Elon Musk Is Not Just a Celebrity

The Tesla CEO’s SNL performance was neither redemptive nor entertaining. But it served a classic purpose: glossing over his real power.

Elon Musk on the set of 'Saturday Night Live'
Will Heath / NBC

However your 2021 is going, what’s undeniable is that after Donald Trump left office earlier this year, a strange cultural quietude settled upon America. No one would dare call it peace. But the audiences for TV news and online media immediately shrunk. Rather than fretting quite as much about an imminent civil war, commentators have been arguing about sexy hip-hop videos. Saturday Night Live, the rare 21st-century entertainment that most Americans seem to maintain some awareness of, has been adrift: Millions of viewers have been sitting out the 2021 season. The show’s most notable segment this year was about sassy icebergs.

Recently, though, America has appeared to be auditioning a new candidate for prime agitator of profitable controversy: Elon Musk. When SNL announced that the 49-year-old Tesla CEO would host last night’s show, it kicked off a national argument with all-too-familiar overtones. Musk is a billionaire commanding a personality cult with trollish tweets. He’s a self-styled savior of mankind who also downplayed the threat of COVID-19. He’s a white man who thinks he’s funny but who really, really isn’t. Some pundits chided SNL for elevating a figure who has used public platforms to bully and spread misinformation. Others cheered open discourse and capitalism. Musk’s fans dreamed of him plugging their favorite cryptocurrency, Dogecoin. SNL appeared all but sure to bust its ratings slump.

The episode that ultimately aired didn’t feel worth the fuss. It wasn’t offensive, redemptive, memorable, or even entertaining. Yet, as Trump’s history with SNL shows, the cloak of mildness and mediocrity can be useful for someone whose true influence has little to do with comedy or charm.

The pundits who said SNL would “humanize” Musk were onto something, though it’s tough to criticize the humanization of any living, breathing person. The show opened with a feel-good Mother’s Day montage of cast members bantering with their moms while Miley Cyrus sang Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” Musk’s mom later joined him for his monologue. But first, he showed up onstage alone, dressed in a dictator-chic suit, and offered this factlet: “I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL.”

The historicity of that milestone for SNL was debatable (the actor Dan Aykroyd said, years after hosting the show, that he had Asperger’s syndrome too). For Musk, though, the remark represented a first-time public disclosure of a personal condition. He then touted his grand vision—“a renewable-energy future” in which humanity becomes “a multi-planetary spacefaring civilization”—while acknowledging his antics have often distracted from that vision. “To anyone I have offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship,” he said. “Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” An apology for dissing vaccines or attacking whistleblowers, this was not. It was, however, decent brand management.

In an oddly insistent way, much of the episode reiterated Musk as myth rather than man by having him play versions of his own persona. When he appeared as a “Gen Z Hospital” doctor trading slang with a group of kids, it brought to mind Musk’s penchant for recycling memes on Twitter. Later in the episode, Musk played himself, the SpaceX head honcho, confidently communicating with a Mars colony in crisis (Pete Davidson’s recurring doofus, Chad, became a hero and went splat—RIP Chad!). One bit had Musk playing an unfairly stereotyped villain, Nintendo’s Wario, while Musk’s girlfriend, the singer Grimes, made a cameo as Princess Peach. The last sketch of the night featured him pitching Wild West versions of his Boring Company; buried in the bit was, finally, a tepid mea culpa for mocking COVID-19 safety measures.

None of this meta-Musk riffing worked well as comedy, but also none of it was worse than the expected SNL nonsense. Like so many previous hosts of the show, Musk came off as just another celeb undergoing a PR ritual with enthusiasm but not inspiration. In the most trenchant sketch of the night, a pre-filmed vignette about the awkwardness of post-quarantine small talk, he blended in well as a normie at a cocktail party. He also did fine when introducing the evening’s musical guest, Cyrus, who continued her impressive reinvention as the gritty-voiced ambassador for Baby Boomer rock to the internet generation.

Only during “Weekend Update” did the particular significance of Musk’s power assert itself. To kick off the segment, co-hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che made mildly pointed barbs about recent rocket-related headlines. A Chinese spacecraft had broken apart and crashed back to the Earth only moments before the broadcast—a perfect example of how science like the kind Musk funds can have consequences for even the human beings who aren’t paying attention.

Then Musk appeared, playing a bowtie-wearing cryptocurrency expert named Lloyd Ostertag. Here was the moment the internet had been panting about. Cryptocurrency has recently graduated from a subcultural phenomenon to an asset class with greater value than all of the U.S. dollars in the world. In the previous month, the market capitalization of Dogecoin—a joke online currency that Musk once called “pretty cool”—had surged to more than $73 billion. Social-media platforms were boiling with excitement that Musk’s SNL appearance would boost its value even more.

Musk ended “Weekend Update” by howling “to the moon!”—the rallying cry of Dogecoin—yet really he’d sunken the currency into a lagoon: Over the course of the episode, its value plummeted 28 percent. Poor Dogecoin. Really, Musk had done exactly what the currency’s devotees wanted by talking at length about crypto. As Che and Jost expressed mystification about online money, Musk acknowledged, “It’s a hustle,” but also said, “It’s the future of currency. It’s an unstoppable financial vehicle that’s going to take over the world.” Well, which is it—is Dogecoin a hustle, or is it the future? Both things can be true. Online currency has no value outside of its own hype, which is a function of marketing, groupthink, and, yes, memes.

It’s worth remembering that Musk wields influence outside of hype. He commands billions in capital and has credible designs for transforming human civilization altogether. Yet when watching him perform sketches with little intrinsic comedic value but lots of self-referentiality, his true significance becomes obscured. He comes to feel like just a celebrity—someone who matters only because people feel that he matters. Critics aren’t wrong to say that this sort of portrayal can be dangerous. The reaction to the episode will cleave into the familiar clans of a culture war—fans and haters—when really the audience should be united in wariness. Musk could drop a rocket on any of our heads, whether we’re laughing at him or not.