Double-necked standards: When men smash guitars, it’s rock’n’roll. When Phoebe Bridgers does it, it’s a debate

<p>When men smash guitars, it’s rock and roll. When Phoebe Bridgers does it, it’s a debate</p> (YouTube/NBC)

When men smash guitars, it’s rock and roll. When Phoebe Bridgers does it, it’s a debate


Kurt Cobain hardly ever met a guitar he didn’t obliterate. The Clash turned a bass bashing into an album cover. The Who’s Pete Townshend smashed his once by accident, then turned it into his signature move. Jimi Hendrix liked to burn his instruments. So when Grammy-nominated singer Phoebe Bridgers made her debut on Saturday Night Live last weekend, and ended her set by smashing her guitar on a monitor, she knew she’d break the monitor (later revealed to be a prop). But she probably didn’t intend to break the internet. “Why did this woman, Phoebe Bridgers, destroy her guitar on SNL?” read one of many tweets. “I mean, I didn’t care much for the song either, but that seemed extra.” And thus, a debate nobody asked for was born.

Bridgers, who in 2019 gained national attention for speaking out against Ryan Adams, has always peppered her music with bouts of rage. In the first of the two songs she performed on SNL, “Kyoto”, that mellifluous yet jaded voice repeatedly declared, “I’m gonna kill you”. On the second, “I Know the End”, gentle guitar reverbs and a peaceful, feel-good scene gave way to a wall of noise, a series of howls, and then the infamous wreckage. It was as fitting as it was surprising. Afterwards, she ran over and gave her bandmate a squeeze.

When the guitar smashing began to court controversy online, musician Jason Isbell jumped to Bridgers’s defense, pointing out that the guitar — a Danelectro Dano ’56baritone — was only worth around $85 (£61). (“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.”) Even Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl defended Bridgers on Howard Stern’s radio show, comparing the moment to his days in Nirvana: “My drums had holes in them from Kurt [Cobain] f***ing chopping my drums. I’ve seen enough smashed guitars. It feels f***ing good to do it.”

CSNY elder statesman David Crosby also had to insert himself into the conversation, calling the move “pathetic” on Twitter (to which Bridgers, who is famously sardonic, snarked, “Little bitch”). Crosby’s opinion may have been solicited by a fan, and goodness knows he rarely shies away from sharing his unvarnished takes on social media (remember when he said Eddie Van Halen, who'd just died, mind you, was "meh"?). But as a quick aside, do we really care what he of all rock figureheads thinks of people who smash their guitars onstage? Of course he doesn’t like it.

When faced with the question of gender, dissenters around Bridgers’s smash (including Crosby) have backpedalled with clarifications that, well, they didn’t like it when Townshend or Hendrix destroyed their gear either. That still begs the question: which scenario prompted louder opinions? Yes, there’s social media now, which gives every last person with internet access a platform, and, conveniently, that didn’t exist in the days of Townsend or even Cobain. Yet any negative opinion on these men’s guitar destruction would’ve been tied into those musicians’ narratives, whether it be in documentaries, books, or magazine interviews. Historically, if guitar smashing is embedded in an artist’s narrative, it’s only shone in a positive, transgressive and inspirational light.

For Phoebe Bridgers, like it or not, this moment will become a part of her narrative, and yes, the fact that there exists a debate at all will, annoyingly, coincide with her gender. Couch it all you want – the fact remains that men don’t have to answer for smashing stuff. And you could take this beyond just gear, too: how many male musicians have faced the court of public opinion for destroying hotel rooms, or lobbing televisions out the window? How about damaging their own bodies via substance abuse? It’s only rock and roll, baby.

Taking this conversation even further down the rabbit hole, others on social media have called needlessly destroying a guitar wasteful in the Covid era, when so many educational music programmes have faced budget cuts and many who would love to have a musical instrument to play can’t afford it. While that is of course valid, why should that be Bridgers’ burden to bear?

If Pete Townshend had played a set on that stage last Saturday night, and he decided to smash a guitar and monitor for old time’s sake, it’s unlikely that “wastefulness” would be making the rounds on Twitter the next day. Just like Britney Spears used to argue that she’s not her fans’ parent, and thus it’s not up to her to protect children’s innocence, Bridgers is not here to police the ideal treatment of music property. The fact that she even felt compelled to explain her choices after the fact – using a cheap guitar and bashing a fake monitor – is more than her critics deserve.

Maybe it’s discomfiting for men – or anyone – to witness a show of female rage. Or maybe it’s just uncomfortable for them to watch a female musician, whose music is not outwardly aggressive like Nirvana’s but in fact closer to the quietly contemplative Elliott Smith’s, subvert a rock trope on national television. Again, it’s wild that this is even up for debate. The fact that there exists one at all is a disappointing reminder that no matter how far we think we’ve come, when it comes to music’s overall treatment of gender, the song remains the same.

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