Indie darling Phoebe Bridgers may have gained notoriety as someone who makes great music to cry to, but this weekend, as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, she channelled her energy into the true mark of a rock’n’roll renegade: smashing her guitar on stage. Bridgers, who wore her signature skeleton onesie, gave two mighty performances with ‘Kyoto’ and ‘I Know the End’, both of which appeared on her brilliant second album, ‘Punisher’.
Naturally, people on Twitter came in with their hot takes, suddenly on the side of that unrepresented group: guitars. Many of the reactions against her criticised her anger or that her actions were “extra” or odder still, wasteful. “People are going homeless, and it’s a pandemic”, one wrote, “but I’m a fucking rockstar! Not a good look.” Bridgers responded that it was a Danelectro guitar and that the company had given their blessing: “I told danelectro I was going to do it and they wished me luck and told me they’re hard to break”.
Breaking instruments on stage has a long and storied history in the male-dominated world of rock music. It seems no one had a problem with The Who, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, Nine Inch Nails, KISS, Nirvana and probably hundreds of other artists destroying their guitars. While this practice, seen as either strange performance art or gross displays of rock star excess, has fallen slightly out of fashion in recent years, there is no denying that criticism against Bridgers’ was weirdly gendered.
Things have been changing in the world of rock’n’roll for a while and Bridgers’ success is surely proof of that. In November, ‘Punisher’ (Number Five in NME’s Best 50 Albums of 2020 list) picked up four Grammy nominations for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song (‘Kyoto’), Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist. This year, for the first time ever, only female and female-fronted acts are nominated for Best Rock Performance at the 2021 Grammys. In watching Bridgers scream and smash her guitar in an undoubtedly cathartic moment on SNL and the reactions that followed, it became clear we have too few chaotic artists currently in the mainstream.
Having released ‘Punisher’ last summer, Bridgers may be one of the few musicians whose music made more sense in the pandemic, channeling the feelings of isolation and nihilism we’ve all felt. At times, the intimate gloom of the record feels like a blanket. At others, the record sees her lean into the omnipresent emptiness.
In the past year, Bridgers has carved a lane for herself as a staple ‘in your feelings’ musician while highlighting her outward comedic persona displayed on social media and in her performances. She has utilised the at-home performances to present something new and unexpected each time she sings, as se saw in her September NPR Tiny Desk concert, where she stood in a green screen Oval Office and welcomed the virtual audience with the immortal lines: “Hope everyone is enjoying their apocalypse”.
In pandemic times, it is hard for anyone to indulge their inner anarchist; instead, Bridgers has been using her social media to make blunt and self-aware jokes about herself and the state of the world. In a world full of musicians which seem like faces of a big machine, there is something inherently chaotic about Phoebe Bridgers, whose Twitter name is Traitor Joe, tweeting, “shoutout to everyone who hasn’t gotten their meds right raw doggin depression right now”.
Besides her two solo albums, Bridgers is also known for her pension to join supergroups, namely projects Better Oblivion Community Center (alongside Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst) and boygenius (with by Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus). She also recently released a benefit single that all started when Bridgers tweeted she would cover The Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’ if Trump lost the 2020 election. And so, joined by Maggie Rogers, she topped the Bandcamp sales chart, with proceeds benefiting voting rights organisation Fair Fight.
Bridgers is known for the honesty and vulnerability in her lyrics, too. Her biggest single to date, ‘Motion Sickness’, which appeared on her 2017 debut album ‘Stranger in the Alps’, alluded to an abusive relationship with the now defamed Ryan Adams. Bridgers wrote about the intensity of her feelings, but also made digs at Adams’ artistry: “And why do you sing with an English accent?” And despite the ensuing online backlash, Bridgers continues to challenge abusers in the music industry, most recently speaking out against alleged abuser Marilyn Manson, tweeting: “I stand with everyone who came forward.”
All this is to say that Phoebe Bridgers is here to stay and she is only getting started. Guitar destroying now only opens the doors of what she could achieve later. Despite its sombreness, her music is as punk rock as she is and Bridgers proves the anarchist rock star is still very much alive. She is proving that young women in rock can be loud and destructive – and shouldn’t have to apologise for it.