Culture

A billionaire and an indie superstar walk into a bar

Why is the relationship between Grimes and Elon Musk so fascinating?

Culture

Elon Musk + Grimes

He’s a billionaire dandy who loves futuristic cars and dislikes unions.
She’s a weirdo pop star who loves Tumblr and hates imperialism.
It’s a match made in heaven!
Culture

A billionaire and an indie superstar walk into a bar

Why is the relationship between Grimes and Elon Musk so fascinating?

One of the internet’s myriad promises was its potential to flatten long-entrenched social barriers by giving us spaces in which we could speak directly to each other. Modern life takes away so much from us; it might at least give us access to the celebs. But the internet doesn’t just break down the walls between citizen and citizen, or citizen and celebrity — it allows celebrity and celebrity to speak to each other, skipping the rich person pageantry of getting in touch via their managers or Ellen or whatever.

So the recent revelation that Tesla billionaire Elon Musk and indie superstar Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) were dating was a reminder of this digital coziness, as it came with the explanation that they’d met because they had made the same byzantine, dorky joke on Twitter. Their work is preoccupied with the future, and transcending conventional human behaviors. What more futuristic, unconventional meet-cute could there be?

Immediately, the internet had jokes. (I made several.) It was such a bizarre pairing: Since the release of her breakthrough album Visions in 2012, Boucher is the most successful solo artist to emerge out of what’s considered “indie” culture, a vague-ish catch-all phrase encompassing musicians in the 21st century who released material on a small label, garnered much of their early popularity via the internet, played in DIY venues, and made art in pursuit of an elusive, romantic, idealistic feeling just outside of the mainstream. (Arcade Fire, even after signing to a major label, are an “indie” band; The Killers are not.) Yet here she was, stepping into public with one of the world’s most visible, accomplished, and thus aggressive capitalists, Willy Wonka affectations or not.

The jokes easily shaded into a hectoring tone, criticizing Boucher for her dating decisions, as though she were selling out her so-called ideals by showing up hand-in-hand with a Silicon Valley baron at the Met Gala. She probably was, but plenty of people do the same when they’re hot for somebody, as principles are one thing and the laws of attraction are another. The Boucher of 2018 is likely a much different person than the Boucher of 2012; anybody who has gone through the aging process might realize this. The jokes might have continued, but eventually people would’ve just accepted this as another one of the frankly insane developments of contemporary culture, like gesturing broadly at the world all of this.

On Monday night, however, Boucher decided to complicate her situation by defending Musk against a Twitter user who asked her to advocate for the Tesla unions he’s reportedly discouraged. “He has never prevented them from unionizing,” she wrote. “It’s quite literally fake news.” To the wider internet, the laws of attraction are one thing, but anti-union apologia is another, and though she held her ground at first, Boucher eventually deleted all of her tweets after being roundly criticized by her astonished fans.

Defending your boyfriend isn’t a crime; neither is being naive about existing reporting. Beyond the jokes, the attempts to castigate Boucher for her words seemed somewhat misguided, as we’d be here all night if we attempted to hold every hypocritical celebrity accountable for the shit they say in the heat of the moment. (That she deleted the tweets was some indication of a relatable feeling — the profound sense of embarrassment felt upon realizing you shouldn’t have posted.)

The whole thing got me thinking about Boucher first became popular, outside of her excellent music. Back in 2012, she was heralded as part of a burgeoning wave of “post-internet” musicians — artists whose creative process seemed deeply influenced by internet culture smashing, similar to a Tumblr filled with images, songs, quotes, and reblogs with no overarching theme besides “I like this.” This sort of poptimism is taken for granted now, but in 2011 it seemed mildly transgressive that a young basement artist from Canada could profess her love for Mariah Carey.

Boucher was open with her fans on her own Tumblr, and fluent in breezy internet lingo. Moreover, she rejected all attempts to be easily defined. She was one of the first musicians I can recall being openly contemptuous of the music media’s now standard practice of turning Tweets into content, even as it seemed obvious she would only get into trouble by sharing her unvarnished opinions. She seemed to appreciate the internet for its boundless possibility, a place where you could absorb everything, say anything, and meet anyone — like, say, a South African space travel/auto industry billionaire disruptor. Even in 2012 it was clear the internet could not be used so optimistically, but you couldn’t blame an idealist for trying.

That this arc would culminate in her running interference for on-the-record labor rights violations is mildly depressing, though not really that surprising. Expecting celebrities to make sense all of the time is a losing gambit. Artists — especially the ones who court fame — are hardly the most consistent thinkers alive; just refer to Kanye West’s Twitter timeline. The predictable backlash to her tweets and her new relationship seemed like it might make even someone as outspoken as Boucher clam up, fitting into the existing trend of artists never saying anything of interest, out of fear of offending someone.

Once, being provocative and occasionally misguided was the right of all famous, talented, hot people; Noel Gallagher made a career out of being a politically incorrect, charming dickwad. (Of course, he’s a man, and subject to a less draconian set of standards; one imagines the internet would not succumb to such a tizzy as it has with Grimes and Musk if Mac DeMarco was dating, like, Sheryl Sandberg.) In our Facebook-driven Trump universe, there’s really no incentive for artists who aren’t already hyper-successful to color outside the lines, unless they’re fitting into some positive political movement. (Last year, Boucher earned goodwill by raising money for CAIR following Donald Trump’s first attempt to institute the travel ban.) Boucher is popular, but a depressed reaction to her next album would likely severely impact her career. Once you’re in the game, you either play it well or opt out entirely; there’s rare incentive for going your own way. (And Boucher is at least interested in the game, having signed to Jay Z’s ritzy Roc Nation entertainment company.)

As culture has gone through a great awokening — necessitating that creators espouse the “correct” political opinions at all times lest they be ostracized — it’s becoming apparent that this might not be such a great dynamic. Liberals have already won the culture wars even as they’ve lost control of the government; booting the face of everyone who dissents even a little isn’t just overkill, but grounds for a future revolution. What would anybody expect — that she The King and I her way into securing a Tesla union?

Of course, it’s not so easy for people to avoid taking their personal relationship to an artist so… personally. You will never win trying to make sure everyone believes the most politically appropriate thing by threatening them with expulsion, but the world — and thus the internet — is such a heated, miserable place right now that such extremism feels righteous and necessary, even if it’s all making us unhealthier. As the internet giveth, the internet also taketh away. Anyways, we can all agree that unions are important, and a future Grimes album filled with love songs about Elon Musk will be kind of unsettling, but we’ll always have “Oblivion.”