“Yeah, well, that’s just, ya know, like, your opinion, man.”
—THE DUDE, The Big Lebowski (1998)
“What is real? How do you define ‘real’?”
—MORPHEUS, The Matrix (1999)
“But did it matter whether it was authentic or not? Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”
—KARL OVE KNAUSGÅRD, in The New York Times (2015)
IT SEEMED AS IF THINGS had returned more or less to normal. We survived the late 1960s and their ’70s aftermath. Civil rights seemed like a done deal, the horrendous war in Vietnam was over, and youth were no longer telling grown-ups they were worthless because they were grown-ups. Revolution did not loom. Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll were regular parts of life. Starting in the 1980s, loving America and making money and having families were no longer unfashionable. Plus: whoa, computers, then the Web. It was all good.
The sense of cultural and political upheaval and chaos was over—which lulled us into ignoring all the ways that everything had changed, that Fantasyland was now scaling and spreading and becoming the new normal in America. What had seemed strange and amazing in 1969 or 1974 had come to be unremarkable and ubiquitous. The water in our national hot tub was still getting hotter and hotter—and most of us happy frogs, lah-di-dah-di-dah, didn’t notice.
Extreme religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices, Christian and New Age and otherwise, didn’t subside but grew and thrived—and came to seem unexceptional.
Relativism, the idea that nothing is any more correct or true than anything else, became entrenched in academia—tenured, you could say. But it was by no means limited to the ivory tower. The intellectuals’ new outlook was as much a symptom as a cause of the smog of subjectivity that now hung thick over the whole American mindscape. After the 1960s, truth was relative, and criticizing became equal to victimizing, and individual liberty absolute, and everyone was permitted to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.
As the conservative elite positioned itself as the defenders of rigor against the onslaught of relativism, its members preferred to ignore the unwashed masses on their side, the reactionary hoi polloi activated by America’s extreme new believe-whatever-you-want MO. Anti-Establishment relativism had erupted on the left, but it gave license to everyone—in particular, to the far right and in the Christian fever swamps.
The new ultraindividualism extended well beyond lifestyle choices. Finding your own truth and doing your own thing came to mean not just getting high and watching porn but objecting to irreligious public education and owning as many guns of any kind as you wished. It meant a revived American commitment to markets, amounting among some to an almost religious faith.
Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream.
Many more Americans announced that they’d experienced fantastic horrors and adventures, abuse by Satanists and abduction by extraterrestrials, and their claims began to be taken seriously. Parts of the Establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real.
America didn’t seem as weird and crazy as it had around 1970. But that’s because we had stopped noticing the weirdness and craziness. We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his 1985 jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death.
IT IS NOT MUCH OF a stretch to say that in the 1980s and ’90s, our country became an amazing coast-to-coast theme park, open twenty-four hours. The boundaries between entertainment and the rest of life were definitively dismantled. America became addicted to the make-believe of drag—by which I mean everything from new buildings meant to look old or foreign to the geeks at Comic-Cons and Burning Mans dressing up as fictional beings. Casinos were suddenly ubiquitous. Celebrity-obsessed news media sprawled. Reality television was born.
And consider wrestling, the professional and fake kind, which suddenly became a huge, quintessentially American cultural phenomenon and business. To me, all professional sports exist adjacent to Fantasyland. Every NFL or NBA game is a televised adventure story, a narrative played out according to rules of strictly defined genre—but unscripted, the outcome unknown, entertaining spectacle and real life merged. The stars are as close to superheroes as reality has on offer.
Pro wrestling emerged during the entertainment boon times of the 1910s and ’20s, when it had to compete both with ascendant sports like baseball and boxing as well as with theater and now movies and radio. Pro wrestling split the difference between the two: real people in physical competition, but the characters and action and outcomes all extreme works of scripted and improvised fiction. During the 1930s, the sensible American public registered and rejected the phoniness, and pro wrestling went into decline.
It had a brief renaissance in the 1950s, thanks to the new medium of TV, which needed content, and all the networks started airing matches. California’s athletic commission officially agreed to keep pretending professional wrestling was real. If people preferred to believe an entertaining lie was true, that was their right as Americans. In 1957 matches were suddenly drawing Madison Square Garden’s biggest crowds for any events in years, and one night, as a pair of “hero” and “villain” wrestlers kept “fighting” after their match finished, audience members started fighting over the outcome. Five hundred New Yorkers rioted, throwing punches and bottles. “Many of the fans,” the Times incredulously reported, “believe the sport to be a true contest—of skill and strength.” But that seemed like the swan song; pro wrestling’s fakery was still a fundamental problem; it was a niche taste; as TV got flush and respectable, the networks moved on. During my youth in the 1960s and ’70s, pro wrestling was a ridiculous, low-rent artifact quickly headed, everybody figured, for oblivion.
