YOU CAN COUNT ON seeing the Naked Cowboy almost any afternoon on the little concrete island between Broadway and Seventh Avenue at 45th Street. The Naked Cowboy is not, in fact, literally naked, like the holy Jains of India. He wears a pair of undies that say “Naked Cowboy” on the butt, and a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots, and he carries a guitar. As for the rest, he’s all magnificent muscle and flowing blond locks. The Naked Cowboy spends a lot of time in the gym; he is the healthiest, handsomest, and possibly wholesomest street person in the history of Times Square. He appears to have descended directly from the Tommy Hilfiger billboard that looms far above his head, or perhaps from the electronic sign on the World Wrestling Entertainment store down the street—like a god come down to earth in human form. He is an icon of cleaned-up sex for the sexy, cleaned-up Times Square—a daytime cowboy rather than a midnight one. (He had never heard of Midnight Cowboy until a reporter asked him about it.)
The Naked Cowboy is an actual, individual person; his name is Robert Burck, and he hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. But he bears only a passing resemblance to the famous eccentrics who once haunted Times Square, such as the religious crank Rose Harvel, who preached a garbled gospel from the very same concrete island forty or fifty years ago. He has a persona, or a gimmick; and that gimmick, and the splendid expanse of gym-hardened flesh the gimmick is designed to expose, has made him a media figure. “I’ve been on Howard Stern thirteen times,” he said when I first approached him, in the late fall of 2001. At the time, he had literally wrapped himself in the American flag, patriotism then being very much in vogue. “I’ve been on Letterman, I just finished doing German TV, I’ve been on Good Morning America three times. I’m on CNN all the time. When someone does Times Square, they pretty much always include me. I’ve got my own movie going to Sundance. It’s a ninety-minute documentary about my life called Legend of a Naked Cowboy.”
The Naked Cowboy had done his routine—which basically consists of standing in his underwear and singing horribly—all over the country, but he had settled in Times Square because of the exposure it gave him. Like the hosts of Good Morning America, he was known to millions of people who had never seen him in person. When I told Alex that I had met a singing cowboy in underpants, he looked at me with the supreme condescension of the truly eleven, and said, “That’s the Naked Cowboy. He’s on TRL” —Total Request Live, MTV’s most popular show—“all the time.” And so he was. But for the Naked Cowboy, as for the other products advertised in Times Square, media exposure is a means to an end. He operates a website, which sells the trademarked underpants for $15, as well as the Naked Cowboy guitar and boots and CDs and the Naked Cowboy autobiography.
The Naked Cowboy makes pretty good money as an actual person in an actual place: whenever anyone asks to take a picture, he says, “You gotta put a dollar in my boot.” (“I’m only kidding,” he would add, feebly.) His boottops are stuffed with bills even on an ordinary weekday. At the same time, he is a merchandising phenomenon, a brand name, a self-created cartoon character—an emanation of the new Times Square of global marketers and global media. The Naked Cowboy isn’t a virtual street character, but he is the first street character of Times Square’s virtual age.
TO SAY THAT TIMES SQUARE has a “virtual” dimension is to say nothing more than that it is known through representations of itself as well as through direct experience; and that, of course, has been true since people started sending postcards of the place or, for that matter, listening to songs about the place. Thanks to FPA and Irving Berlin and touring shows, millions of Americans have known all about Times Square without ever setting foot in it. Broadway’s favorite subject has always been Broadway. But the production of images of itself is much more central to the new Times Square than it was to the old. When “the media” meant signs, songs, popular magazines and movies, one could say that the media played a central role in transmitting the life of Times Square to the world. But the media are now inextricable from that life. Disney or MTV, and even in their own way Reuters and Condé Nast, do not simply transmit popular culture; they are popular culture. These media institutions want to be in Times Square because Times Square is the center of popular culture; but the very fact of their choosing to be in Times Square is what makes it the center of popular culture, just as it is the Toys “R” Us flagship store that makes Times Square “the center of the toy universe.”
But it is not enough to say that the great firms that traffic in imagery have a dominant presence in Times Square. The megastores and global retailers that have settled there are also, effectively, creatures of the media. They depend on Times Square to help shape their brand identity, as John Eyler of Toys “R” Us puts it. They want to be associated with the new Times Square brand—with that sense of unthreatening urbanness, contained exuberance, family fun. The power of the Times Square brand inheres in the fact that it is infinitely reproduced, and thus fixed in the minds of millions of potential consumers. This, of course, is precisely what Eyler understood when he booked Bill Gates for Toys “R” Us’s opening night event, thus exploiting the media power of three global brands: Toys “R” Us, Microsoft, and Times Square. It is, in fact, only the media, with its blizzard of images, that makes it possible to instantaneously create or retool a brand.
