BRANSON, MO—Among the things that I dislike most in this world are patriotism, religion, tourist traps, country music, and the Walmart corporation. So I traveled to the one area of this nation that captures them all. It did not go as planned.
If you put the point of a grade school compass on the spot where Highway 221 crosses the Arkansas-Missouri border and draw a circle of about 50 miles radius through the rolling hills of the Ozarks, you'll take in both Bentonville, Arkansas, the headquarters and spiritual home of Walmart, and Branson, Missouri, the bizarro "Vegas of the Midwest" theater-packed vacationland that might more accurately be described as "Myrtle Beach Without the Booze and With a Great Deal of Church Groups on Bus Tours Being Ferried to Wholesome Variety Shows at 8 P.M. Nightly." It is the beating heart of Real America, and I was determined to drink its blood.
"Celebrate America!" was the official name of our press tour, courtesy of the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau. A "press tour" means that members of the media are provided travel, meals, and access to various places in exchange for being politely harangued at all times by a small army of PR representatives. Press tours are another thing I despise, which seemed to fit in with the overall theme of the trip. Coming along as my cameraman was Bucky Turco, a native New Yorker who is almost constitutionally incapable of talking about anything other than graffiti and weed. Meeting some Real Americans would do him some good. We had been to this part of Arkansas together once before, for a Ku Klux Klan meeting. I expected this journey to be even more hospitable. As the trip drew nearer, Bucky's enthusiasm grew. "This is the worst," he texted me. "How did I get myself into this? I wasn't even on drugs when I said yes." "I loathe Americans. And Americana." "I'll tell you right now I'm smuggling weed. No way I'm going to rely on a Branson hillbilly." He barely made the flight, arriving at the gate just as we were boarding, shaking his head. After an hour in the air, he arose from his seat.
"Well, I have to get this weed out of my ass."
We were greeted at the airport by Lynn Berry, Branson's chief PR person and our escort and driver for the trip. She was an accomplished middle-aged woman with a long list of accomplishments in her field and control of a multimillion-dollar marketing budget. She was not dumb. Not a bit. Yet she spoke with that honey-sweet "Bless your heart" Southern affectation of intense, polite agreement with everything that makes a mockery of any attempt at challenging conversation. Even when Bucky started ranting about various street artists and why they are or are not sellouts, Berry would strenuously agree, despite the fact that—and I don't think I'm speaking out of turn here—the street art scene in Branson is rather limited. Banksy's new piece? "Uh HUH!" Dan Witz's mosh pit paintings? "AbsoLUTEly!" This is actually a clever form of communications ju-jitsu, because, over time, you start adopting the same affectation just to fit in, until one day you hear yourself saying "That ghost tour was AMAZING!" and you wonder if you have lost your identity somewhere along Highway 86.
As we sat that night at our (first) pricey steakhouse being served our (first) $15 shrimp cocktails and chatting with the (first set of) PR people, it occurred to me that my anger towards press junkets is misplaced. Sure, they are transparent attempts to use the psychological mechanism of transference to manipulate the media, by tricking writers into transmogrifying their warm feelings towards the friendly PR people who are feting them so lavishly into warm feelings towards whatever it is that the PR people represent. But that is just their nature. You can't get mad at a termite for eating your house. It's just their way. The actual disgrace of these sponsored press tours falls squarely on we, the press. The problem is not that PR people are trying to bribe us with $15 shrimp cocktails (paid for with tax money); it is that the press has proven itself to be so reliably bribe-able that this has become standard operating procedure.
You can't find the beating heart of Real America inside a shrimp cocktail anyhow. For that, you must venture out onto the Branson, Missouri strip. Branson began as a sleepy mining town and gradually grew into a thriving tourist destination as local musical families began building theaters to entertain visitors who came for the fishing and the picturesque caves. Today, the Branson strip is the single most unlikely place west of the Mississippi. It has voted down gambling twice, and there is no vice advertised as far as the eye can see (though there seems to be a booming business in firms advertising "Get Out of Your Timeshare"). In a small town located in approximately the middle of nowhere are more theater seats than Broadway, hosting a set of shows that seem to have emerged from a time capsule from a, uh, simpler time. Yakov Smirnoff has his own show, and is one of the most famous men in town. Dick Clark has his own theater. There is also a "God and Country" theater, a "Dixie Stampede" theater run by Dolly Parton in which horses perform inside a huge recreation of a plantation home, a $75 million "Sight and Sound" theater showing an extravagant play based on the story of Jonah and the whale, several theaters boasting Chinese acrobats and musicians, a 1/2 scale recreation of the front half of the Titanic, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, a Hollywood wax museum featuring a six-story high Empire State Building being climbed by King Kong, a souvenir store called "Tourist Trap" with a bear trap as the logo, and putt-putt golf courses in dinosaur, giraffe, pirate, and fighter plane themes, and much, much more. There are also still a few of the real old-timey traditional Hee Haw-esque Branson hillbilly variety shows, like The Baldknobbers, who have their own theater as well their own eatery, with a sign reading "BALDKNOBB RS RE TA RANT."