Until the 1980s. Cable TV programming had arrived, even more shamelessly willing than broadcast TV had been to sell anything. And then the networks, feeling threatened by cable and because the free market totally ruled, abandoned their old qualms about presenting fantasy as reality and began broadcasting wrestling once again. The new laissez-faire economic era also permitted a de facto monopoly to form what became the World Wrestling Federation and then the WWE. The businessman in charge of the monopoly, Vince McMahon, had a brilliant insight, realizing that America’s Barnumesque strain had reasserted itself: fake versus real was no longer the point, because wrestling’s audience was now fully habituated, as one scholar of the realm has written, to “believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time.” And so during the 1980s, the WWF and other promoters were finally free to end the Big Lie. In the old days, wrestling always officially insisted it was real. Finally it could stop pretending, because “real” and “fake” were relative, because nobody really cared anymore.
In less than a decade, pro wrestling mushroomed from a business generating a few tens of millions to half a billion a year. The audience expanded beyond its old blue-collar yob niche to the middle classes, families, college kids. It was transgressive, a fun con. And the real and fictional parts of the wrestlers’ lives were now indiscriminately mixed and merged. In professional wrestling matches, any occasional, inevitable bit of unscripted authenticity was known as a shoot—old-time carnival lingo for when the gunsight on a shooting gallery’s rifle aimed accurately. The standard fakery of matches in pro wrestling was known as work, and in the 1980s WWF producers invented the worked shoot: as one historian (and fantasy novelist) explains, they started incorporating “the real events of wrestlers’ personal lives as part of the story…alcoholism, cheating relationships, childhood trauma and problems with the law are fused from reality into the fantasy.”
Is there a more apt metaphor for our recent cultural transformation? America became a worked shoot.
One of the WWF’s lawyers who lobbied in the 1980s to get pro wrestling deregulated—to persuade the government it wasn’t a real sport, even though for a century it had pretended otherwise—was elected to the Senate in the 1990s and has run for president twice. Rick Santorum disingenuously defends pro wrestling as a genre of “morality plays” that are “a non-elite artifact of our culture that has survived by trying to keep up with the envelope-pushers in Hollywood and New York.” The last time Santorum sought the Republican nomination, in 2016, he lost to a much bigger figure in the wrestling world. Before entering politics, the current president of the United States had sponsored WWE events at one of his casinos, then became a WWE character pretending to slap and body-slam McMahon on stage, and finally got inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
This blending of entertainment fictions and real life was also a central feature of one of pop culture’s only wholly new genres since the 1960s—rap and hip-hop. It makes perfect sense that hip-hop burgeoned at the same time as pro wrestling: gangsta rap in particular was a brilliant worked shoot. The raps and the musicians’ public personae were highly embellished versions of their real lives. Eazy-E and Ice-T and Biggie Smalls really had grown up in horror-show neighborhoods and had been (minor) gangsters, some rappers genuinely hated each other, performers who got rich did consume ostentatiously, guns were carried and sometimes used, Biggie and Tupac were assassinated (the former on Miracle Mile in L.A., the latter on Las Vegas Boulevard). The mantra was Keep it real, but it was also all a show, fiction and reality a single fabulous melt sandwich, fans and sometimes the performers happy to forget the distinctions. Hip-hop superstars like Jay-Z are the Buffalo Bill Codys of modern Fantasyland.
At the same time, many more Americans knew much more about many more celebrities—because celebrity-obsessed journalism and quasi-journalism expanded by an order of magnitude from the 1980s on. It became both glossier and more legitimate (Vanity Fair) and, on television every day, practically inescapable—Entertainment Tonight, then Extra, then Access Hollywood. Once again this was a new condition. One could now consume for hours a day a multimedia news diet consisting exclusively of information about and pictures of people in show business. The full-blown celebrity-obsession fantasy, of being pals with famous people and living like them, was taken a big step further in the 1990s by InStyle, Time Inc.’s last successful invention: a whole magazine of specific instructions—how you could use the same mouthwash as Madonna, wear the same underwear as Sharon Stone, sleep on the same sheets as Kevin Costner, and smell exactly like Jennifer Aniston. Starting at the turn of the century, the flip side of that fantasy was served up explicitly by Us, which now came out every week: paparazzi photos of famous people looking unglamorous and performing mundane tasks, previously unpublishable, were reframed as a way to let nobodies feel celebrityesque: “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!”
