I am descended from a long line of gamblers, with games of chance serving as a strong multigenerational bond. In my family, learning poker and its many variations is a rite of passage, the threshold to maturity, and when finally able to confidently bet, bluff, and swear in Spanglish, you're allowed to sit with the grown folks while they drink beer and puff away on Marlboro Lights. My Friday nights as a child were spent bonding with my aunts and uncles at the dog track, the bingo hall, or the home of whoever was hosting that week's poker game. And between the ages of 10 and 18, I visited Las Vegas 12 times.
These visits consisted of exactly what you'd expect them to; aimless wandering, light shopping, heavy eating, the occasional show, everything but the true Vegas experience. I looked forward to the day when I too would feel the unforgiving pain of a hangover, the sense of disappointment following a loss on the casino floor. I wanted to mingle with bitter retirees and drunken bachelorettes, slovenly, denim-clad tourists and experienced card sharks.
Having recently turned 21, in keeping with family tradition, I made my pilgrimage to Sin City. I had high expectations after more than a decade of anticipation and three main goals for #SpringBreak16:
1. Get drunk
2. Get tan
3. Get rich.
After truly experiencing Las Vegas from a more mature perspective, unwinding with a well-deserved week of complimentary liquor, blackjack, and surprisingly cool weather, I can now say with authority that Las Vegas is hell on earth. This claim doesn't stem from any losses of lucre or dignity (I even won a sizable chunk of change), but the fact that Vegas is an amalgamation of every awful quality found in today's society. And this isn't some Bible Belt rallying cry for family values, this is a public attack on Las Vegas for veering away from its resplendent past in a charmless, modern direction.
I loathe nothing more in this world than pretension. I deplore pomp and relish in the mockery of anything or anybody employing unnecessary, and oftentimes undeserved, airs and graces. Las Vegas, at least the new Las Vegas, is founded on this concept. The early days of Las Vegas, the era of mafiosos and the Rat Pack, was a genuinely, faultlessly elegant time. While it was still a tawdry, Americanized reproduction of Monte Carlo, Las Vegas had a chicness to it that money couldn't buy and all the flashing lights on The Strip couldn't diminish. It was the age of tuxedos and taste, of husky-voiced, Peggy Lee-esque lounge singers crooning in smoke-filled rooms, of stars such as Bing Crosby and Marlene Dietrich selling out shows each night for record-breaking, six-figure weekly salaries.
The Rat Pack and La Dietrich: class defined
Then the 1960s barrelled in, unapologetically throwing tastefulness to the wind and resulting in my personal favorite incarnation of Vegas. An overweight Elvis, packed into a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, made his infamous comeback, Circus Circus, that monstrosity of a hotel/casino with an unbelievably tacky theme, opened, and women like Phyllis Diller, Charo, and Lola Falana, who each represented the dubious (if not nonexistent) taste levels of the '60s and '70s, were regular headliners. This Las Vegas was a loud, kitschy facsimile of its halcyon days. There was a wink-wink nudge-nudge quality to the whole affair, an overpriced joke that everyone was in on; Vegas knew it was something special, but its ever-increasing, verging-on-ludicrous glitz and ostentation made it laughably common. The town may have been an affront to decency, but it was a damn entertaining one all wrapped up in a flashy package.
Today's Las Vegas, however, is a bloated mammon staggering under the weight of its own legacy. The entire town has become a commercialized behemoth with no sense of mystery; a place where women who were beautiful four facelifts ago and are now entering Frankenstein territory hunt in packs for vaguely-European gigolos in pants that look painted on. Undulating crowds sweep through, past, around one another like some fleshy tempest. There is no underlying joke or thrill, nothing concealed that slowly reveals itself. Resting on the laurels of its infamy, Las Vegas prefers to club you over the head rather than, even for a moment, conceal anything from you; if the old Vegas was a fan dancer or showgirl, the new Vegas is a desperate prostitute willing to haggle.
As I looked on in horror at people stumbling in circles or spanking each other by the pool, I realized that Vegas, throughout its 70+ year history, has served as a visible representation (albeit a highly exaggerated one) of the state of America, of national tastes and mores, and that my dissatisfaction wasn't limited to Vegas, but to today's widespread, national, even international styles and sensibilities.
Vulgarity and garishness, at one point in recent history, retained a certain level of wit, and to take it all too seriously was to completely miss the point. Circus Circus, the sprawling hotel/casino opened in 1968, is barely surviving proof of that. A casino with a carnival theme would never be built in today's Las Vegas, in today's America, and its tragic state of decay, grimy attractions, and (to put it kindly) eclectic clientele only serve as a testament to the vast shift in public preference. Our modern society doesn't want high camp or riotous lowbrow fun, it wants to feel some semblance of luxury, of the Bellagio or the Aria or the Palazzo. With every passing day, Circus Circus, and the rich history it represents, fades further into obscurity and slides deeper into decline.
There is no instant cure to Vegas, or, to a larger extent, America. I'm not advocating for a return to the exact style of the 60s or 70s, but rather learning to laugh at ourselves and one another again and stop taking everything so seriously. It would require a national overnight realization that stereotypical ideas of elegance and style are passé, that sometimes we need a little mockery in our lives, a glimpse behind the facade of good taste and societal standards, to put things into perspective. America, Vegas, It's perfectly alright to strive for greatness, but it's best to have a little fun while you do it.