truly blazed was when they played “I Know the End”, the riotous album closer than had Phoebe screaming and ending the performance by smashing her guitar on speaker.
And suddenly, the internet was in a flurry! Fans of Bridgers were cheering the truly rock n’ roll performance, while others screamed foul at her audacity to smash a guitar on stage in what was seen as childish posturing. David Crosby called it “pathetic” on Twitter, igniting 2021’s best feud, as Bridgers responded with “Little Bitch”.
So is guitar smashing a legendary tradition of rock n’ roll iconography, or a silly gesture that has lost its meaning and is merely a gimmick to hide behind?
If you were to ask Pete Townshend, he would likely tell you to get a fucking life. The Who guitarist was one of the first guitar-smashing artists, who saw the act almost as a piece of performance art. And at the time, it certainly would have been a shock. Rock and roll was still considered dangerous in the sixties, and adding that taste of violence and destruction to a live set would certainly have spread the mythology. The Clash would then pick it up, turning the move into a cathartic expression of fury against the establishment – a symbol of punk rock angst that would shout to the world “we aren’t going to play by your rules or fit into your box”.
Needless to say, the “guitar smash” has become synonymous with rock and roll rebellion, but perhaps to the point of becoming a cliche? These days, it seems artists have to have earned the right to perform the “smash”, or else be called out as a fraud. When Kurt Cobain did it, no one questioned his legitimacy because he had the credibility as a damaged, tumultuous punk rock icon who didn’t care about the sanctity or trappings of fame and luxury. Phoebe Bridgers has earned a reputation as a talented, thoughtful and witty songwriter with darkly biting edge, but most would not consider her a “rock star”. Does that mean she shouldn’t be allowed the same freedom to destroy her instrument on stage? The age of the traditional “rock star” is long since gone – look at the Grammy’s this year, where women dominated the categories. In the age of #MeToo and social media, what it means to be a rock star has changed, and Bridgers certainly fits the bill in my book. Between her solo work, her side projects (the great boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center), starting her own label imprint and her unique performance aesthetic, she’s cultivated her own mystique and mythology to match any rock star past or present.
So is the criticism coming from the fact that Phoebe is not a man? Hard to say. If Joan Jett were to smash a guitar, would anyone give her shit for it? Not if they know what’s good for them! Joan Jett is of course a punk rock icon – all black leather and attitude. Phoebe is a petite blonde nymph of a person who smiles sweetly, even as she could be doing so while stabbing you in the chest with a switchblade. She doesn’t “look” the part, which may also be why there’s a backlash. It’s not a fair reason, but could certainly be one.
Maybe the destruction of one’s instruments simply doesn’t have the same impact or meaning as it once did. What it means to be a rebel has changed with the times. What may have seemed cool or threatening in the sixties and seventies may just look stupid to Gen Z. And yet, it’s probably the younger Gen Z folks who are defending Phoebe, while the old guard who still worship the likes of Pete Townshend are up in arms. How dare this young folky singer try to smash a guitar like our musical heroes!
Personally, the main issue I have always had with the guitar smash is that it’s a waste of a good guitar. With tons of underfunded music programs out there, as well as plenty of young kids from low-income families who would probably love to have a guitar but can’t afford one, smashing one for whatever reason seems kind of like it’s own version of rock n’ roll excess. Sure, it’s your guitar and you can smash it if you want to, but should you? Whether you’re doing it ironically or to make your performance stand out or because you’re in the heat of the moment on stage and it just feels right, you still have to acknowledge you’re destroying a working instrument that likely cost at least a couple hundred dollars.
So here is my suggestion for the future: any artist who destroys their instrument on stage, has to also provide one to an underfunded music program somewhere. Or auction off their smashed instrument and put the funds towards a good cause. This way, no matter what asshole critic comes after you, they at least can’t swipe at your character. What do you think?
Whether you are pro or anti Phoebe Bridgers guitar smash, you can’t listen to her latest album and not see the incredible talent there. Listen to it below!