Uttering the words Las Vegas in any conversation usually evokes a smile. A smile not of the innocuous variety, the type that could be passed along with pleasantries and in situations of ease; but a gravid smile, one that withholds a reflex, an opinion, a judgment, or perhaps a memory that instantly flashed in the mind of the one who decided to bestow that smile to the utterer. On the face of it, Las Vegas is merely a city, slightly more than a century old, but it has a reputation preceding it. Once upon a time in the middle of a desert, humans dared to replace the oppressive heat and glittering sand with neon lights, excitement, and entertainment. The result was an opulent skyline dotted with some of the most grandiose experiments of a civilization, creating lavish structures that emerged from the surrounding desert like a mirage.
Everything in Las Vegas is by design, meticulously crafted to pump a potent mixture of light and sound, frolic and feast, celebration and sensation, channeled through swishing alcohol and fluttering dollar bills. The energy here is palpable, and with some extravagance, it is possible to witness and indulge in the finest accomplishments of the modern civilization – art, cuisine, fashion, wellness, spectacles, and nightlife. The Las Vegas Strip – a 7 km long arterial road through the city – is organized as a series of mega resorts, each as grand as a mini-city with its distinct architecture and theme, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues. The old ones such as Flamingo, Caesars Palace, or Mirage, or the more recent ones such as Bellagio, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, or Encore – each resort offers an endless array of unique experiences and adventures in the comfort of precisely conditioned buildings that never sleep. These luxurious buildings are the beating hearts of the multi-billion-dollar economy that helped catapult Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world.
The gravid smile that appears at the mention of Las Vegas usually originates from its erstwhile hedonistic reputation – “What happens here, stays here,” was a famous credo for marketing the city until four years ago. The new slogan is a subtle variation – “What happens here, only happens here,” and perhaps a more befitting ode to its glut of entertainment options that are increasingly family friendly. The city was dreamed as a bold destination, with its own Rialto Bridge, and Eiffel Tower, and Colosseum, and Statue of Liberty, and Egyptian Sphinx – different resorts attempt to replicate Venice, New York, Rome, Paris, Cairo, Marrakesh, et al within their compounds, offering an unmatched spectacle.
While gambling in the city’s endless casinos is its most common stereotype, the allure of Vegas as a panoply of human expression and arts is less recognized. Music forms the city’s soul, both with big name shows (Las Vegas is host to some of the biggest music festivals) as well as intimate performances. And it can also be found in astonishing settings, such as the Bellagio fountain featuring more than a thousand water fountains choreographed to music. A highly recommended experience is to visit one of the performances of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian contemporary circus that hosts multiple permanent shows in the city: productions that defy what human bodies are capable of.
Las Vegas is a place with something for everyone. It's easy to take the route of casuistry in drafting one’s narrative, and fixate on the city’s history of crime, adult industry, and other vices. However, it might be more prudent to assess Vegas as a city of contrasts, where luxury and excess meet history and culture, where glamour and glitz often collide with continence and fortitude, and where foundational questions of philosophy about rights, wrongs, and justice appear both substantial and frivolous at once. When the bleak judgments are stripped off, what remains is a city of possibilities even for the most cautious of visitors, and a delightful escape from the mundanity of everyday life.
The first thing one might notice after landing at LAS is the odious smell of fries. It is yet another unremarkable American airport, replete with fried potatoes, fried chicken, fried bacon, fried patties, sugary drinks, and coffee, interspersed between flight gates used by thousands of souls each day queuing up to be projected into the sky inside pressurized metal tubes. There is a swarm of humanity; humans in different shapes, sizes, and colors; babies, often crying; old people, lurching their way through; all attempting to escape the place they are at, to get somewhere else, quickly, right now. The precise point in history when fortunes such as ubiquitous food, and wonders such as flying, gave way to an all-pervasive ennui in human minds is unknown. On the other hand, it’s downstream effect – of unfettered consumption – is well known.
Nearing the exit of LAS, the welcome signs adorned on walls are all too familiar gateways into the Sin City. Most narratives of the city’s history would describe Vegas as a twentieth century invention – of progressive government policies that transformed a land in the Mojave Desert into the entertainment capital of the world. It’s convenient: history is often too complex to fit into a text message, and usually unpleasant to indulge-in over fine dining. The Paiutes (the natives) who lived here for thousands of years since before the ‘common era’ began, and the story of their displacement by Europeans (the settlers, usually Mormon missionaries) and Americans (who fought with Mexicans to annex the entire region) is somber, complicated, and bears all hues of grey depending on the narrator. The history of these Native Americans isn’t obliterated either, it’s merely commoditized with casinos and hotels decorated with stereotypical imagery, where the tribal traditions are lost, and what remains is the vulgar cultural appropriation that could be exchanged for cash.
On Vegas’ streets, bright LED signboards, each the size of a church’s graveyard, display towering humans in front of garish graphics screaming for attention, goading other humans to consume something – a loud concert, some greasy food, a comic show, a place to gamble, clothes, or shoes, or women – anything with a promise of instant gratification, anything that can stoke concupiscence. The city's adult entertainment industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, built on the exploitation of women's bodies. Debauchery needs celebration, because when everything is available aplenty to the human race, there is little left that can satiate its forever quench for more.
Las Vegas is affluence in-your-face, a desert where one walks more on carpets than on sand, expensive cars and limousines line up in garages, energy burns at twice the average rate for America with thousands of slot machines whirring inside every building, a giant water fountain uses millions of litres of desert water outside one, a mega beacon of light catapults a beam up into the night sky from the top of one, and other absurdities that are as imaginative as they are an assault on senses. And like any other affluent parcel on the planet, the city successfully hides the have-nots amidst its sheen – the homeless parked on every pedestrian bridge, the trash collectors, the men and women in asinine costumes coercing you for pictures, the casino workers with their unforgiving jobs, the pole dancers, and the drummers of empty plastic buckets attempting to be heard over the din of overlapping amplified music from every corner. The extravagant resorts and towering hotels on the Strip manufacture a world of illusions, where reality could be distorted and stowed away amidst glitz and glamour, and a lewd fantasy could be created by exploiting people and nature.
The frenzied swarm of humanity continuously flows through the city like murky sewage in its drainage system of walkways, bridges, elevators, and escalators. People balancing ‘yard drinks’ in their hands drift aimlessly through buildings of glass and concrete that eclipse the sky, and gape at crass recreations of Rome and Venice replete with plastic plants and artificial skies inside those buildings. Here, the present presents a sneak peek into an eerily dystopian future when the most predatory species on earth will perhaps get permanently relegated underground after the remaining flesh on the planet’s cadaver has also been scorched.
Las Vegas is synonymous with casinos. And it’s those opulent gigantic spaces with their stationary air mixed with smoke and sweat and nonstop fluttering screens and beeping machines that truly represent a generation lost – where the innate beauty of the most intelligent life on this planet got substituted with sparkling machines of chance, where the profundity of human experience got bartered away for mindless ‘recreation’, and where the most intimate and authentic human feelings perished forever in a seductive trap of life behind screens and alcohol. And all this while, dreary crowds continued to queue up at 5100, Las Vegas Boulevard South to get their pictures taken under a signboard. It said: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.