Phoebe Bridgers and the Smashing of Guitars
During the Feb. 6, 2021 episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” musician Phoebe Bridgers attempted to smash a Danelectro electric guitar at the end of one of her performances. Since then, she has been the focus of much discussion, from those who called the act of destruction boring, to arguments that Bridgers’ act was part of the women’s empowerment movement.
One thing is clear, destruction in art is nothing new.
The most famous artist to destroy instruments on stage is probably Pete Townshend, lead composer and guitarist for the band The Who, but the concept was not new when he and Keith Moon shocked the world by blowing up their set on live television during a performance on “The Smother Brothers.” Townshend has been obscure about where the idea came from for destroying instruments. In one set of interviews, he claimed it happened by accident when he hit a ceiling in a night club with his guitar, breaking the neck of the guitar and eliciting approval from the audience. But in another set of interviews, he said he was influenced by artist Gustav Metzger who destroyed his guitars after finishing every performance under the belief that the guitar was equally responsible for the uniqueness of every performance, so by destroying them, it guaranteed the performance could not be replicated.
Destruction of instruments during a concert was not “invented” by Pete Townshend. Jerry Lee Lewis was known for destroying his pianos on stage during concerts a decade before Townshend made his first recording. Other notable musicians who destroyed instruments include Jazz great Charles Mingus who once destroyed his stand-up bass after being heckled during a concert, and classical violinist Nam June Paik who once destroyed a violin at the end of a concert.
Destruction in art predates rock and roll music. There are numerous examples of artists who destroyed their work. Robert Rauschenberg tossed many of his art made from “found items” into the Arno River. Gerhard Richter chopped up one of his works with a razor because it didn’t meet his standards. Jean Tinguely once created a piece of art that meticulously destroyed itself during a two-hour period. Each had a different purpose for the destruction, from disappointment that the art didn’t sell (Rauschenberg) to making a statement about how everything eventually decays (Tinguely).
Bringing it back to Rock and Roll, intention also seems to play a part. Metzger’s destruction of his instruments (which may or may not have influenced Townshend) very much borrows from Tibetan monks and their Mandala sand paintings, who destroy these intricate works of art to show that nothing is permanent and that each moment is unique in itself. Jimi Hendrix, on the other hand, burned his guitar at the Monterey Pop festival to “outdo” Townshend and Moon’s explosive ending to their Who set, just an hour earlier. Paul Simonon, bassist for The Clash, famously was photographed smashing his bass guitar during a show, an act he later explained was out of frustration that the audience wasn’t allowed to stand, cheer and dance during the show. And both Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails frequently ended their shows with destroying all their instruments to express the rage and anger that they felt toward the world at the time.
Smashing instruments has become so common, that people are now questioning why it is done, as it seems to have lost its shock value. It has become a stereotype, it is argued, and one so common that there are now YouTube videos to instruct people on the best way to smash a guitar. And this may be the reason so much criticism has been leveled at Bridgers for the guitar smashing. For many, it was not a unique act, which contradicted the image of a young artist who provides unique songs and performances. Many claimed she was trying to copy Townshend or Cobain. Others called her act wasteful. But others applauded the move, arguing it was a symbolism of women’s empowerment.
In my opinion, the real question should be this: what was Bridgers’ intention in smashing the instrument? Was she frustrated? Was she conveying a sense of anger and disappointment in the state of the world? Was she trying to demonstrate empowerment for women to be as destructive as men?
And regardless of her intent, one thing is clear: many are talking about the act, and therefore talking about her. And maybe that was the point all along.