Las Vegas looks like Myrtle Beach if the sandblasted and tacky South Carolina vacation town were relocated to the surface of the moon. You half-expect to see space junk or a broken down Mars rover lying among the cinderblocks and desert flora of the city’s numerous abandoned lots. A major part of this effect owes to the exuberant 1950s atomic age kitsch that defines much of the strip and downtown LV; the stylized and flamboyant signage and jagged architectural lines of hotels and casinos rise up to slash the big western sky, with the sleekness and bold geometry of a Miro painting or Bauhaus chair but without the tendency toward sparseness and severity in much modernism. The city also has strains of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the twin tourist traps that draw millions to gift shops, amusement parks, and gaudy stage shows in the mountains of east Tennessee. Like Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, Las Vegas serves as a major center of live entertainment that caters to a variety of impulses: bawdy and unembarrassed sex appeal (in an age where Internet porn seems to make a lot of onstage titilation seem stilted and corny), outmoded and unfashionable tastes (show tunes), nostalgia (worship of 70s dinosaurs like Queen, Alice Cooper, KISS), and celebrity infatuation in the form of impersonators (of course). These cities are major centers of live performance, much like more celebrated hubs like Nashville, Los Angeles, or New York, but without any interest in highbrow sophistication or even praise from middlebrow critics. It’s a long way from Lincoln Center or even the Grand Ole Opry to Circus Circus.
As an entrepôt where people are air dropped in, drink, eat, play and leave, it evokes scenes of seedy pit stops in sci-fi space operas like Star Wars, where bums, bartenders and men on the make try their luck before moving on to the next moon or planet. One can imagine a grizzled and toothless alien mumbling through the streets of Vegas in the aftermath of unfortunate events involving alcohol and gambling – another casualty of freedom in a glitzy outpost of the galactic market. It might be said that the movies evoke Las Vegas, not the other way around, as the exemplar of capitalism freed from the constraints of morality or social context; a world defined by transience and anonymity, where humans and spiky plants cling to the surface of a hostile environment and turn themselves over to fate, i.e. the market (much like the increasingly popular multiplayer game EVE Online, where corporations vie for dominance in a stateless and lawless cosmos). Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” and the influence of the American westerns is clear on Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which unambiguously portrays an age of space travel as a “wild west.” Vegas’s landscape of chance and survival, its flamboyant modernism and grimy sensuality seem to have seeped into our perceptions of what society might look like when divorced from everything but sand, money, color, and light.
It is hard to look at the ethereal colors that crackle over the strip at night without thinking of William Leach’s study of early 20th century consumer culture, Land of Desire, which discusses the discovery by merchants that colored light (in electric signs and shop windows, for instance) could be used to enchant skeptical consumers by creating an image of a secular, materialist paradise that could replace more traditional notions of the good life based on self-denial and frugality. Las Vegas has taken this lesson to heart and spared no expense where the electric bill is concerned. (In this respect, tiny McAdenville, NC, aka Christmastown USA, comes to mind; the unlikely tourist destination regularly draws traffic stretching a half mile down I-85 with visitors who wish to see the hamlet dressed up in lights for the holidays, an electrical indulgence that Pharr Yarns subsidizes for the townspeople.) Certainly, the work of John Findlay, Eric Avila and others on the creation of “magic lands” like Disneyland in postwar America also bears profoundly on the evolution of an urban landscape in Nevada devoted almost entirely to service, entertainment, and recreation; the city also shares with the new theme parks and private residential communities (Sun City in Arizona, Celebration in Florida) the pervasive presence of security and surveillance by mostly private entities, in ‘partnership,’ as always, with the police and other public agencies.
Of course, there is also the seminal text Learning from Las Vegas (1972), which encouraged scholars, planners and architects to look at the kitsch and jumble of the commercial strip as a legitimate way of organizing space in an age of automotive transit. Previously derided as a vulgarian miscarriage by serious experts (who were busy at the time bulldozing the ‘blighted’ homes of the poor in the name of urban renewal and building boxy modernist boondoggles in their place), the highway world of strip malls and gas stations began to receive new attention for its humor, functionality, and vernacular charm. In fact, JB Jackson anticipated this sympathetic approach to the commercial landscape of the new southwest in the 1950s and 1960s, with essays such as “The Abstract World of the Hot Rodder,” “Other Directed Houses,” “Places for Fun and Games,” and so forth. The other-directed house was a structure that announced itself to the world, that was oriented toward the passerby on the new interstates and highways, cajoling them to come on in with busy signage and bright colors – quite unlike the traditional home or office building that was inwardly focused, at least to some extent. We at T of M would be interested to know what the anarchic romantic Jackson would have to say about the increasingly monumental, imposing, and fiercely privatized landscape of the contemporary Vegas strip – a far cry from the strip malls and roadside pit stops that he so eloquently memorialized decades ago.
In thinking about the gaudy moon colony that is Las Vegas, one might turn to a suitably glam star of the 1970s who knew a thing or two about the value of spectacle: is there life on Mars?