One of the earliest instances of the smashed guitar in rock ‘n’ roll is credited to Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell following a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” on a 1956 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. However, the act is more commonly associated with the Who’s Pete Townshend. In 1964, Townshend would accidentally break his guitar on a low ceiling. An immediate crowd-pleaser, Townshend would go on to regularly incorporate breaking guitars into the Who’s live performances and later declared the schtick an act of “auto-destructive art” – a term coined by Townshend’s former professor, Gustav Metzger, in the early 1960s to describe art whose destruction is an intentional element of the piece’s creation (Metzger 2015).
Nearly 57 years after Townshend, on 6 February 2021, Phoebe Bridgers ended a Saturday Night Live performance by smashing her guitar onto a stage monitor during the outro of her song “I Know the End”. Although initially concerned with the end of a relationship, the end of the song turns apocalyptic in nature, conjuring images of an extraterrestrial invasion (“over on the coast / everyone’s convinced / it’s a government drone or an alien spaceship”) with a billboard explicitly indicating “The End is Here” in the song’s penultimate line. The studio version of the song closes with a chaotic rock instrumental and frustrated, angered screaming barely distinguishable through the noise. It is during this part of the outro of the SNL performance that Bridgers begins smashing her guitar against a stage monitor.
However awesome the act of smashing a guitar may be or however fitting it was to Bridgers’ SNL performance, the scene was met with ridicule, annoyance, and even anger in internet discourse. One of the wider-circulating tweets asks, “Why did this woman, Phoebe Bridgers, break her guitar on SNL?” before continuing, “I mean, I didn’t care much for the song either, but that seemed extra.” David Crosby–of the folk-rock trio Crosby, Stills, and Nash–called it “pathetic“.
This is not the first guitar smash of the modern era. Post Malone began smashing guitars in 2017 during performances of his hit “Rockstar” despite not using the instrument (or any instrument) during his performances of the song and for no clear reason other than maybe smashing guitars is what rock stars do. It is not even the first guitar smash on network TV. Bridgers’ influence and Better Oblivion Community Center bandmate Connor Oberst smashed his guitar during a 2005 Bright Eyes performance on CBS’ The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
It does, however, rightfully draw attention to the disproportionate criticism of women in rock music, in internet discourse, and issues of misogyny more broadly. This was not lost to the discourse following the performance. Rolling Stone published an article on gender and guitar smashing two days following Bridgers’ SNL performance arguing Bridgers subverted the classic rock trope. While a worthwhile area of continued discussion, the context that unfolded in the year following Bridgers’ iconic SNL moment has made the performance worth re-evaluating not as a subversion of Townshend’s auto-destructive act but as a piece of auto-destructive art specific to its historical moment.
Influenced by the destruction of Germany, Gustav Metzger’s home country (and of the world more broadly) following World War II, Metzger began creating auto-destructive art in the form of acid paintings. Metzger used the inevitable disintegration of the paintings as a creative protest against nuclear warfare (Tate.org). For Metzger, auto-destructive art is not about the act of destroying so much as it is about rejecting power systems (in Metzger’s case, this is influenced by witnessing the rise of Nazism) that he saw as destructive to life. Through intentional destruction of art, Metzger could hold a mirror to social and political systems and create new concepts of logic in the minds of the public necessary to the form.
For curator Tim Roerig, writing for the Haus Der Kunst, this creation of new logic through destruction is “strongly tied to the historical moment” (Roerig) and Tate notes the form’s inherent critique of political and capitalist systems (Tate.org). For Metzger, auto-destructive art was “a left-wing revolutionary position of politics” from which systems of power could be critiqued (Metzger 2015). For Townshend and the Who, smashing guitars introduced an edgier sound to rock music that would, in part, influence the anti-establishment sound of punk music of the ’70s and ’80s.
