Commentary: Nickelback was one of the most popular bands in the world until the world decided it hated Nickelback. Remind you of anyone?
Elon Musk reminds me of Nickelback. I mean that in a good way.
Nickelback was once one of the world’s most popular bands. People loved them. You or someone you hold dear probably used to bump How You Remind Me on the regular. But something changed circa 2008 and all of a sudden the world decided that Nickelback was the worst band of all time. Nowadays, liking Nickelback is synonymous with having poor taste in music.
As CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Neuralink, Musk has infinitely more to offer the world than Nickelback, but they’re similar in this one way. He has a notorious cultlike following that will love him no matter what, but the tide has been turning in recent months. It’s becoming cool to hate Elon Musk.
We got a prime example of this over the weekend. After 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a cave in Northern Thailand late last month, the rescue effort to save them became big news around the world. Musk got involved in a manner characteristic of his eccentric billionaire status: by commissioning a team to repurpose parts of a SpaceX rocket to become a submarine or escape pod for the kids.
The entire soccer team was rescued over several days without the help of Musk’s submarine. An official credited as the operation’s leader said the contraption. Musk replied, revealing an email thread showing one of the divers encouraging him to design the submarine. Story over.
This elicited a curiously negative reaction. Much of the criticism was contradictory: Musk was told by some to mind his own business, while others pointed him in the direction of more challenging problems which, they reasoned, he would solve if he was really a good guy. (One of those was the . Musk has since pledged to help, which has incited a fresh round of snarky comments.)
This is a guy who’s actually making progress toward his goal of reaching Mars. Is it even possible for someone like that to be free of ego? Sometimes Musk’s ambition works in his favor, like when . Other times, as when he sets impossible production targets and , it doesn’t.
The question shouldn’t be whether Musk is narcissistic (a charge to which he essentially confessed on Twitter). The question should be whether his narcissism helps a situation or hurts it. In the case of the Thai rescue operation, it didn’t fulfill the potential to help tremendously, but it didn’t hurt either. So what’s the problem?
It’s easy to argue that any corporate-philanthropic effort, short of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is related to PR. For yearsfrom which proceeds go to HIV-related charities. Does Apple care about HIV? I would guess yes, but it almost certainly cares more about marketing. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with doing good to get good PR.
The accusations that Musk is only out to help his self image aren’t without merit. But people are punishing petty crime as murder.
Musk is rich, white and male. He’s also in a male-dominated industry that’s notoriously difficult for the less privileged. It’s for that reason that some people think of him as a fair target for derision in any circumstance. But enthusiasm to bring down a top dog for the sake of it can lead to empty, thoughtless critiques.
People, for instance, mocked Musk after his submarine was called impractical. Musk, less than a week before striking a historic deal to open a Tesla plant in China, worked with his team to transform part of a rocket into an escape pod in mere days. It feels like a stretch to call him out for lack of competence or productivity.
The justification of blind taunts like this is that Musk can take it. He’s a billionaire! Hurt feelings aren’t the issue, though. Taking attention away from legitimate criticism is.
Musk really has overpromised and underdelivered in the past. In 2016 he claimed Tesla would be manufacturing 500,000 cars a year by 2018, up from 84,000 that year, thanks to a completely automated building process. This has ended up being drastically harder than he anticipated, as the company has been unable to meet production targets for the Model 3: Musk weeks ago announced the team was up to 7,000 cars a week. (Around 9,700 cars would need to be manufactured every week in the year for the 500,000 goal to be met.)
Musk also concerned many in June when he flirted with the idea of creating Pravda, a platform where the public could rate publications and journalists. This stemmed from an April report from nonprofit Reveal that criticized Tesla’s safety standards, which Tesla claimed was an “extremist organization working directly with union supporters.” The ensuing Twitter spats with journalists, which included the tech entrepreneur making some bold accusations, was a turnoff to many fans of Musk.
These issues get lost in the shuffle of criticisms that are less accurate but more sensational. My least favorite method of Musk incrimination is guilt by association: His fans attack people who criticize him, and it’s implied that Musk is at fault for this.
Musk has a small army of devoted fans who go way too far in defense of him, as when they violently threaten journalists or public figures who speak poorly of him. But this is true of almost every famous person: The New York Times just this week profiled a woman who said her life has been ruined by Nicki Minaj fans. The developers of No Man’s Sky got death threats for having the gall to delay the game. Online abuse is a huge problem, but it’s a problem with the internet, not this or that celebrity. The same people who cry foul when the government tries to blame video games for real-life killings will criticize someone like Musk for the actions of his fans.
I’m not one of these die-hard supporters. There are some valid criticisms against him, and I enjoyed the memes made at his expense as much as the next guy (maybe more). But the zeal with which people both defend and attack him is concerning. As with almost all key issues, opposing sides become more extreme while the truth remains somewhere in the middle.
to “fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels” means there’s no slowing down anytime soon, either. Nickelback is a remnant of yonder, but the Elon Musk party is just getting started.