Time on Monday named Elon Musk its 2021 Person of the Year. The Tesla and SpaceX tycoon joins a list that extends back to 1927, when Charles Lindberg was named the first “Man of the Year.”
It’s a list that includes Gandhi, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt (three times), Stalin, Haile Selassie, Ayatollah Khomeini, Martin Luther King, two popes, and every American president since FDR.
Time cites Musk’s ascent to his current status as the richest person in the world during an age of billionaire excess — and his efforts to massively disrupt at least two high-profile industries: automobiles and space.
But there’s something in Time’s story that hedges its bets, that sounds a bit self-conscious about the choice.
“This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit,” the magazine noted. “A clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.”
In his own explanation, Time editor-in-chief-CEO Edward Felsenthal bordered on the obsequious, even as he mildly acknowledged that we live in a time of rising protest against the gross wealth inequality of this era. “Like it or not, we are now in Musk’s world,” Felsenthal wrote.
Time’s Person of the Year is an iconic franchise, and, at 94, one of the oldest and best known from the magazine era. It ranks with the Fortune 500 and People’s Sexiest Man Alive.
These and lists like them defined the golden age of magazines. Even as print media itself is being eclipsed, these lists sometimes live on and retain cultural power. The question becomes when — and if — they stop being the powerful cultural touchstones they once were and instead double as mere marketing devices for once-dominant brands struggling to retain relevance.
Even on Monday, on newly dominant social-media brands like Twitter, users weighed in, and their observations were mostly negative.
“I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous,” one response to Time’s announcement read.
“Hmmm. Time magazine is still a thing. Amazing,” read another.
He's "the person of the year" for Time not for us, went a third reply.
“Elon Musk’s debut is a good time to remind you that he illegally threatened to take away stock options if employees unionized, and has had 43 workers' rights violations filed against his company since 2010,” wrote the former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.
“Let’s change the rigged tax code so The Person of the Year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else,” wrote the Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
“Elon Musk has come out against Biden’s Build Back Better bill, decrying government subsidies and excessive spending,” wrote the Washington Post columnist and CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria. “Yet government spending played a pivotal role in helping Musk build his business empire.”
OK, so there’s that. However unpopular a choice may be, stirring up a reaction is positive. It shows that people care and the Time brand matters.