The average age of visitors to Branson is 57. That means that for every teenager, there is a 100 year-old person. That ratio seems about right.
For the true classic country ass experience, you cannot beat the Presleys [no relation to Elvis] Country Jubilee, still running in the first theater built on the strip. Which we were granted the opportunity to endure. Hundreds of spectators, ranging towards the elderly, crowd into a theater to see what feels like dozens of members of the Presley family—almost everyone on stage is someone's son, or father, or wife, or sister—playing country and bluegrass and gospel and patriotic hits, interspersed with visits from the comedy hillbilly clown team of Herkimer, a simpleton in baggy overalls, and his son Cecil, an even-more-simpleton in pants pulled up to his nipples, a tiny red tie, chunky eyeglasses and a goofy baseball cap. Cecil's bits generally involve on-cue farting and pining for inaccessible women. It is an odd mix. The Presley family, dressed in red-and-gold spangled jackets that would not look out of place on a gay mariachi band, are meant to represent all that is wholesome and traditional about our great nation. They participate in the performance tradition in which everyone playing music on the stage smiles at all times. Even the drummer. Even the high school-aged junior Presley who came out to sing "Timmmberrrrrr/ I'm fallin' in love," her smile, purely a mechanical pose of the facial muscles unrelated to any discernible internal emotion, pasted on her face every last second. It's fucking creepy, frankly.
At the end of the show, after a solo spoken word tribute to the American flag, the entire Presley family lines up on stage in their gay mariachi outfits and sings a very solemn version of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah." Then everyone exits through the lobby, where you can purchase a Cecil doll. The Presley family's drummer is married to the mayor of Branson.
Though Branson is quite a draw on its own, it is but one part of the family entertainment wonderland that is the Southwest Missouri/ Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area. Just a few miles out of town sits Silver Dollar City, a massive amusement park with a sort of "America of the olden days" theme. One might mistake this for a "Wild West" theme, but a "Wild West" theme would imply nothing but saloons and cowboy gunfights and other exciting things. Silver Dollar City has more of a "Dreary Slog of Life in the Midwest" theme, where the infrequent wild cowboy is balanced out by ample doses of glass blowers, and candle makers, and corn grinders, and log-splitters. "Life in the olden days was not all fun and games," seems to be the underlying message of Silver Dollar City. The park was founded a half century ago at the site of a famous cave, now called Marvel Cave—but which was originally called "Devil's Den" by the Native Americans in the area, after a young Osage Indian on a bear hunting trip fell in it and died. This, then, is Silver Dollar City's most authentic all-American characteristic of all: it is built on top of dead Native Americans.
I should not sound so grumpy. The fine people at Silver Dollar City treated us to a breakfast with enough food to serve 20 or 30 people. Bucky and I, neither of whom eat red meat, guiltily passed down platters overflowing with pounds of bacon and sausage. I shudder to think how many hogs were slaughtered to provide us with this hospitality. The park itself was festooned with life-sized scarecrow figures dressed in overalls and gingham, frozen mid-lurch in fields of pumpkins. Stuck in the ground at regular intervals were signs bearing patriotic quotes from famous Americans. The park had a HUGE outdoor amphitheater, with seating for thousands, that hosted a "Great American Country Nights" show, but could have been easily repurposed for gladiators. We were escorted to meet the candy makers. Then we were escorted to meet the glass blowers. Then we were escorted to meet the blacksmiths, and the potter, and the log hewer, a lovable, gruff man who sported a long white beard capped off by a single tuft of white hair growing out of the tip of his nose. They all seemed very happy in their jobs, performing mundane tasks of the past while being photographed by tourists unable or unwilling to take their kids to Disney World. Bucky and I, though, were aching for a little time away from our (very attentive!) PR escorts. We finally bought ourselves an hour on our own. As soon as we did, a thunderstorm began. We sought shelter in the knife store, where Bucky bought a slingshot. Then we wandered the utterly deserted pathways of Silver Dollar City, soaked, with all the rides closed down due to lightning, searching for a place to sit indoors and get a coffee, settling for an awning by the employee break room. "Yo, what are we doing here?" Bucky said. I had no good answer.
On the way out, we were treated to lunch, again with a comically enormous ratio of food to people eating. Bucky tried okra for the first time ever. He also spoke in a pleasant way with Silver Dollar City's PR director, a blond former TV journalist whose almost supernatural enthusiasm for her job seemed the antithesis of New York City, where bitching about your job is a passion of hot dog vendors and Wall Street moguls alike. Perhaps middle America was seeping in.