Feeding this vastly expanded celebrity-media maw required lots more famous people. Reality television came along in the nick of time. It had been invented twice before, with Candid Camera at the dawn of TV and then during the Big Bang, but nobody noticed. An American Family was a gripping, groundbreaking documentary series in 1971, shot over seven months, about an upscale Santa Barbara family unraveling. For TV executives, it was not a let’s-copy-that eureka moment but a one-of-a-kind creation, a prototype for nothing. It was too highbrow, a sad documentary on PBS, just twelve episodes that took two years to produce. And it was also too lowbrow: back then, a genre based on milking the intimate everyday real lives of ordinary people would be gross, and a semifictionalized cross between documentary and game show literally unthinkable. But a generation later in the 1990s, as TV was becoming fully Barnumized, that suddenly seemed like a genius idea. MTV made The Real World; in 1999 and 2000 came Survivor and Big Brother. Sometimes there were prizes, but mainly what people won was a bit of fame. Reality television has reality in the name, but from the beginning, reality shows consisted of high-concept stunts, carefully cast, authored if not strictly scripted, and definitely performed. Transforming ordinary, mostly talentless people into celebrities became a television genre and then an industrial sector. TV was transformed.
AS PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL and football and “wrestling” blew up by reinventing themselves as larger-than-life, aggressively contemporary entertainment forms, baseball went the other way. Baseball is more like American sports used to be. Most of the players are still white. The games have their same old relaxed pace. More than any other sport, in other words, a haze of nostalgia hangs over baseball. So that nostalgia was indulged brilliantly in 1992 in decaying, depressing old Baltimore—with Camden Yards, a brand-new baseball stadium for the Orioles designed and built to look and feel exactly like an old-time baseball stadium. Shazam: if you squint, it’s 1951 again! Camden Yards was instantly beloved by everyone. Other teams and cities rushed to copy it.
Camden Yards was inevitable because American architecture had been taken over by postmodernism in the 1980s and ’90s. New skyscrapers and shopping malls and residential buildings were practically required to reproduce or refer to styles from other eras or continents. Some architects professed to hate the new tide of nostalgia and make-believe and imagined themselves heroically swimming against it. Yet most of those “modernist” resisters simply designed buildings that evoked styles of a different old days, Euro-flavored glass-and-steel retro instead of wood-and-masonry Americana retro, Tomorrowland rather than Main Street USA and New Orleans Square. This change struck informed observers as remarkable. A “shift has taken place in the way we perceive reality,” the great architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1992, “a shift so pervasive that it has radically altered basic assumptions about art and life….The replacement of reality with selective fantasy has been led…by a new, successful, and staggeringly profitable American phenomenon: the reinvention of the environment as themed entertainment.”
As I’ve described, America’s suburbanization after World War II amounted to the first step in the absorption of real estate development into the fantasy-industrial complex. Then came the theming of suburban chain restaurants and the rest of retail, followed by nostalgically reinvented downtowns. After that, canny executives in other sectors came to understand that in America their businesses could also be understood as show businesses. In 1999 a renowned management consultant published a book about the “entertainmentization of the economy,” explaining how the financial and automobile and other industries had joined the movie and TV and music and publishing industries as marketers of appealing fictions. It seemed unremarkably true.
“What you market in a car,” the CEO of a car company finally admitted, “is not about what you use but about what you dream.” Indeed, the American auto industry’s signal success of the era was in selling an enormous toy that allowed people (especially men) to imagine they were tough, sexy, independent daredevils who might at any moment haul off into the uncharted wilderness for an adventure. In the early 1980s the market share for SUVs had been close to zero; by 1999, it was 19 percent. Adults who’d grown up watching Combat! and The Rat Patrol and MacGyver were now driving actual Jeeps (and Expeditions and—in my case—Land Rovers), playing army or cowboy every day.
The fantasy business of gambling grew much larger. Once state governments took over the numbers racket—that is, lotteries—they kept sliding further down the slippery slope. States colluded in the 1990s to create national lottery cartels that amped up the fantasy quotient; Powerball and Mega Millions encouraged even more wildly unrealistic dreams of even vaster wealth. Eventually most Americans would become regular lottery players, with the poorest third, probably not the least magical-thinking cohort, buying half the tickets.
