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