The landscape of the Ozarks is "hills." This is not to say simply that there are hills there; there is nothing but hills, so that when you reach the bottom of one hill, you immediately begin climbing the next hill. Every structure is either at the top of a hill, at the bottom of a hill, or on the side of a hill. The earth looks like a bunched-up towel. This gives driving the same sensation as being in a boat that is cresting large waves. Lynn Berry told us that multiple journalists had thrown up out the window on the side of her car. It's little wonder that everyone here is a churchgoer. It would only take one small earthquake from a disgruntled god to send every house in the Ozarks crashing into a ravine.
We drove from Branson to Bentonville, Arkansas. Bentonville is the headquarters of Walmart. Entering Bentonville felt the way I imagine those old army messengers felt when they rode into enemy territory under a white flag. Every major Walmart supplier has an office in Bentonville, and Walmart recently moved its New York-based buyers back to Bentonville, making it the only town in northwest Arkansas with a large population of pissed transplanted urbanites who expect some decent fucking restaurants, thank you. We ate lunch in the chic restaurant at 21C, a boutique hotel that features a full art gallery inside. Overlooking the lobby of the hotel were two huge, wall-sized Kehinde Wiley portraits of young black men striking the poses of figures in classical artworks. They were a striking commentary on class, race, and Western ideas of beauty—and conveniently located just around the corner from Bentonville's Walmart Museum. Bentonville is about 2% black. The Bentonville police department has a Hummer. Bentonville itself, however, has a very low crime rate. Full of manicured parks and lush green lawns, it resembles nothing so much as the set of a Walmart ad.
Adding to the bizarre nature of little old Bentonville, Arkansas is the fact that it has a world class art museum. World class! It is also just down the street from, and not to be confused with, the Walmart Museum. It is called Crystal Bridges. It was financed by Alice Walton, a daughter of Sam Walton and one of the heiresses to the Walmart fortune. She is worth around $35 billion. All of her wealth is inherited. She likes art. She thought that middle America deserved its own world class art museum, so she had one built. No one, not even the most gossipy of the PR people, could tell us exactly how much was spent on Crystal Bridges, though they agreed that it was "billions, with a B." (Indeed, the Walton Family Foundation has contributed more than $1 billion for acquisitions alone.) At the same time, U.S. taxpayers subsidize Walmart employees to the tune of $6 billion a year, because they are paid so poorly that they must turn to public benefits to help themselves survive. In this sense, Crystal Bridges is one of the most grotesque monuments to economic injustice in the United States of America.
It is also an excellent museum. Set amid the Arkansas woods, a series of bridge-galleries hover over water. The interior is all new everything. The lighting is sophisticated. The doors open and close crisply. A giant metallic Jeff Koons heart sculpture hangs over the cafeteria, probably the world's most expensive restaurant chandelier. The museum is currently showcasing an exhibit called "State of the Art," consisting of new works from relatively under-the-radar American artists. There are portraits of Mexican-American men as hanging victims. There is a huge "amphibious inflatable suit" animal sculpture floating on the lake. There is an entire room with furniture, tables, and lamps in which every object is tied to string that is slowly, over the course of weeks, being winched inside a small hole in the wall, so that every object in the room will eventually be crushed and destroyed. There is a papier mache pinata that is a life-sized lime green 1964 Chevy Impala lowrider. There is even a young curator named Chad with an impeccably groomed beard and stylish eyeglasses, who seems to have dropped in directly from Brooklyn via wormhole, to explain to you exactly how Kirk Crippens' photographs of abandoned homes in Stockton, California so deftly straddle the line between photojournalism and art.
Crystal Bridges is, I'm sorry to say, cool.
And it is, I'm sorry to say, not the only cool thing in the Southwest Missouri/ Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area. We visited Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a tiny town of 2,000, full of Victorian homes set on dramatically sloping hillsides. It had been colonized by hippies and artists in the 60s, and today was still full of (aging) hippies and artists. Though some had succumbed to the temptation to open tourist-attracting art-lite galleries downtown, others were still producing legitimately cool shit. "Wow, this stuff could even sell in New York!" Bucky and I told a few of them, in what was, in retrospect, a disgustingly patronizing tone.
Employment opportunities in town, however, are limited. "They work in the tourism industry," Lynn Berry said "Only."(Berry's husband, the mayor-elect of Eureka Springs, was forced to dine with the visiting journalists twice. The life of a small-town mayor must be an awful diplomatic ordeal.)
Perched in the woods just outside of town is Thorncrown Chapel, a soaring church with glass sides topped by latticed wood beams that distinguishes itself by being 1) The pet project of one semi-obsessed guy who just decided he should have a church on his property, and 2) One of the most beautiful and important architectural works of the 20th century. It has the advantage of being a church where you can never get bored, because you're always looking out a window. Thorncrown Chapel is cool.
