NY Conversation October 2011

Nashville, Tennessee, is a city that’s famous for three reasons. The first, of course, is music — the place is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry and Jack White’s brand spanking new studio. The second is the fact that it’s home to a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, which exists for reasons that are too strange and lengthy to set out here.

The third reason is the fact that Nashville is home to the world’s 17th largest hotel, the adventurously-named Gaylord Opryland, which is the subject of this column because a) it’s bizarre and hilarious and b) it seems to embody certain aspects of America that will (hopefully) become clear over the course of the next 600 words or so.

Entering Gaylord Opryland is like stepping into one of those drawings of buildings that haven’t been built yet. Everything is perfect. It evokes the same existential dread as, say, an airport or a shopping mall, which is hard enough to take when the building’s purpose is mass transit or mass consumerism, but downright terrifying when it’s somewhere you’re supposed to stay (especially as the implication is that you need never leave, y’all!).

It’s difficult to explain the scale of the place without relying on non-specific superlatives like “gargantuan”, “enormous” and “really fucking massive”, so let it be said that Gaylord Opryland houses 3,000 hotel rooms, along with an indoor river (complete with boat cruises and a waterfall), a 20,000 square foot spa, 600,000 square feet of “flexible meeting space”, a terrifying nightclub, a Jack Daniel’s themed restaurant, an “authentic” Irish pub and a radio station. The complex is set out around three atriums (atria?), which are really huge outdoor areas that are like the unholy product of a theme park getting it on with a corporate campus. Only, they’re not outdoor — everything is under a colossal vaulted glass roof that, as we’re told by the intimidatingly efficient publicist who acts as our guide, involves two acres of glass. Two acres.

But, anyway, to the point. Three things occur to NY Conversation as we wander the endless corridors of Gaylord Opryland. The first is that constructing a place this large – with its river and multiple atria and air-conditioning bill that probably equals the GDP of a medium-sized African nation – seems to embody a quintessentially American desire to conquer nature, the pioneer spirit subverted into a desire for brute dominance. It recalls Palm Springs, that strange desert enclave of manicured lawns and golf courses — it exists as the embodiment of a Calvinist desire to demonstrate that the world is there to serve us, not vice versa. It must cost a fortune to keep this place running, and its carbon footprint must be immense, no matter how much its website proclaims its “commitment to sustainability”. A fellow writer asks our host what the place’s annual revenues amount to. Our host responds with a professional smile and no answer.

The second thought that occurs is that despite all the corporate genuflecting that has gone on over the course of the last couple of years – since the appetite of American banks to palm off predatory mortgages onto consumers ill able to afford them managed to bring the entire world’s economy to its knees, lest we forget – there apparently remains a huge industry fuelled by the desire of companies to pay large amounts of money in order to bring all their employees from various parts of the country together at places like this so that they can play mini-golf and drink themselves stupid at Findley’s Irish Pub™, all in the name of team-building. Conventions are big business. Big, environmentally disastrous, managementally dubious business that shareholders should be questioning, perhaps. But big nonetheless.

And the third is that this place represents a homogenised sanitised nametagged view of the world that’s kind of terrifying. It’s like a mini-Dubai, a plastic wonderland. As we cross the river that isn’t a river to walk into a serene English garden that’s neither serene, a garden nor English, we pass a sad-looking group of Vietnam veterans, who are all wearing matching caps and all presumably here for some sort of reunion. They look old and lost. I pass them and then stop on the bridge and look down at the fish swimming happily in the “river” below. It occurs to me that I feel irrationally sorry for these fish. They’ve never been in a real river. And they don’t even know the difference.

Photos by Leila Morrissey

As originally published in Inpress and the Drum Media

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