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Azealia Banks is telling the truth

Online life is no life at all

August 14, 2018

6:19 PM

14 August 2018

6:19 PM

For a certain slice of the online commentariat, nothing better captured the zeitgeist this year than the surprise romance between tech industrialist Elon Musk and Claire Boucher, the cyberpunk-ish music impresario known professionally as Grimes. This week, we discovered their coupling was just the beginning.

The worlds of Musk and Grimes worlds merged bizarrely when the pop star Azealia Banks wound up blasting out status updates on Instagram from inside Musk’s LA manse. Banks painted an unflattering portrait of Musk as a billionaire whose impulsive business decisions made it impossible to get Banks and Grimes in the same room of the same house where, ostensibly, their musical collaboration was supposed to begin:


As is to be expected online, none of the three celebs came out their ordeal with their images much improved. And therein lies a crucial lesson about why this oddball tabloid-like happening matters at all.

There were hints of what was to come right from the beginning. When Musk and Grimes became an item, his enthusiasts generally welcomed the news. An elfin Goth artist with an edge holds much higher status, at least online, than the likes of Musk’s previous girlfriend, the Johnny Depp-entangled actress Amber Heard. For many of Grimes’s fans, however, their composer-performer’s attraction to Musk, forged over a DM exchange concerning a semi-arcane nerd pun, gave uncanny and unwelcome credence to the now-stereotypical fantasies of the online manboy.

Despite this tension, the relationship held, and so did the public image around it. After all, who dares stand against true love, or even its digital avatar? On the other hand, much of the public interest in the pairing — less unlikely than the online arbiters of high popular taste might have hoped — concerned its potential for further strangeness. In a cultural moment as poorly constructed and volatile as this one, Grimes-Musk felt like a Beta test, a hypothesis about what fresh madness the animal spirits of our age might have up their sleeve.

The relationship, in fact, felt almost like a dare. Had Grimes resolved to pilot the whole concept of weird indie cred toward its event horizon? Did Musk really believe he was the one white guy powerful enough to play internet culture’s erotic game and win?

We braced for news that would answer these questions, not so much out of personal fascination with Musk or Grimes, but because if their gamble paid off, it would suggest that social media and news media were not becoming zones of terrible danger. Today, social media is more a place for problems than for friends. Chances are that if you appear in the news, it’s because something is going horribly wrong for you. Increasingly, online publicity is for losers and haters only.

Which is why Banks’ broadcast of her disappointing stay chez Musk imparts a bracing lesson. Her mix of deadly zingers and cheesy bombast confirms our darkening, maturing view of online life: celebrity is a risk not worth taking, and publicity information not worth knowing.

James Poulos is Contributing Editor at American Affairs and the author of The Art of Being Free.

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