What makes Times Square so powerful a place, at least in the calculations of global marketers, is that it is so intensely there—so dense with people, lights, buildings, history, emotion—while it is also one of the central nodes of the worldwide media network. It is Times Square’s actuality that makes its virtuality possible, for McDonald’s or Toys “R” Us as much as for the Naked Cowboy. When newscasters need an image that says “urban throngs” they often use a clip of Times Square. In the middle of the Oscars, ABC, which is owned by Disney, showed a clip of crowds watching the telecast on the big screen above the Disney studio in Times Square. ABC’s Good Morning America broadcasts from the studio every day, sometimes showing images of the crowd from the ground floor, sometimes of the buildings from the second floor. NBC’s Today Show broadcasts from Rockefeller Center; Good Morning America positions itself in a different way through its association with Times Square.
Total Request Live, MTV’s version of American Bandstand, airs every afternoon at three-thirty from the MTV studio on the second floor of the Viacom Building, at Broadway and 45th Street, directly above the Naked Cowboy’s patch of concrete. The outer wall of the studio is made of glass, so the studio audience and the performers, and the million or so kids watching at home, can see out to the street, and the people on the street can see in. When the Baha Men, or the Backstreet Boys, or Busta Rhymes, or No Doubt perform on the little bandstand, the camera shoots over their shoulders at the Pepsi billboard across the street featuring Britney Spears wearing a red garter saucily over her hip, or Pamela Anderson vamping for Pony, or Nelly at the Virgin Megastore. You could say that MTV is giving those brands—the human ones as well as the institutional ones—a free ride, or you could say that those brands are so central to MTV’s identity that the show is exploiting its connection with them. The implicit message is that TRL is coming to you from the head office of the brands you love.
But the show has a much more complicated relationship to Times Square than that; or, rather, it offers a much more complex version of Times Square than is conveyed only by the billboard forest. Every weekday afternoon, usually starting around three, the show’s adolescent fans, often with their parents, begin to gather on the sidewalk below the studio. On a low-profile day, just a hundred or so kids will stand under the studio; on a big day, the fans will fill the space inside the police barricades on the pavement, and then spill over to the sidewalk in front of Toys “R” Us, directly across the street and a good two hundred feet from the glass wall. When the Backstreet Boys came, in the fall of 2001, an estimated five thousand people choked the sidewalks, and the police were forced to close several lanes of traffic on Broadway. The crowd is real, their passions are real, and Times Square is reality itself; the relationship with the fans on the street gives TRL a special sense of authenticity.
But from the point of view of the crowd, it’s the show that’s real. The kids, and their parents, have parked themselves on the sidewalk in order to participate in a world they’ve only experienced indirectly, on TV. The show wants access to the crowd, but the crowd is only there because it wants access to the show—because it wants to be part of TV. The high point of the show comes when a star walks over to the window, strikes a pose or mimes a greeting or plays air guitar—and the crowd screams as one, and the kids frantically wave their hand-lettered signs: “I love you, Ashanti!” “I am your fatha’, Ja-Rule.” Sometimes a star even descends from the electronic realm to their own. Mariah Carey once waded out into the crowd and nearly caused a riot. And so there is a continual back-and-forth between the “inside” world of the show itself and the “outside” world of Times Square.
Total Request Live is staggeringly popular for a program that appears on cable television in the middle of the afternoon; and there is little question in the minds of the people responsible for the show that the feverish crowd on the street has a great deal to do with the program’s cachet. And the fact that it was a happy accident adds to the program’s air of uncalculated calculation. Bob Kusbit, the senior producer, says that when Viacom, the parent of MTV, first moved to Times Square, MTV executives thought the second-floor space overlooking the street would make a fine gym. Even when the studio was built, and TRL was launched as a live show featuring music videos (that was in September 1998), Times Square was expected to serve as a picturesque and demographically appropriate backdrop. “We never said, ‘Come on down to Times Square,’” says Kusbit. “It just started to happen where you looked out the window the first week of the show and there were twenty people standing outside with a sign saying, ‘Hey, Carson’”—for Carson Daly, the show’s thoroughly adorable young host—“or ‘Megan Says N Sync Is Number One.’ So we invited somebody up. The next week there might have been fifty, then the next week it might have been a hundred, and pretty soon it started to become this sort of mecca for music fans to show up outside the studio.” Kusbit and his colleagues knew they were onto something big when they conducted their “You Wanna Be a Deejay?” contest, and five thousand kids, accompanied by a battalion of TV cameras, showed up at the front door.
