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Town Without Purpose

Call it The Real World: Whatever. That’s the queasy image conjured by the recently announced partnership between Bud Light and Tinder, to amp up the promotional force of the grog merchant’s pop-up party hub “Whatever, USA”—the kind of promotional stunt that Roland Barthes might have dreamt up had he been a pledge to a frat at UC-Chico, the nation’s premier party school.

The new digital-and-fermented-barley brand alliance will focus on the same goal that sparked last year’s “Whatever, USA,” campaign—the production of a super-dionysian TV spot to air on Super Bowl Sunday. However, the risk of this creative partnership is that it will be less an off-the-hook paean to low-cal partying than B-roll footage from a late-era Real World promo. Tinder is, after all, a dating app that enjoys a not-entirely savory reputation, so its co-sponsorship strongly suggests that Whatever, USA, 2015 could be much the same sort of spectacle for twentysomething Millennials that The Real World, the mother of American reality shows, became for its Gen X adherents: a corporate-sponsored traveling circus giving energetic young people the license to get drunk on camera and barely clothed in a hot tub.

Like the various group-house sets The Real World’s producers assembled in a wide range of party-friendly urban neighborhoods, Whatever, USA, claims a rather bleary and slapdash parentage: it seems very much to be a middle-aged account executive’s idea of an unhinged young person’s party scene. Indeed, the campaign’s studiously blasé name coyly masks the intent of producing an image of beer-fueled excess stage-managed to titillate the middlebrow sensibilities of the largest family viewership in the network TV season.

More than 1,200 impassioned hedonists successfully auditioned on social media last year for a chance to be in Whatever—a notional everyplace that just as coyly suggests that it doesn’t really matter where you are and how you got there, so long as you have a case of Bud Light under each arm. These eager recruits were encouraged to yell “Woohoo!” unprompted, and sign “I love you” with horny thumbs and pinkies to the Bud-blue sky. (The more subversive-minded auditioners might also have thrown in some middle fingers targeting the buzzkills sure to be lurking beyond the camera lens’s fourth wall.)

It’s easy to place the iconography of Whatever, USA, within MTV’s three-decade run of youth-centric Spring Break programming, and its trademark battery of Puka-shelled VJs screaming over pop-punk muzak in front of assorted lush beach vistas. Still, because of its just-in-time indifference to place, Whatever, USA, can’t even offer these clichéd images of escape and hedonistic release. Shows like The Real World and Road Rules rotated among metropolitan, sometimes international, cities, while MTV’s Spring Break took over Acapulco and other Mexican resort spots. But Whatever, USA, adopts small-town America as its exoticized pleasure destination. Indeed, there’s another weird, and almost certainly unintended resonance to the social geography of the project: in its eagerly bustling transience and clear affinity for the malleability of lesser-known locales (and, uh, locals), the Whatever, USA, campaign resembles the company towns of yore.

Products of the first great industrial age, company towns began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as temporary encampments owned by one major firm, which also was the town’s main employer. In famous locales like Pullman, Illinois (the capital of railroad sleeping-car workers), and Buxton, Iowa (a predominantly black coal-mining town), the companies in question were akin to feudal lords—setting the basic terms of economic, social, and political life, and—when push came to shove—also employing private police forces to enforce their preferred conception of civic order.

However, in our own decidedly post-industrial and way-digital age, no such institutional bulwarks have to secure a given town’s brand integrity—a quick weekend dalliance and a fat check will do the job nicely. Last year, for example, Crested Butte, Colorado—a former mining town turned elite ski-getaway spot—agreed to host Whatever, USA, for $500,000, thereby returning to its original company-town roots for the duration of a lost weekend. In 2010, the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, home to Andrew Carnegie’s former steel empire, was co-opted by jeans manufacturer Levi-Strauss and Co. Levi’s paid Braddock $1,000,000 to serve as the company’s “spiritual mascot,” in a desperate post-meltdown ad campaign that sought to dramatize the can-do spirit of the battered American proletariat. But the only real redistribution it mustered was the seven-figure ad fee, which went into the town’s beleaguered treasury. No matter: the ensuing ad campaign produced by the partnership, “Go Forth,” featured a slew of motivational slogans for both the town and its host country, enunciated by actors mimicking the denim-heavy attire of Braddock steelworkers.

Whatever, USA, also resembles a more familiar kind of company settlement: the college town. Like Whatever, USA, the economies surrounding our ivory towers are entirely dependent upon fresh annual influxes of selectively recruited young people; and like the Bud Light pop-up franchise, many colleges also devote a great deal of resources towar hosting their own free-floating, all-hours pleasure spectacles. And here another, more sinister sort of community enters into the picture: the nationally sponsored fraternities and sororities that prey upon our young scholars’ seemingly inexhaustible desire for alcohol, sociability, and casual sex. That even a fake corporate town would invite, and seemingly encourage, this same combustible mix of alcohol and louche sociability suggests that the mainstreaming of the American frat experience is all but complete; one can only hope that the pretend venue of Whatever won’t spawn the sort of sociopathic sexual predators who make it so hard to watch the recent campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground.

Indeed, if you squint your eyes along the sybaritic American interior, you realize that the frat sensibility is everywhere these days. Big-name music festivals like Coachella, Bonaroo, and South By Southwest are little more than hipper versions of extended frat parties. And like Whatever, USA, they’re insta-communities summoned out of the ether to cater to the whims of intoxicated young people (as well as some richer, not-so-young—but still hip!—people). And like Whatever, these gatherings are are almost entirely funded by corporations. The Burning Man Festival, a hippie-throwback gathering featuring a toxic brew of psychotropic drugs and hardcore libertarianism, convenes each year in Black Rock City, Nevada, a locale that exists only during the duration of the festival. Indeed, Black Rock City’s name usually appears in print alongside the limited-partnership designation LLC.

While corporations are the great imagineers of these baroque studies in the placeless getaway, the truly chilling thing about Whatever, USA, and its kindred settlements is that they were envisioned (in this dizzy pomo incarnation, anyway) not in boardrooms, but in mordantly satirical fiction. In his masterpiece Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace prophesied the advent of something he called Subsidized Time, the lucrative gimmick of enlisting corporations to sponsor calendar years for the sake of boosting the nation’s raise tax revenue. The unnamed protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) is a “nomenclature consultant” tasked with naming a town. He might well have used “Whatever, USA,” as a placeholder during his creative process.

And as befits any fictional creation, the name Whatever, USA, encodes a sly linguistic trick. Spoken with the a certain emphasis, the phrase sounds a lot like “whatever you say”—a fatalistic tic of verbal deference that, in turn, calls to mind the political dreamscape that midwifed big indomitable New World myths such as the American Dream and Manifest Destiny. The sentiment behind “Whatever you say,” we might well add, also neatly sums up the spirit of resignation that makes “Whatever, USA,” such an indelible (if also un-mappable) image of American fun in an age of terminally diminished expectations. It seems, indeed, a short declension from “Whatever, USA,” to “Whatever you say” to “Whatever, dude” to “Resistance is futile.”