Last night, I had the privilege of watching local comedian Ben Oddo's sold-out screening of his documentary on the bachelorette scene here in Nashville. I worked with Ben on a project called The Ben & Morey Show back in the day. That project was fashioned as a sort of late-night talk show, but instead of dumb celebrities, we’d invite prominent local figures on stage. We hosted everyone from a local Wiccan to mayoral candidate Charles Robert Bone to Andre Prince of Prince's Hot Chicken fame.
The documentary is set up as an investigation wherein Ben probes the city’s “Bachelorette phenomenon,” pitting camps who support and oppose the industry against one another to draw out some sense around the issue. Surprisingly, most of the folks in the peripheral industries who make most of their hard-earned pay from the bachelorettes were…ambivalent. Thankful for the money, but keenly aware of their effect on the city.
Some interesting numbers from the doc to clarify what that effect is:
- The Bachelorette industry is a global phenomenon, netting approximately $8 billion per year
- The CEO of the BACH app claimed that 20% of the parties they help plan go to Nashville. Roughly 4,000-5,000 per month.
- According to Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, who is interviewed in the doc, bachelorettes account for just under 1% of total tourist visitors in the city.
So while yes, bachelorettes are a scourge for most of us, they account for a tiny, albeit vocal, portion of tourists pouring into the city. The owner of the Ainsworth (where I've never been and will never go willingly) drew a comparison to The Field of Dreams, saying: "If you build it, they will come. Well, we built it!" Nashville has certainly built it. Like the scent of marijuana in San Francisco, Nashville has its own signature sensation: the sound of the wooing woo girls.
Ben and his crew navigated the bachelorette scene with great empathy—something that I would not have been able to do because I lack empathy (that's a joke for those in the back). The laughs were plentiful; hopefully, I can score a screener for y'all if you're interested in watching. I imagine Ben having a series in which he wanders into various subcultures, blind as a bat, and tries to make sense of them. A kind of How to with Jon Wilson meets the old school Good Neighbor Stuff YouTube interviews with Kyle Mooney of current SNL fame.
There’s one point peripherally mentioned in the movie which I’d like to elaborate on here: the reorientation of the city towards tourism and away from residents. One commentator in the doc pointed this out, preceded by the BACH app guy, who went into why having a "brandable" city is important. Nashville residents’ concerns about the tourism industry exercising undue influence on the city’s direction are not unfounded. What Ben's documentary made clear to me was that bachelorettes are not specifically to blame. Yes, they make a lot of noise and such, but as far as the rowdy crowd getting banged up on Broadway goes, the bachelorettes are probably the best behaved and arguably spend more liberally than your average weekend tourist.
Tourism is Tennessee’s second-largest industry. In 2019, tourism brought in $23 billion in travel spending and $1.92 billion in state and local revenue tax. Those are state-level numbers which include the most visited national park in the country by a factor of three, but Nashville still draws significantly more capital than that. According to a Tennessean report, "Music City tourists spent, on average, $20 million each day in Davidson County. Direct tourism spending totaled $7.36 billion and business sales were $12.3 billion – more than double the next-largest tourism center."
In short, tourism is a giant industry and, as with any other industry, it holds sway over a not-insignificant portion of the city's leadership. The transpotainment legislation that emerged from the Metro Council earlier this year reflected the desire of actual residents to exercise some sort of power over the city as it has an affair with the tourism industry.
Such concerns are a central theme in Michel Houellebecq's novels. Houellebecq is French, and through most of his books, the backdrop is a disintegrated culture in which hollowed-out towns and cities redesign themselves entirely to appeal to visitors. This leads to the destruction of "French cuisine" because travelers demand more palatable dishes– meaning entrees that match their culinary preferences, rather than those of the French themselves. Restaurants offering this faux-French food spread like a plague through the countryside and, in many places, ethnic restaurants appealing solely to the country which drives the most tourism dollars into that area arise.
When tourism takes control of a place, the character of the city becomes irrelevant. Spas and hotels emerge. Nice restaurants and venues occupy visitors’ time. Instead of reflecting some authentic aspects of the city, the city comes to reflect tourists. Any rough edges are sanded off, and the experience offered becomes undifferentiated from that of any other Las Vegas wannabe.
To Houellebecq, the destruction of French civilization begins and ends with its attempts to draw in visitors—be they permanent or temporary. There's a famous map that shows the most photographed places in the world. Unsurprisingly, most of them are in Europe. The irony of the tourism industry, of course, is that it feeds off of the hard work of locals and the unique spirit they cultivate in an area. After it’s done bottling that up, it turns it into something entirely different: an undifferentiated grey-goo of mass appeal with its spirit hollowed out and sold to the highest bidder.
Firms like AJ Capital have become the ultimate boogeyman in this fight despite their efforts to retain some sense of locality in the properties they purchase. I’d hypothesize the target's on their back because they’re a smaller firm, less visible than their corporate counterparts like the Marriott.
In any event, there's no turning back the clock on this stuff, and frankly, I don’t have many solutions. Fortunately, we still have neighborhood enclaves apart from the bustle of Broadway that have maintained their character; as someone who grew up here, I can still reliably hit many of the neighborhood spots and see someone that I know.
One idea might be to restrict investments from outside the state. But, despite the Metro Council’s protestations against transpotainment, if you go to a Council meeting the only people there are real estate developers keeping careful watch over their projects. So, it seems likely that real estate developers have the council in their pocket and they’re unlikely to budge on any serious legislation that would prevent the overreach of such things from occurring.
All this is to say is that Ben's documentary provided fertile ground for a sane discussion around this stuff. Hemming and hawing against the bachelorettes is about the same thing as yelling at the TV while watching the Titans. Nothing you say is going to make Ryan Tannehill complete a pass. The best we can hope for is exercising some influence on the city's direction to ensure it doesn't morph into another Vegas. I don’t think the fight is lost yet.