Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)

You can’t time this stuff. At least, if you did, it wouldn’t pack half the […]

David Zahl / 11.16.17

You can’t time this stuff. At least, if you did, it wouldn’t pack half the punch.

I’m referring to the release of The Rentals’ song “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” a few short weeks before Rolling Stone published a full-length profile of the man in question. We’ll take them one at a time.

The Rentals, which at this point is really just the moniker for Matt Sharp (of early Weezer fame), haven’t released a record since 2014’s excellent Lost in Alphaville. Then, on October 5th, “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” appeared out of nowhere, a seven minute gospel pop opus about precisely what its title indicates:

Let me tell you a tale about a rivalry
Grab an Eagle Number Two and keep the score
There were these two young boys that came from average broken homes
With all the luxuries the middle class affords/ Oh, Lord…

Elon’s making me so sad
Cause I calculated the math of our birthdates
And I had a head start out of the start gate,
2 years plus 86 days, but that all went to waste
Oh, Elon you’re making me so sad
Cause the race that I wanted to have was not much of a race
And I tried, Love, and for a moment I thrived, Love,
But could not keep my stride up to keep pace

In nineteen eighty-two, on Christmas day
Santa gave us each a brand-new Commodore
I used mine to make fake I.D.’s and buy beer in junior high
While my foe studied every bit of that 8bit whore
Are you keeping score?

Matt Sharp, in other words, is roughly the same age as Elon. He’s saddened by the fact that they grew up in similar circumstances, each receiving a Commodore personal computer for Christmas in 1982, but Elon appears to have made so much more of his life. Sharp may have held “the lead” up through Pinkerton, but his rival has left him “in the dust” since then.

However much winking you want to read into the track, there is something serious going on. Life conceived as a contest, our inner and outer life driven by the tyranny of the scoreboard, “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” is essentially Tim Kreider’s “The Referendum” put to music. In that essay, you’ll remember, Kreider theorizes that we lose touch with those with whom we were once close to the extent that their path serves as a referendum on our own, a life we (feel we) could’ve lived but didn’t. Comparable starting points become the kiss of death, relationally speaking, for those who live under the law (in this case not just “Thou Shalt Race” but “Thou Shalt Win!”)–which is everyone.

This is what we were trying to get at from a theological perspective in our Law & Gospel book. Namely, that the law cannot be hemmed in by language. A person can embody the law to us, either consciously or un-. Think of someone whose very existence constitutes a judgment on your own: the guy from your hometown who had the same basic upbringing and opportunities as you, the same passions and interests, yet whose professional life has been charmed from day one. He just bought his second home, while you just finalized your second divorce. To Matt Sharp, even though they grew up half-way across the world from one another, that guy is Elon. At least for the purposes of the song.

There are few better or more hilarious pop-culture reference points than one found in Seinfeld, specifically the relationship of perennially hapless Elaine Benes to her high school rival Sue Ellen Mischke, heiress of the Oh Henry candy bar ‘fortune.’ The beautiful, confident, effortlessly suave Sue Ellen turns up throughout the series to function as a living comment on everything that Elaine is not—statuesque, beloved, non-neurotic, etc.

What about Sue Ellen, though? As an ostensible law-keeper (of little-l law), does she relate to the scoreboard differently from Elaine? The short answer is no. While those who follow the law are, in principle, free from its accusation, no one follows the law perfectly—not the little-l laws of society and certainly not the Big-L Law of God (Mk 10:17-22). Definitely not when you get into matters of motivation.

I mean, as we’re fond of saying, ask the most successful person you know about their life, and you’ll invariably hear some form of frustration over the truth that the higher you climb, the longer the ladder gets. How else to account for the fact that the most accomplished people feel more, rather than less, pressure to succeed? Or that people who are better looking perceive their blemishes so acutely?

Of course, even if we assent to this truth in theory, we seldom internalize it personally or functionally. There’s always an Elon or Sue Ellen on the horizon, ready to expose our ‘convictions’ for the convenient rationalizations we suspect they are.

This is not just true in television, or youth ministry talks. No, as the Rolling Stone article bears out in surprising detail, it appears to be true of Elon Musk himself. You’ve got to read this thing! Musk, AKA “The Architect of Tomorrow”–defacto poster-child of the technosolutionist (and transhumanist) gospel, who has promised to free us from fossil fuels and take us to the stars, the man who the article describes as having done something “that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry – car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) – and created the best products in those industries, as measured by just about any meaningful metric you can think of. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies”–is in rough shape. Specifically, he’s nursing a broken heart:

“I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks,” Musk elaborates. “Severe. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day, I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then, like, tell myself: ‘I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!’”