Kusbit talks about the way TRL benefits from its identification with Times Square in much the same way that John Eyler does about Toys “R” Us. “It is the center of pop culture,” he says, “and TRL is so much about trying every day to be at the center of pop culture for its audience.” The show has, in fact, been criticized for offering up a steady diet of teenybopper music to the exclusion of grittier, less mainstream performers; but in this regard TRL is no different from Toys “R” Us or the ESPN Zone or McDonald’s or any of the other mass merchandisers of Times Square. It’s a democratic show, in the lowest-common-denominator sense in which the developer Bruce Ratner describes 42nd Street as a democratic experience. TRL gives people what they want, rather than telling them what is worth wanting. As Kusbit says, “The beauty of it is that the show is about the people anyhow. They vote for the most popular videos, they pick the order of the videos, we talk to them out in the street.”
Total Request Live is really about providing youth culture with an image of itself. It is, on the one hand, a sexually charged self-image. Both the lyrics and the videos themselves are overtly sexual in a way that would have left the kids on American Bandstand goggle-eyed. The same is true of those giant images of siliconized teen babes on the billboards out the window. And yet the atmosphere of TRL is friendly, wholesome, fun-loving, even innocent. The studio audience, which functions as a microcosm of that culture, consists of eighty or so teenagers, almost all of them nicely dressed and well groomed and wildly enthusiastic, sitting in bleachers around the stage. The girls are almost guaranteed to cry if they get a chance to meet J. Lo or a Backstreet Boy. Carson Daly himself has often been compared to Dick Clark, the host of American Bandstand. He asks innocuous, not to say vapid, questions, never pries, always finds nice things to say to the kids in the audience, and has pep to spare. And he makes a point of standing up for good values. At one show I attended, he introduced Joel, who appeared to be working at the show on some kind of internship. “Joel thought up ‘The TRL Spelling Bee’ and ‘Spin the Bottle with Britney,’” Daly explained. “We made a deal with Joel—keep your grades up, we’ll keep you in the show.”
In other words, TRL has the same kind of reciprocal relationship with the Times Square brand that Toys “R” Us does: it offers an upbeat, consumer-friendly image of pop culture, and thus of Times Square, the world’s capital of pop culture; and it uses Times Square’s own image to help shape its own. It has, in effect, created a Times Square of its own— a sexy, friendly, brand-conscious, rocking Times Square, a Times Square of Naked Cowboys rather than Midnight ones—and made that place vividly real to millions of people who live far from New York. It is, in fact, something of a joke among hard-boiled New Yorkers that tourists will gaze rapturously at the Virgin Megastore on the other side of Broadway and say, “That’s the place we saw on TRL.” And of course they have seen it as well on Good Morning America, and on CNN, and in countless TV shows and movies. They have consumed the Times Square brand before ever actually coming to Times Square.
I SPENT AN AFTERNOON at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the company of Mark C. Taylor, a philosopher at Williams College. Taylor is a deconstructionist, or perhaps a postdeconstructionist, who believes that the sharp distinction most of us insist on between “the real” and “the virtual,” or “the not-real,” is perfectly untenable and mostly reflects an atavistic wish for things to be just what they are, and no other. Taylor has written a book, Hiding, which advances the argument that the very idea of “depth,” and thus of “deep meaning,” is an illusion—that you can keep peeling away surfaces, and in the end you get . . . another surface. “This does not mean that everything is simply superficial,” he writes; “to the contrary, in the absence of depth, everything becomes endlessly complex.” Taylor loves the new Times Square of myriad reflective surfaces, of electronic apparitions fostered by global entertainment companies; it was his idea that we meet at Madame Tussaud’s, the perfect place for a lesson in virtuality.
Madame Tussaud’s is, of course, one of the chief “entertainment concepts” of Times Square, an international chain of “museums” which traffic in representations that confound the distinction between the real and the not-real. This particular Madame Tussaud’s features a Broadwayinflected grouping of statues called “Opening Night,” a party held in a kind of Roman courtyard featuring flawless effigies of Elton John, Elle MacPherson, Sarah Ferguson, Donald and Ivana Trump (separately, of course), Nicolas Cage, George Steinbrenner, network news anchors, and, rising majestically from the fountain in the center of the room, the famous cross-dresser RuPaul, naked under his sequins, à la Josephine Baker (whom we also see later). Elsewhere are world leaders, athletes, figures from the French Revolution; here, in the place of honor, are the heroes of the media culture. The room is itself a tribute to the endlessly repeated imagery that makes for modern celebrity.
As Taylor and I were standing at the edge of “Opening Night,” I noticed an old woman with a handbag posed behind the newscaster Matt Lauer. Who in the world was she supposed to be? And then she moved: it was an old woman with a handbag. Taylor was delighted by this play of appearances. “Who’s that?” he said to the friends of another woman standing next to Elle; and they all dissolved in a hail of giggles. “There are wax museums out west where they have Greek sculptures that have been colored,” he said. But of course, many Greek sculptures were originally colored. The fake was truer than what we experience as the real. He had read, he said, that the criteria by which a forgery was detected were the same as those used to judge the original. “In other words, what constitutes the ‘authenticity’ of the authentic?”
