Hell or Las Vegas
It’s been twenty years since Las Vegas debuted “What happens here, stays here.” The slogan is a winking celebration of self-containment that, of course, has never quite been true. (Hence, perhaps, the marvelously redundant update three years ago: “What happens here, only happens here.”) If Las Vegas is, as writer and resident Amanda Fortini has written, “a place about which people have ideas”—i.e. a locale whose specificity is often ignored for received narratives—the Nevadan mecca has at this point also sublated into an idea in and of itself. A beacon “more brighter than the sun,” to quote the Cocteau Twins’s “Heaven or Las Vegas,” the city’s icons and ethos are unbounded by geography and suffuse the rest of the country, if not the world.
What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is everywhere. The internet has turned into a massive casino (with painfully non-digital stakes), as William Powhida makes clear in his portraits of “GraftKings,” those profiting from other people’s digital bets on meme stocks and independent coin offerings. Elsewhere, Jacob Silverman skewers the DeFi-crazed pseudo-populists claiming that anyone can win big, framing crypto-leaders as a cartel; and George Scialabba considers two books on private equity’s captains of post-industry, who make money not out of things but of spreadsheets. In conversation with historian Avery Dame-Griff, Jamie Lauren Keiles discusses a more utopian period of emergent tech: the dawn of Web 1.0, which quickly became a way for isolated trans people to connect with and learn from each other.
As manufacturing plummets, Sin City hospitality professors argue that the country’s future bends toward their home’s characteristic Fun Economy™: “tourism, plus sports, plus entertainment,” in the words of Bo Bernhard, vice president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This issue’s authors examine the underbelly of our new leisurely present. In Vegas proper, Michael Friedrich probes the nostalgia-tripping cash grab that is the recently opened Punk Rock Museum, while Liz Pelly looks at Amazon’s failed Intersect festival and the corporation’s devouring of the music business. Nationally, Rachel Wilkinson chronicles amusement parks’ post-Covid experiments in attempting to serve their customers “authentic reality.”
Maybe the question is who stays in Vegas, though the people who live there can be, as anywhere, peripatetic. Sam Sweet offers three portraits of gamblers and entertainers living between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and Erica Vital-Lazare contributes a personal essay about finding a home—and reconciliation—in the outlaw city to which her father fled when she was just four years old. Considering Pamela Anderson’s surprising (if brief) mid-career stint on the Strip as a magician’s assistant, Philippa Snow argues against simplified victimization narratives common to the recent boom in feminist reclamations of maligned women of the 1990s and 2000s. Isobel Harbison writes a requiem for Betty Willis, designer of the countlessly copied and globally reproduced “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, and the unsung women whose work is integral in making the city’s mythos.
Labor indeed makes Las Vegas tick, as David Hill writes in his account of the Teamsters’ mob-assisted role in building the city as we know it. From the taxi driver that picks you up at the airport to the bellhop that lets you into your room, Vegas is a union town going strong, a labor bastion in the middle of a right-to-work state and nationally declining union density. Hopefully what happened there can happen elsewhere.