He later goes full Brian Wilson on the interviewer, asking, “Is there anybody you think I should date? It’s so hard for me to even meet people… I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate, that kind of thing.”

It doesn’t stop there. The interviewer turns counselor at one point, after Elon makes the following assertion:

“If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.”

I explain that needing someone so badly that you feel like nothing without them is textbook co-dependence.

Musk disagrees. Strongly. “It’s not true,” he replies petulantly. “I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” He hesitates, shakes his head, falters, continues. “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there – and no one on the pillow next to you… How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”

Elon goes on to describe an extraordinarily lonely childhood and a father who did “almost every evil thing you can think of”. Just try not to feel for the guy.

Contra Sharp’s brilliant song, it turns out Elon Musk is just like you and me, both gifted and cursed, full of vigor one minute but bereft of purpose the next–wanting more than anything to love and be loved. What looks to the outside world like superhuman ability and poise, is actually, as my friend Adam Morton puts it, another person “teetering on the edge of the abyss and trying desperately to convince himself there’s a rainbow bridge over it”. Isn’t that all of us? Elon just has a better grasp of the engineering required.

The lesson here is so familiar it feels trite. It’s the same lesson I hear in nearly every kids’ movie my boys watch: money and accomplishment are not the most important things in life. Technology is largely a smokescreen that hides (and amplifies) human need. Be kind to others (and yourself), because everyone is in some kind of pain. There is no substitute for love. This is truth, but it’s not enough.

Maybe I’m biased from living in a college town and working with upwardly mobile undergraduates, but as much as we shout these refrains from the rooftops, I’m more and more convinced no one actually believes them. Maybe that’s why we keep repeating them. At the end of the day, we all still trade connection for ambition, vulnerability for control, grace for law. I know this because I do, too, in a million different ways.

Francis Spufford referred to this in yesterday’s excerpt as “the Prisoner’s Dilemma”. Doubtless it’s what alcoholics are alluding to when they say that you can’t solve a problem with the same mentality you used to create it. A theologian might venture that the answer to the condemnation of the law is not more law, that is, a re-positioned strategy of escape, however ‘nuanced’ or fashionable or righteous it may be. The scoreboard checkmates each and every one of us.

What the alcoholic understands, and what Matt Sharp’s song makes abundantly clear, is that the door, if it is to be opened, needs to be opened from the outside. As the arrangement hits its glorious crescendo, and the back-up singers audibly start to sway, we hear him sing:

Hey, Elon, I don’t know what I have become
I need someone to help change my fate
I think you can save me
(Can you save me? I think you can save me!)
Do you think you can save me? Do you have the power to help me escape?

Oh, Elon, let me be the first one, of your new civilization to be saved
Yes I’ll try, Love, I swear to you I can thrive, Love
This time I’ll keep my stride up and keep pace
Only you can change my Q-score!
Make me the first one out of that door
First boots out on the Martian Floor to proclaim…
‘Oh, that Elon, sent me all the way, Son, a hundred thirty-nine million miles away’

Elon, send me away; send me away (Tell me I’m saved)
Elon, tell me I’m saved; tell me I’m saved

We’re a long way from “Buddy Holly”, eh?

In the epistle assigned for this weekend (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11), Paul distinguishes between those who are awake and those who are asleep. He urges us to stay awake. The imagery is vivid, even more so when you consider that “wakefulness” these days is mostly understood as awareness, rather than, say, expectancy. To be awake is to be aware of your bias, your privilege, your complicity, your humanity, your sin. As admirable as these qualities may be (no likes an obtuse bigot!), the implication is that the route to salvation, such as it may be, begins from below, with me, and moves upward and outward. From Earth to Mars Heaven. Which sounds hopeful at first yet can’t help but disappoint when, like Matt Sharp, you run the math with any honesty.

Perhaps that’s a long-winded way of saying that I’m grateful Paul doesn’t end there. Instead, he reminds us of the grace that invades the fog of human loneliness and inverts the circuitry, collapsing our ladders and wiping every lopsided scoreboard clean. The architecture of tomorrow, in other words, may look less like a promising schematic and more like a promise itself:

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him… May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thes 5:9-10, 23-24)

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9 responses to “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)”

  1. Jason says:

    Good reminder..thanks, DZ.

  2. CJ Green says:

    “…the grace that invades the fog of human loneliness and inverts the circuitry, collapsing our ladders and wiping every lopsided scoreboard clean.” DZ! just beautiful. Thanks for this. and you’re right, what a great song

  3. Larry Parsley says:

    “At the end of the day, we all still trade connection for ambition, vulnerability for control, grace for law.” So true (and well put)!

  4. Thanks David. I guess we all need a little “sweetness and tenderness”

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