While the Rolling Stone article following Bridger’s SNL performance argues that her decision to smash her guitar subverts the classic-rock-popularized trope, a Rolling Stone profile on Bridgers notes that she “for the most, part fucking hate[s] classic rock” (Morticco 2021). Hating classic rock is certainly enough reason to subvert and reclaim one of the genre’s most recognizable acts, especially where that genre is genderized. However, the mood of frustration created in the outro of both the studio version and Bridgers’ SNL performance of “I Know the End” begs for reading not against past tropes but alongside its own historical moment.
On 6 February 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic had been affecting life around the world for nearly a full year. Frustrations were high with the Trump administration’s largely unresponsive and highly politicized response to curbing the pandemic’s spread. The Capitol insurrection took place just one month prior. The world felt permanently altered. However, there also gleamed a sense of hope. Having edged out Trump in the election the November before, Joe Biden had recently been sworn in as the 46th US president. Additionally, access to the first vaccines was right around the corner for millions of Americans. A return to normal felt within reach.
A year later, that hope reads as a false sense, and Bridgers’ frustration in “I Know the End” comes across less as a frustration with the past but more prophetic. The continuing cultural and political damage wrought by the Trump administration sees the nation contending with right-wing threats to civil rights and enduring an all-time high of Covid-19 infections while persistently low wages and inflation have great swaths of the population reeling.
If auto-destructive art inspires social action by showing future outcomes to current actions and logics (Metzger 2015), the eventual disintegration of Metzger’s acidic paintings allegorized the totalizing destruction of nuclear war and paved the way for anti-war stances against the government. As an auto-destructive act tied to the logic of its historical moment, Bridger’s SNL performance must look forward, and it does. It seemingly harnesses the frustration of capitalism’s inequities made so apparent during the pandemic and the destruction of a guitar in that frustration seemingly predicts the increasingly active social frustration circulating in 2022.
Somewhat ironically, in 2021, capitalist logic surfaced in internet discourse to defend Bridgers’ performance. In defense of critiques that Bridgers’ guitar smashing was a flaunt of her privilege, musician Jason Isbell tweeted, “That was like an 85 dollar guitar she smashed. Come on, guys.” In a reply to Isbell’s tweet, Bridgers herself mentions that the owners of Danelectro, the maker of the guitar in question, had given her their blessing to smash one of their guitars beforehand. While price and company permission seemed to calm some of the critique storm, to return to Bridgers’ SNL performance a year later is to go beyond these arguments and see it not as a gender-subverted trope but as an individual piece of auto-destructive art that favors an anti-capitalist stance against the logics of its historical moment.
In the opening lines to “I Know the End”, Bridgers sings “Somewhere in Germany, but I can’t place it. Man, I hate this part of Texas”, foreshadowing the song’s apocalyptic end. The image of a landmark-less Germany so easily confused with Texas harkens back to the images of post-war Germany and Japan that inspired Metzger’s auto-destructive art. For Metzger, auto-destructive art is social protest: its eventual and intentional self-destruction is a necessary reflection of the obliterating trajectory of ruling social and political systems. It does not propose alternatives, but critiques and urges revolutionary action.
Like the Who’s pessimistic belief in revolution in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, Bridgers’ performance knows there is nothing next. No second try. It is a performance that seemingly comes from the disintegrated end of Metzger’s projection. A call from the verge of obliteration. It is a roadside billboard reading, “The End Is Here”. We hope the car takes the exit but we know it won’t.
Martoccio, A. “Laughter, tears, and harmony: How Phoebe Bridgers made ‘punisher’.” Rolling Stone. 27 May 2020. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
McKinsey & Company. (2021, April 20). “Seven charts that show covid-19’s impact on women’s employment”. McKinsey & Company. 20 April 2022. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
Metzger, Gustav. Auto-Destructive Art. Metzger at AA. 2015.
Milano, B. “With Covid spread, ‘racism – not race – is the risk factor'”. Harvard Gazette. 20 April 2021. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
Roerig, T. (n.d.). “Re-creation of the first public demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art”. Haus Der Kunst. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
Tate. (n.d.). “Auto-destructive art – art term”. Auto-Destructive Art. Retrieved 14 January 2022.