But in the past few years, Musk’s persona has mutated from that of the visionary tech genius into the overly online eccentric who named his son with the musician Grimes “X Æ A-12.” Musk’s plan to save soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018 turned into a Twitter rant—including an unfounded accusation of pedophilia—against one of the divers who took part in the actual rescue. (Musk later apologized.) In 2020, Musk, again on Twitter, initially denied the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, spread misinformation on the topic, and prematurely opened Tesla’s factories amid lockdown.*
The man who’ll take the SNL stage on May 8 won’t just be a billionaire with spacefaring dreams, but one who shamelessly and aggressively stirs the pot on the internet—whether to get people to call him “Daddy Dotcom” or to move cryptocurrency markets with a single tweet—to the cheering of his ardent acolytes. “For better or worse, he shows that he has a sense of humor on Twitter,” Ashlee Vance, Musk’s biographer, told me over the phone. Vance pointed out that Musk once tried to start his own satire magazine; going on SNL could just be a higher-profile extension of that. Early in his career, “he was pretty shy,” Vance said. “He was self-confident in his intellect and his abilities, but I would not say he was socially self-confident, you know? Over time, he’s grown and grown … it’s all part of an evolution of this guy who enjoys the celebrity and keeps getting bigger.”
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SNL, however, isn’t usually so generous with its stage. It’s a thoroughly mainstream institution that has lasted for almost 50 years, consistently holding the attention of millions of Americans every weekend. The show books hosts and musical guests based on who’s in, or should be in, the cultural zeitgeist, thereby underlining their importance to the public—that’s why Oscar nominees tend to stop by. Simply by providing a platform, the series has legitimized guests, defanged them, or shattered their reputations altogether.
Choosing Musk defies this goal of highlighting talent; instead, he appears to have been picked just to inspire debate. He inevitably will, because he already has. Even his contributions to Tesla have been disputed in court, his persona as a tech genius muddied by allegations of forcibly ousting the company's founder and taking credit for the work of engineers after joining the company. (The company denied these claims, and the suit was later settled for undisclosed terms.)
But if SNL thinks it can brighten or dim the star power of its host, Musk poses a particularly risky challenge. He’s a black hole, a rare figure who absorbs attention, good or bad. He’s already downplayed the latest news about Tesla, involving the deaths of two people in a driverless car in Texas, claiming that autopilot was not enabled, and moved on to reiterating his calls for turning humanity into a “multi-planetary species.” His power does not depend on cultural support from the likes of SNL; he can be disliked, but not “canceled.” None of his scandals have substantially altered his influence on the tech industry or his online following. Unlike a typical SNL host, he has nothing to lose. The show has effectively invited into the hallowed halls of 30 Rock a walking, talking, breathing meme with a net worth of $172.1 billion as of this writing.