The past year has been full of major milestones for singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. Along with her most recent album, Punisher, being nominated for four Grammys, she launched her own record label, teamed up with actors Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Paul Mescal for an outstanding music video, and has made many TV appearances—some even remotely, from her own bedroom. Of the latter, her Feb. 6 performance on Saturday Night Live was arguably the biggest, brightest, and boldest of her career.
Although Bridgers is known for her “sad songs,” this is by no means an understatement of her genius. A complex artist whose lyrics seem to be pulled from the depths of her consciousness and crafted into the most achingly beautiful poetry, Bridgers’ songs are not simply “sad.” And her Saturday Night Live performance was an iconic testament to this: She began the night with melancholy music, singing “Kyoto” and striking the match, which then led into a full, flaming, fiery rendition of “I Know The End,” ending with Bridgers ferociously smashing her guitar on the amplifier until it shot out sparks and she threw the instrument to the ground.
Bridgers’ performance was true to her hauntingly raw and resonant sound. Bathed in a red light that echoed the cover art of her most recent album Punisher and wearing a custom Gucci pearl waistcoat in the shape of her signature skeleton costume, Bridgers and her band looked like a Renaissance painting, only with a touch of rock n’ roll. It was both intimate and expansive and undoubtedly epic.
Though many before Bridgers have smashed their guitars for dramatic emphasis, or just because of the pure emotion performing brings, Bridgers received flack for it. A Twitter firestorm began, criticizing her for being “extra” and for being a try-hard. In the most contradictory critique of all, people expressed their distaste either for her smashing a precious instrument (which was actually relatively inexpensive) or for just the opposite, for not fully breaking the guitar. Folk-rock singer-songwriter David Crosby, who is past the height of his career at almost 80 years old, called Bridgers’ performance “pathetic” on Twitter. Bridgers responded in true fashion, calling him “little bitch.”
With her classic dry humor, Bridgers has tried to make light of it. Her Instagram post captures the moment: teeth gritted under dark red lips, black nails gripping the guitar in mid-air as she swings it onto the already sparking amplifier. “got some really great feedback from my performance !” Bridgers said in her caption. “next time I’ll just burn it and it will be more expensive.”
Smashing a guitar onstage has been a classic trope of rock for decades. From Jimmi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, it is by no means a new and rare act. It has been around since 1964 when Pete Townsend of The Who became the first artist to break a guitar, beginning the long list of countless performances that are now idolized by rock fans.
Among her four Grammy nominations, Bridgers’ song “Kyoto” is up for best rock song and best rock performance. So why is Bridgers getting such backlash?
The most obvious is that as a woman, Bridgers is categorized differently in the music industry. Though smashing a guitar is not uncommon, a female artist doing so is, and people were uncomfortable with seeing something so closely associated with male rock n’ roll artists be tackled by a 26-year-old artist who doesn’t quite fit into any one genre. Indie, rock, alternative, folk—Bridgers seems to take it all and transform it into a unique and nonconforming collection of artworks. Sure, she’s built upon and been deeply inspired by past artists such as Elliot Smith, but that’s what makes music so special: It evolves, it demands relevancy, and it continues to make powerful gestures, like smashing a guitar, part of the gig.
Bridgers’ display of emotion was nothing out of the ordinary for her. Her songs are vulnerable and shameless, and her performance was only further evidence of that. If it takes smashing a guitar during a late-night comedy show to prove that women, too, can be powerful forces—powerful voices—within the music industry, then next time, maybe she should burn the guitar. And let the industry and Twitter trolls sizzle along with it.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on February 21 to reflect an error in Bridgers' age.