Taylor showed almost no interest in the actual simulacra before us; what fascinated him was the idea of the simulacrum, and of Times Square as the center of a proliferating world of globalized images and messages and data. “Times Square,” he said, “is now about globalization. Look at everything Virgin is into, and it just explodes.” It was an airline that had ramified into a music store. “What they’re trying to do is create the Virgin way of life. And who knows what Viacom owns, and how all these things connect? And then there’s this whole question of inside and outside. You have these studios, ABC, MTV, or ESPN, which have shows where they will literally make the audience perform at certain moments—live TV.” Taylor was, of course, thinking of TRL. He talked about Las Vegas, another node in the network of global imagery; the difference between the Vegas of Robert Venturi et al. and the Vegas of today, he said, was “the difference between automobile culture and driving down the road, on the one hand, and electronic culture and being inside a virtual reality terminal.” The Times Square equivalent was the forest of electronic signs and studios, gesturing over our heads to one another. “There’s a sense in which in Times Square you’re inside an imagistic, virtual space,” Taylor went on. “It’s the image that is being continually replayed that is creating the space.”
Taylor understood Times Square as the all-but-perfected form of a new world, a world whose essential commodity was information, and which was thus based on the insubstantial, the transitory, the instantly transmissible—information as a universal currency into which all the solid things of the world are translated. In the world of bits, distinctions between surface and depth, high and low, original and reproduction, fall away. This was the world described by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who, in Simulacra and Simulations, declared the death of a stable world of correspondences, in which, say, the relationship of physical territory to map was understood as that of a real thing to its abstract representation. By contrast, in a world of simulations and infinite reproduction, Baudrillard writes, “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map which precedes the territory— precession of simulacra—it is the map that engenders the territory.” The map engenders the territory: the TV show creates our sense of the reality of the place; the street figure as well as the toy store dissolves into “brand identity.” And the territory—the original—does not survive the reproduction: “No more mirror of being and appearances,” Baudrillard writes.
Like Taylor, Baudrillard is fascinated by the emerging world of global imagery; he has written an almost Tocquevillean account of America. And yet he describes the precession of simulacra as a species of death. “Something has disappeared,” he writes: “the sovereign difference between [territory and map] that was the abstraction’s charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.” One might well say much the same thing about this new Vegas-ized Times Square whose advent Taylor was announcing. I asked Taylor how he felt about the place. Did it have any of the attributes of a “place”? Could you situate yourself in it, even find yourself at home in it, as people have found themselves at home in Times Square for a hundred years? Taylor considered this for a moment—he is a very fast thinker—and replied, “The question of home, and feeling at home, is a crucial one. In some sense, the real is always elsewhere. Part of the dilemma is to get over it and get on with it.” Perhaps, Taylor said, the wish for familiarity, for charm, was itself an anachronism in the global city. “I don’t think that kind of cozy gemütlichkeit is attainable, and I’m not sure it’s desirable.”
Isn’t it, though? Are we really equipped to occupy a world of simulacra? Am I? I assume it’s just that wish for “a cozy gemütlichkeit” that attracts me to the Howard Johnson’s, and the Polish Tea Room, and McHale’s. And surely what draws so many people to Broadway theater is the wish for a familiar, anachronistic kind of simulation, where the gulf between being and appearance is perfectly stable and legible, and where the very setting provides a powerful link to the past. (Mark Taylor himself lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a place redolent of its eighteenth-century origins.) We crave, still, not only the magic of the concept but the charm of the real, even if we no longer know exactly what we mean by the word “real.” And that is why it is hard to share Rem Koolhaas’s deadpan embrace of the rootless, postmodern “generic” city.
Standing at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, with Disney duking it out against Viacom, and Reuters against Condé Nast, we do, indeed, feel that we are occupying “an imagistic, virtual space.” And it is a thrilling space, the crossroads of the colossal enterprise of pop culture—just as it was, mutatis mutandi, a hundred years ago. It is both a particular place and a virtualized, electronic no-place. The giant cylindrical NASDAQ sign reminds us of this new world, whose lifeblood is a bit-stream. There may be no other spot on earth where we feel so utterly a part of our new millennium. Baudrillard would, I’m sure, be mesmerized. And yet at the same time, we draw back—from the bit-stream, from the simulacrum, from the millennium itself. We stand in awe of this stupendous contrivance; but we are happy, in the end, to slip away to the quiet side streets toward Sixth Avenue, to the little bars and shops and restaurants that occupy an older, localized place where things are as they are, and not otherwise.