Why I Left Nashville

Silicone may look good, but the real thing just feels better.

| May 11, 2001

All the NBA talk these days seems to have resurrected the sibling rivalry between Memphis and Nashville. But contrary to Bluff City beliefs, it's more city envy than rivalry. Most Nashvillians only think about Memphis long enough to say, "I wish it would just fall into the river," "Isn't that the largest city in Mississippi?" or simply, "Memphis is such an armpit."

Actually that last one was mine. Having grown up in Nashville, that's what I used to tell tourists when they asked me if visiting Memphis was worth the three-hour drive. I'd puff up and insist that Memphis was a sweaty den of misfits and crime, crumbling buildings and bad roads. And the faces of these tourists, no doubt having envisioned a romanticized, Route 66-ish trek to Graceland, would fall. For as a native Tennessean, I was an expert, even though I'd never really been to Memphis.

So a couple of years ago, when I began telling people in Nashville that I was moving to Memphis, I got looks of utter confusion. They might have been less shocked if I had told them that I was getting reverse liposuction so that I could add fat to my hips and thighs. And at first it did seem like a bad move, so I drove back to Nashville every weekend. But the longer I stayed away from Nashville, the sillier the Music City seemed.

Chalk it up to all the silicone and saline, the botoxed cheeks and collagen-plumped lips. Even analogously speaking, Nashville is a breast implant and Memphis is the real thing. Implants are fake and look perfect. Real breasts, however, are apt to sag, have stretch marks, and be irregular. It's all a matter of preference, really. But most everyone I've talked to that has a preference seems to agree that implants just feel weird. And that's why I've stayed in Memphis.

You can only take so much of a porcelain-veneered city before your psyche starts screaming for reality. The latest U.S. census figures missed some important factors -- like the massive numbers of retro-cowboy cool boys in Nashville or how many men in that city consider fashion to be a white spandex T-shirt with a tacky gold chain and a nipple ring. Sporting aggressively gelled hairstyles, they rapidly drop their ever-present platinum cards and hold huge, phallic cigars while constantly eyeing their conspicuously parked Ferraris. And that's just the men. Never mind the roving posses of attention-starved, puddle-deep Shania Twins or the endless supply of songwriters. Even my dry cleaner there had a demo tape and a publishing deal. (I took to calling them "singer-songwaiters" before I left.)

Plus, it's not the town to be in if, like me, you've got a low tolerance for Contemporary Christian Music stars hanging out in titty bars while hard-line Baptists talk only about keeping a lottery out of the state.

I tired of the fake smiles and even faker laughs, and the fake hair plugs and fake extensions that cap the fake-orange tans. Oh, and then there's the cocaine. And the cocaine. And did I mention the cocaine? After I moved, one of my favorite bars in Nashville combined the men's and women's bathrooms into one (a la Ally McBeal) and installed nose-level mirrored shelves on the walls. Just to make a quick snort even quicker, you know, keep the line -- the bathroom line, that is -- from getting too long.

In fact, a typical night out in Nashville goes something like this: You have drinks in one bar and then dinner in the trendy-nouvelle- California-pan-Asian restaurant of the moment with the hottest dumb hostesses and hottest dumb bartenders. After dinner, you have drinks in another trendy- nouvelle bar, but in this one the servers wear all black and never, ever smile. Next you hit a meat market bar (because even the married people seem single in Nashville), where "everyone" drinks a jumbo-sized raspberry-coconut-lime-martini and yells into their cell phones the whole time because "there's no one here," though the line at the bar is three- deep. "Everyone" then heads downtown to the corporately owned dance club of the moment.

After dancing for an hour or so, "everyone" decides that it's lame, if they hadn't decided that the moment they entered. So you go to the new as-yet-unproven club, and it's packed, and "everyone's there," so you stay until it closes. And then you go to an after-hours club, do whatever bathtub drug is en vogue and drink a lot of bottled water. (In the über-trendy club scene, alcohol is passé.)

These are the reasons why I left. Seriously, People of Memphis, stop with all this sibling-rivalry talk. Why would you want Memphis to be Nashville? With all of the sprawl to the south, sprawl to the north, sprawl to the east and the west, Nashville is hell-bent on first becoming the "next Atlanta" and then the "next L.A." -- and I don't know about you, but I hate both of those cities. I'll take Memphis' grit and, well, soul over Nashville's plasticized and airbrushed takes on reality any day. It stopped being a cool place to live about 10 years ago when someone on Music Row realized that "cool" could be marketed, exaggerated, adulterated -- and ruined.

Nashville's a shopping mall of a city. Everything is clean, perfect, and meticulously showcased for your browsing pleasure -- a Pottery Barn-ed, nonoffensive collection of mediocre attractions and "something for everyone" offerings. I'll pass. Give me some dirt, some grit, some depth, and soul. And keep your implants to yourself.

You can e-mail Rebekah Gleaves at gleaves@memphisflyer.com.

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