We spent the night in Eureka Springs at the Crescent Hotel, a rambling old building that had been restored to its original 1886 condition, so that it felt like the cast of Deadwood might emerge from a side door at any moment. The hotel is, unfortunately, rumored to be haunted—unfortunate because the truly charming old hotel markets itself to ghost-hunting aficionados, who are, pardon me, some of the world's biggest morons, right up there with Donald Trump Learning Annex class attendees. After another steakhouse dinner, we were treated to a lengthy ghost tour by Keith, an urbane, silver-haired former theater actor from Portland, Oregon who had done extensive and fascinating research on the hotel's history, and who relayed that history to us—a drowsy band of tiramisu-addled guests struggling to keep our eyes open—in great detail. Here, a girl fell to her death over a fourth-floor railing; there, a worker fell to his death onto a beam that is now this room; and so on. People seemed to have always been plunging to their deaths in this hotel, despite its outward appearance of safety. All of them returned to haunt the place, presumably for the sake of promoting tourism in Eureka Springs. In this economy, every little ghost helps.
Upon hearing that the ghosts usually came out between 3 and 4 a.m., Bucky vowed to wake up at those hours and go ghost hunting with his camera. I vowed to go to sleep. He did in fact get up in the middle of the night, but failed to capture any ghosts. Now, I am not a religious man. But the next morning, as the pink and orange rays of the rising sun burst over the rolling green hills out my window, illuminating the 66-foot high white stone "Christ of the Ozarks" statue visible in the distance, I had one very distinct thought: "I want to go back to bed."
My second distinct thought: "At least I didn't wake up in the middle of the fucking night to look for ghosts." A strong Christian refusal to believe in devilish spirits had paid off at last.
A trip into Real America is above all a test of faith. Like all tests of faith, it is a struggle. My struggle was against misanthropy. Yes, objectively speaking, I hate Real America and possess a semi-rational rage against its culture, likely a result of a childhood spent waiting for a chance to get out of the deep South. Yet I recognize that pure, unfiltered misanthropy, while superficially satisfying, is not a very useful journalistic attitude. And so, during my time in Real America, I sought to instead cultivate an attitude of honest curiosity. Maintaining this attitude made me feel like a Ghostbuster, struggling to control the writhing beam from the proton pack, lest it break loose and destroy us all.
On our first night in Branson, we went to the "Liverpool Legends" show at the Caravelle Theater on the Branson strip. This theater had the same dimensions and decor as a shabby, decades-old suburban movie theater with the lights turned on. The crowd almost exclusively had white hair. Four men—Americans, though with admirable fake British accents—played the hits of the Beatles, five nights a week, to a somnolent crowd of retirees. Another man dressed up as Ed Sullivan and introduced them. Five men, and a stage, and costume changes, and "Yesterday" and "Yellow Submarine" and "Let It Be," over and over again, unto infinity. "This," I thought to myself, "is where pop culture goes to die."
But is it? Or is it, rather, where pop culture goes to live? Is a career spent bringing joy to people by recreating the treasured songs of their youth something to be mocked? Millions upon millions of Americans flock to these shows. They spend their hard earned money on them. And they are entertained. Does it matter that I do not like them? That they are not to my own tastes—tastes equally provincial, in their own way, as those of the people that I dismiss as having no taste at all? Who am I to parade around Silver Dollar City, dismissing it all as crude and boring spectacle, when millions of visitors have spoken with their wallets to the contrary? Where the hell else are professional peanut brittle makers supposed to get a job, anyhow? Who am I to snicker haughtily at the spangled coats of the Presley family, even as their show, which they built up from the bottom of a cave, has persisted for decade after decade? Herkimer and Cecil the hillbilly clowns have their own dolls. More than I can say for myself. Their act, in fact, was powerful enough to have Bucky relentlessly humming "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," for hours on end.
"Yo, I don't even realize I'm doing it," he'd say. "Dew da dew da doo, da da dew, duh nuh nuh nuh."
Branson, Missouri is one big jangling monument to the failures of cool. It is the land that cool passed by. Coolness implies exclusivity; exclusivity leaves a certain class of people always excluded. And here they were, in Branson, Missouri: the elderly, and the church groups, and the crotchety veterans, and the flag-wavers, and the country people for whom what is and is not cool and of the moment would seem, quite rationally, like a ridiculous concern. There is nothing uncool about this place, or these people. This place stands outside and apart from coolness like the moon circling the earth, oblivious in its solitude. And in doing so, it shows just how shallow and unattractive our needy search for cool really is.
A self-proclaimed critic, jetting down from the big city to sneer at the locals. My search for Real American stereotypes had led me squarely back to myself. Coolness, and exclusion, superiority. For what? We all live in houses on top of a hill. And we all, one day, will crumble and fall.