Phoebe Bridgers concluded her Saturday Night Live performance on February 6th by attempting to smash her guitar onstage — a fitting finale for an apocalyptically intense folk-rock song called “I Know the End.” There was Bridgers doing her very own London Calling, attempting to smash her Danelectro Dano ’56 baritone guitar to bits as fog surrounded her feet and the skeleton pearls on her dress chaotically swayed back and forth. She proved that destroying a guitar is a lot harder than it looks, as she continuously banged the instrument on an amplifier before tossing it to the ground largely intact. It was dramatic, unexpected, and awesome. So, naturally, the Internet got angry.
“Why did this woman, Phoebe Bridgers, destroy her guitar on SNL?” read the tweet that ignited a heated discussion across Twitter over the weekend. “I mean, I didn’t care much for the song either, but that seemed extra.” Many people quickly came to Bridgers’ defense, including Jason Isbell, who pointed out that the guitar was a relatively cheap model worth around $85. (“I told Danelectro I was going to do it,” the singer replied to Isbell. “And they wished me luck and told me they’re hard to break.”)
The online furor was obviously overblown — especially considering that it was set off by a female musician following the example of the many, many men who have smashed their instruments before her. Pete Townshend did it by accident in the early Sixties and then made it his trademark, even giving Rolling Stone a step-by-step tutorial on how to destroy a guitar. Jimi Hendrix famously lit his Stratocaster on fire at Monterey Pop in 1967, while Kurt Cobain shattered guitars almost as often as he ate his go-to meal of Kraft macaroni and cheese. It’s possible these dudes received some amount of backlash at the time, but it’s hard to imagine anyone asking, “Why did this man, Eddie Van Halen, destroy his guitar?” with quite the same condescending tone.
All Bridgers did was take a familiar classic rock trope and make it her own — something she’s done frequently throughout her career. The skeleton suit she wore during her earlier performance of “Kyoto,” a look that she’s made her signature in the past year, was first popularized by Who bassist John Entwistle. When Bridgers formed the indie supergroup Boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus in 2018, the trio’s EP cover replicated the 1969 debut of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, with the three musicians posed together on a couch. (Bridgers is more of a Neil Young, but considering he hadn’t joined CSN at the time of this album, we’ll give her Graham Nash pose a pass.)
Bridgers has a complicated relationship with the genre outside those nods to its iconography. She held no punches on her latest album, Punisher, where she takes down Eric Clapton on “Moon Song” (“We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’/But it’s sad his baby died”) while name-dropping her favorite Beatle (“We fought about John Lennon/Until I cried”) — and writing the kind of lovesick dirge that makes her one of her generation’s sharpest songwriters. There are genuinely mixed feelings behind those lines: “I, for the most part, fucking hate classic rock,” she admitted to me last year. “But where the Neil Youngs of the world come in, I love it.”
For Bridgers’ fans, seeing her SNL performance was our version of the Super Bowl. This was her moment, where she could bring her somber indie gems and witty, irreverent persona to a bigger audience than ever on national television. Her attack on the $85 guitar made perfect sense in that context: It was a brazen, funny act that embodied some of rock’s oldest traditions even as it subverted them in style. In an otherwise uneventful episode (an incredible host like Dan Levy deserved better sketches), that moment was something to be celebrated, not mocked in a nakedly sexist way.