That’s the thing about Vegas. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
The portly man in a baseball cap wading through throngs of tourists in the neon-flashing halls of Caeser’s Palace may well have been Elton John.
Why not? According to the giant billboard outside, he was scheduled to perform at the hotel that weekend.
Then a few minutes later I saw Rod Steward. He was coming out of a hotel that had a billboard outside advertising a Rod Stewart concert. The man had a Rod Stewart hair-do. This time my boyfriend saw him too but he didn’t think it was Rod Stewart, he thought it was just a man with a blonde mullet.
What’s the difference and does it matter?
The world of celebrity burns bright in British culture, although we’re probably a little reluctant to admit this quiet worship. It glitters in the distance, the ‘other world’. Untouchable, mystifying. Our TV, laptop and mobile screens are like tiny windows we can peer through; like timid little voyeurs.
In Vegas, it’s all out in the open. Showbiz intermingles with daily life. Celebrities perform every night on the Strip. They’re there, always, like sea-lions in a circus. But their availability strips away the glamour and makes the whole thing seem seedy, like the Hooters bar in our hotel, or the waitresses in the casino with make-up caked over their crow’s feet and their too-short leather skirts riding up their thighs. Maybe a man would disagree, but that much cleavage, that much leg and lipstick…it loses its magic.
Everything in Vegas is a simulation of something. If you’re familiar with Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, you may well consider this the perfect example. My mind isn’t as sharp or remarkable as an academic’s, so I won’t be able to explain it very well. I’m going to try though, because If I found it interesting, chances are you will too (you can skip this bit if you don’t really care).
Baudrillard’s hyperreality – as explained REALLY BRIEFLY by someone who doesn’t properly understand either
First things first: yep, you guessed it, Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher. His surname is pronounced ‘bodriar’ (at least that’s how I’ve been pronouncing it. Luckily it doesn’t crop up in conversation much). Let’s just call him Jean.
Jean wrote a lot about our perceptions of reality in a world saturated by the media.
His most popular theory (the one I purport to know) is outlined in his book Simulacra and simulation, which (with all kinds of irony, or paradox or whatever you want to call it) inspired the Matrix films.
As you know, fiction is a simulation of reality. When we write novels, or screenplays or whatever, we mimic reality. Hyperreality is a a state in which we can no longer tell the difference between reality and fiction. In fact in hyperreality, the fiction supersedes reality. It becomes reality. But these are all just slightly confusing sentences. Let’s look at an example.
Photoshopped photographs of celebrities
Pick up a woman’s magazine, any magazine. Inside you’ll find photos of women. Simulations of reality, right? Wrong. See any blemishes there? See any freckles, moles, or god forbid spots? Probably not. Because these images have most likely been digitally altered. Someone in a fancy editing suite has manipulated the pixels of a digital image to mask reality: to present a new reality to the world. The new reality is flawless. It’s skinny, cellulite-free and it’s beautiful.
The original image doesn’t exist. The woman you see in the magazine isn’t even real. Yet now look at us all, spending all our money on make-up and clothes and gym memberships and diet supplements and detox tea and teeth whiteners and anti-ageing creams – all because we think that we should look like that woman in the magazine. The woman who never existed in the first place.
So there you have it: a butchered explanation of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality. A simulacrum of its own, perhaps.
Las Vegas is hyperreality
This massive city didn’t even exist until 1905. Some men came along and poured long concrete roads into the desert. They dumped stuff there that simulated other cities where people lived and worked, like shops and hotels and bars and restaurants. Over time it became notorious for gambling. People flocked from all over the world to see the excess, the women, the opulence, the greed. It’s essentially a theme-park. A big dirty Disneyland for adults.
When I visited a few weeks ago it had this brittle air about it. As if the moment we flew out, engineers in fluorescent vests would flood in from nowhere and start dismantling everything.
There were homeless people sitting on the footbridge between the famous 5-star Belagio and somewhere else. They’d written on scraps of cardboard to tug the heartstrings of passing tourists. ‘We’ve lost our house, anything helps’ was written on one held by a young couple, not much older than us.
After we’d passed Matt said ‘I’m surprised the Belagio lets them beg here,’ and it occurred to me. Is it all part of the performance? The Vegas experience? This great, shameful gulf between wealth and poverty? WAIT A MINUTE, did the Belagio put them there to make everything else look more opulent? Like costumed characters in Disneyland? Or am I just meant to think that so I don’t feel bad about myself for not helping them?
Americans are greedy, our taxi driver told us on the way to the airport. They don’t spend money. They save it. They keep it. They look all glossy and beautiful from the front but the back of the casinos stink, he said. They really stink.
Las Vegas is the city that never sleeps. Down in the casino of The Palms, it was impossible to know what time it was. There were no windows, no clocks, no closing times. The machines flashed, the roulette wheels span, the waitresses served, the people gambled. We’d go to sleep and come down in the morning for the gym and it would be just how we left it. Glazed-eyed people feeding notes into machines, their faces lit up in pink and blue, waitresses circling with free drinks to keep up the illusion of night-time.
It started to feel oppressive. The music never stopped. They pumped it out of speakers in the pool, in the restaurants, bars, casinos – even the streets. Constant noise to keep the gamblers awake, to reassure them that it’s okay to keep going, keep spending. Don’t sleep, don’t go home, stay here forever.
The illusion was convincing, I’ll give them that. Baudrillard (Jean) once said (in French, probably) that Disneyland was created to make the outside world seem more real. He thought Los Angeles was a simulacrum too. I think I experienced something similar in Las Vegas. It made my actual life seem more ‘real’. As if my little life in Eastbourne is the truth, and everything else is the fiction. My holiday is just a story I tell now.
It seems as though certain ideas – like travel and wealth and celebrity keep us all in check. It makes us feel more ‘real’ and ‘grounded’ in comparison. But I don’t think the ‘world of celebrity’ really exists. It’s just how the media show it to us, or how we each show the world (through social media). We’re all contributing to hyperreality now. I guess we sort of believe it ourselves.
Perhaps I didn’t see a world-famous mega star in a casino in Las Vegas. Perhaps I saw the truth, the ‘original’. Not the Elton John in the blue-tinted glasses and velvet blazer from the TV screen, but the portly, unremarkable-looking stranger he is.