And the states doubled down on the retailing of fantasy by legalizing casinos. Casinos are fantasy environments engineered to deny ordinary reality—no clocks, no views outside, plenty of booze. For most of a century, the industry had worked fine existing only out in the Nevada desert—and then in New Jersey. But after 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indian reservations were exempt from gambling laws, states saw no reason why white businesspeople shouldn’t also profit from citizen-suckers’ fantasies. During the 1990s half the states legalized casinos. Some legislatures permitted gambling only under a special double-fantasy system: casinos had to float on bodies of water, as if that prevented the state from being sullied. So they were installed in nostalgic old-timey showboats and required to motor up and down rivers to sustain the fiction. But after a while they were allowed to remain docked, and finally they no longer even had to keep make-believe captains and crews. Despite the presence of casinos nationwide, Americans seemed to crave the full Nevada immersion even more, like believers making pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Mecca. As Las Vegas turned into a city posing as a theme park—with hotel-casinos that were huge new simulations of ancient Egypt (the Luxor), medieval England (the Excalibur), the seventeenth-century Caribbean (Treasure Island), Renaissance Italy (the Venetian), contemporary France (Paris Las Vegas), and New York City (New York–New York)—the number of visitors tripled.
At the other end of Nevada in the 1990s, a different adult fantasy theme park, chic and singular, was established for one week a year—Burning Man. On the Fantasyland family tree, Burning Man has deep roots in the late 1800s (the original world’s fairs), but the main trunk is from the 1960s (hallucinogens, happenings, be-ins, Woodstock, costumes-as-clothes, worship of nature and the primitive), and adjacent stalks from the 1980s (live action role-playing) and ’90s (cosplay). Every year since its founding, bohemian fantasists have assembled, as many as twenty-five thousand or more at a time, to spend a week in the desert several hours from Reno, camped in a mile-and-a-half-wide semicircle called Black Rock City. They spend a sum approaching $100 million for each of their Brigadoons. They dress as unicorns, birds, mermaids, geishas, chanteuses, time travelers, butterflies, anything, everything, or they wear no clothes at all. They roam around superb fantasy architecture—rococo polygons and furniture the size of small houses, glowing flowers as big as trees, bridges, log cabins, Shangri-La temples. At Burning Man, they step through the looking glass—that is, through the LED screen—to inhabit Azeroth or Tatooine or the fan-fictionalized nice section of the postapocalyptic Mad Max world.
Not so long ago, American adults never dressed up in costumes, certainly not as an annual ritual. When my daughters reached their early twenties, obsessing more than ever over their Halloween costumes, they were shocked when I told them that. The change happened recently, and it is another small expression of the new protocols. In the 1980s, after the Halloween parades invented by freshly out gay people in San Francisco and New York, dressing up on Halloween became a thing straight adults routinely did in every corner of America.
But why did Halloween have to be just a single day, and why couldn’t the adult insistence on fictional authenticity become more narratively elaborate? Thus live action role-playing—LARP—took off, allowing people to become characters acting out stories in the real world, sometimes for days at a time. The founder was evidently a young actor in Manhattan who liked reading Lord of the Rings out loud by candlelight with his pals while high. When they went to the next level, staging a Hobbit War outdoors on somebody’s parents’ farm, it was the ur-LARP. But LARPing soon became a medium rather than a genre, a platform instead of a particular game. LARPs started as combat games, as participants used weapons made from sticks taped with foam, then more and more abandoned fighting. Every possible premise and milieu generated LARPs—Old West, detective noir and Nancy Drew, futures dominated by AI or zombies, fictional pasts based on H. P. Lovecraft or Nicola Tesla.
One of the points of LARPing is to remain in character, to be a fictional being for hours or days at a time. LARPers have a disparaging phrase for real life, mundania, and people who never LARP are called mundies, like muggles in Harry Potter. For players eager to blur the lines between their real and unreal selves even more, Nordic LARP arrived in the United States in the 1990s.* It de-emphasizes all the kid stuff, the combat and magic, and goes for more realism, with players aspiring to experience bleed, as they call it—to let their characters colonize their minds, to dream in character, to lose track of where real and fake begin and end.
* Fantasyland islets appear almost everywhere, and this particular one has arisen in northern Europe in a big way. According to Time, 2 percent of Danes LARP. But again: it was invented by Americans in America.