Pete Davidson, Public Muse
In 2018, the year Pete Davidson began his breakthrough romance with Ariana Grande, he’d already been a cast member on Saturday Night Live for nearly half a decade. He’s still a cast member, though he’s grown into a second, more storied career as a Public Boyfriend.
The Davidson/Grande entanglement accelerated quickly and in public. They teased it on social media, hinting at matching tattoos only weeks after announcing breakups with their respective exes. There was a major disparity in their fame: Davidson wasn’t all that well known outside SNL, while Grande was a pop star approaching the top of her game. Regardless, they seemed like a great match. They looked great together, their styles were complementary, and they’d both lived through tragedy and its aftermath. (Davidson spoke often about his father, a firefighter who died responding to 9/11, and his own struggles with mental illness; Grande experienced PTSD symptoms after 22 attendees to her concert at the Manchester Arena were killed in a bombing attack.) Their passion for one another was remarkably telegenic, culminating in Grande’s intimations that Pete had a big dick. (Here she was nearly reprising an objectifying lyric by her ex, Big Sean, which she’d reportedly found humiliating.)
For a few months the coupledom was as famous as either participant, and both participants benefited from the attention. While Davidson mainly basked in the glow (“it’s fucking lit, Jimmy,” he told Jimmy Fallon, about their speedy engagement), Grande had the talent and the wherewithal to make art. Her fourth album, Sweetener, debuted at number one in the thick of it all, and included a song named after Pete: “Fell from the sky into my lap/And I know you know that you’re my soulmate and all that,” she sang. “Gonna be happy, happy.”
The relationship was captivating largely because it seemed totally doomed from the start. And yet it felt taboo to say so; fans, even non-fans, were somehow protective. Any celebrity relationship will enact the romantic ideals of its spectators, but this one never seemed entirely ideal — it was more like a fantasy of a fantasy. Most people who’ve experienced a combustible infatuation know a couple of things: that they almost always explode, no matter how euphoric they feel, in fact the greater the euphoria the greater the flameout; and that, for the duration, you’d give a vital organ to make things work.
The unlikelihood of the couple’s success, despite their mutual insistence on it, was a source of premature, if unnamed sympathy that added to the pathos, and worked against schadenfreude. When two beautiful people fall in love, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit jealous. But there were indications that you might not want what they had. Actually, the fact that it was happening to someone else was kind of a relief: it’s much easier to experience that sort of derailing passion vicariously. And there was always a chance that it might work out, a gamble that offered hope to all the hopeless romantics. They lasted five months.
When Davidson alluded to their breakup in an SNL promo — proposing marriage to musical guest Maggie Rogers, in a crack about his quickie engagement — Grande scolded him for riding her coattails. Two days later, she released a hit single in which she named him in a backhanded note of praise (“For Pete I’m so grateful,” she sang, in a song called “Thank U, Next”). The video repeated the suggestion about his dick size, which had since become a very popular meme, which Davidson found humiliating. When people tormented him in the aftermath — playing the song over loudspeakers in restaurants where he was eating, and singing it to his mother at the school where she works as a nurse, along with bullying him online — Grande magnanimously called them off.
Grande’s response — a power move, if a helpful one in the end — wasn’t anything unique. For as long as the concept has circulated in popular culture, the “muse” has been understood to belong to her consort. When he’s finished with her, she is finished. Throughout the 20th century, whenever the exes of famous artists have attempted to document the experience of being with the artist, they’ve been heaped with scorn. “Lennon, as the whole world knows by now, was a complex character, brutal and humane, crazy and wise, conflicted as hell,” wrote a reviewer of John, a memoir by the Beatle’s first wife. “Cynthia, a Nice Person without imagination” — whom John abandoned, along with their child, Julian, without much of a financial parachute — “is simply not equipped to analyse the man who wrote ‘Imagine.’”
Lily Meyer, reviewing the NYRB Classics reissue of Françoise Gilot’s memoir, Life with Picasso, notes that Pablo “launched three lawsuits trying to block its publication — and 40 French intellectuals signed a manifesto asking that it be banned.” Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s first serious girlfriend (she’s the woman on the cover of The Freewheelin’), read it on a trip to Italy during her boyfriend’s ascent: “I felt I was reading a book of revelations, lessons, warnings,” she wrote in her own memoir; eventually, she got out. In her introduction to Life with Picasso, Lisa Alther notes that Pablo had “used Gilot’s likeness in hundreds of artworks,” but found it “scandalous if she portrayed him in hers.” Davidson echoed this sentiment in the aftermath of his split with Grande. “She has her songs and stuff,” he said in a Netflix standup special, “and this is what I have.”
The gender flip here is unusual, and so is the outcome: Pete Davidson, far from becoming an object of contempt, has remained an easy public presence. Aside from the standup special, he’s co-written and starred in a movie inspired by his life, while appearing here and there in other people’s films. He’s riffed on “Weekend Update” about his career as a tabloid fixture, which tends to overshadow his other work. Since Grande, Davidson’s romantic life has consisted of a string of high-profile and short-lived relationships with famous and beautiful women: Kate Beckinsale, Kaia Gerber, Margaret Qualley, Phoebe Dynevor, and now, quite possibly, Kim Kardashian. No longer the inspiration for one particular artist, Davidson is more like a free-floating muse for hire; a public muse.
The straight male muse is a rare entity; I can’t think of many others who’ve occupied the role quite like Davidson does. By “straight,” I don’t just mean that Davidson is heterosexual; there’s certainly a precedent for straight, or straightish male figures playing muses to queer artists and audiences (join me in thinking of Antonio Banderas in Law of Desire). I mean that he plays the role mainly for women and girls.
A muse is someone whose “being” is a source of inspiration; they motivate creative work, and make creative people feel a way that’s conducive to creating. They are not thought to produce very much on their own, but that’s an old-fashioned way of saying that what they produce is more of themselves. We can speak, then, of a public muse — a celebrity whose value is primarily in giving their audience something to talk about. This is a little bit different than being “famous for being famous,” in the old parlance — lots of people are famous but completely uninspiring. Kardashian herself was a public muse long before she became one to Kanye.
Somehow Davidson, without doing anything all that extraordinary, has always provided his watchers with material. Since he first got involved with Grande, commenters haven’t tired of pointing out that he’s “not hot,” which just means there’s no shorthand for the kind of “hot” he is. He’s clearly attractive by conventional metrics (in matters of attraction, as in all things, Americans are preoccupied with metrics): tall, slender, youthful, with full features, a full head of hair, and most importantly, a “big dick.” But — and the same goes for Adam Driver, another contested crush object — these features are somehow excessive, to the point of occasional grotesqueness. Davidson slouches, schlepping himself through the world like an overgrown teenage boy. His face, from some angles, resembles a set of wind-up chattering teeth. There’s an aura of off-ness around him that unsettles his attractiveness, while being as attractive as the attractive parts.
This tension in his looks stands in for the tension of his overall appeal. On the surface, it seems straightforward: He posses that winning mix of vulnerability and boyishness, and seems both “roguish” and “nice.” His woundedness, the unlikely note of sincerity in his self-deprecation — his disarming passiveness — protects him from the epithet of “fuckboy.” But he doesn’t entirely fit the mold of the wayward boy that girls want to save. He’s too good a narrator of his own dysfunction, and he’s much too successful with women to pity.
This is to say that Pete Davidson is interesting, largely because no one totally knows why he’s so interesting. More to the point, nobody really knows how he does so well. But somehow it’s not all that bothersome. His presence is comfortable, even generative.
There’s a difference between a heartthrob — a man that women and girls fantasize about making their boyfriend — and a Public Boyfriend, a role that Davidson may have pretty much created, although Succession’s Nicholas Braun (with the help of gossip sources like Deuxmoi) is a rising star of the category. Unlike Harry Styles, Pete Davidson is not a dapper candidate for “the perfect man.” He’s not a “sexy bad boy” like his friend Machine Gun Kelly, or a “beautiful specimen” like Timothée Chalamet. He’s attractive, but not a shining object of desire; he plays down his prowess every chance he gets, and possesses more charm than charisma. Neither husband nor heartbreak material.
More than any one type of man, Pete Davidson represents a type of relationship, one characteristic of post-Millennium dating. His relationships since Grande seem less intense and committal, but no less theatrical than that inaugural fling; theatrically speaking, the genre isn’t opera but indie rom-com. Each one seems to abide the same script: a few months of affectionate public appearances and hopeful quotes to the press, followed by a breakup that both parties seem basically at peace with, then another new thing. He doesn’t leave tears in his wake, that we know of, and no one seems to have a bad thing to say about him, at least publicly. Even Cazzie David, his girlfriend up until Grande, declared she still loved him as a friend. When Kaia Gerber’s parents (Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber) were reported to be fretting about his mental health, they seemed as worried about him as they were for their teenage daughter. Nowadays, most men in their mid 20s would take some flak for dating a teenager — but not Davidson. Beckinsale was 20 years his senior, and Kardashian is 13.
Davidson has carved out a niche for himself as a master of the fleeting engagement: the person you meet on an app, see for a few months, then part ways with as though you’d never met. His flings resemble the sorts of ephemeral attachments that many of his fans are likely most familiar with. More common than love, quite possibly a waste of time, with the potential to be much more destructive, but hard to avoid, if you don’t want to be alone.
The New York Post recently called him “the Warren Beatty of his generation,” but the comparison doesn’t really work: Beatty’s primary public identity was still as an actor-slash, his great looks were uncontroversial, and he came off as much more arrogant, much more of a cad. Davidson has shaped up into something like the ideal temporary companion: sweet, reliably unreliable, lovable but possible not to love — someone who will treat you well, but won’t let you get in too deep. A partner who won’t complicate your life, on whom you will think back fondly and without regret; a lover who’ll do no harm, a safe emotional bet.
Davidson’s relationship with Grande seemed both incredibly painful and pretty banal. The five-month flameout fling is a common genre of relationship, and it’s always a lot more devastating in the moment than seems justified in hindsight. Feeling that much about someone you likely don’t even like, and might genuinely never want to see again, is embarrassing and disruptive, though it’s valorized in movies and songs. Here, it played out with the same messy inevitability as it does over ordinary people’s social media feeds. It’s not as though Pete and Ariana are the first couple to get together and break up in public, but the combination of constant, nearly intimate exposure and too-fervent public conviction made it feel that much more high-definition.
Equally banal, and equally painful in sum, is the endless loop of short-term dating. It requires going through all the uncomfortable stages of getting close to someone, only to break apart and start it all over again, moving on as though it meant nothing though it felt, for a minute, like it meant a lot. It’s not ideal, even if it’s preferable to the alternatives of being alone or really sharing your life with someone else. Pete Davidson proves to his watchers that they’re not alone in their restlessness and disappointment.
It’s a bit unromantic to consider that finding “the one” often comes down to a process of elimination. Less about finding the qualities you want, or the person you’ve been waiting for, than the person who — for whatever stupid reason — happens to work for you: whose flaws you can stand, whose face you don’t mind seeing every morning, who satisfies you without sending you into scorching fits of sexual jealousy. There are obviously deeper rewards, but in the thick of a dating phase it can seem anticlimactic, a reason to prolong the game. Never underestimate the value of the right person for the right time.