Home Entertainment Vegas, Baby! The Role of Las Vegas in Pop Culture

Vegas, Baby! The Role of Las Vegas in Pop Culture

by Scott Kacsmar
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Las Vegas Strip Sign

Over the last century, Las Vegas, Nevada has left an indelible mark on pop culture. Everything from casino gaming to nightlife to sports and other forms of entertainment have been influenced by Sin City.

Ask young kids where they want to go on vacation, and the most common answer will be Disneyland. But Las Vegas is Disneyland for adults, and that is why it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. Its success is such that the best offshore sportsbooks try to capture and emulate the essence of this gambling mecca and offer it to their customers.

Let’s take a look at the role Las Vegas has played in shaping pop culture.

The Nightlife

Las Vegas Strip Sign

Before Instagram influencers with smartphones redefined what a lavish lifestyle looks like, Vegas was the model for glitz and gluttony. A place where you could party all night and partake in many different vices from drinking, drugs, gambling, and prostitution. This is how Sin City earned its nickname.

Walking the Las Vegas Strip is a dopamine hit itself with all the lights and eye candy from the various resort hotels and casinos. The opportunities for a fun time are endless in Vegas.

It is no wonder Vegas is a top destination for bachelor parties and of course for those spur-of-the-moment weddings themselves.

Casinos and Gambling

Las Vegas Strip Sign

Gambling has existed for as long as the United States. It just used to be concentrated in secret rooms in bars and other shady places to avoid legal issues. Card games, dice games, horse race betting, and numbers games were always popular with the public.

But the idea of a full-fledged casino was a 20th-century innovation, and while places like Chicago and Atlantic City were known for gambling, no one made it more commercial or acceptable than Las Vegas, which has the largest concentration of casinos in the country.

With no shortage of huge casinos to visit, no one does casino gambling like Vegas. Not even New York, California, Florida, or Texas have bothered to match the casino options you’ll find in Vegas. It is also the place for high-stakes poker as the World Series of Poker naturally chose Vegas as its host.

People knew for decades that if they wanted to go to a casino, Vegas was the place to be. In recent times, opinions and options have shifted on this. Roughly 80% of states have legalized some form of casino gambling, and after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed in 1988, tribal casinos were allowed to be built in various states on tribal land.

Since then, more commercial casinos have been built in numerous states, and they offer all the table games and slot machines you come to expect from a Vegas-style casino. But none of this would be happening in the country if it was not for Vegas showing it was profitable and in high demand.

Sports and Sports Betting

Las Vegas Sportsbook

Vegas has long been a popular hosting spot for big boxing matches or UFC fights. But now that Las Vegas has an NFL team in the Raiders, they have added one of the biggest brands in the country’s favorite sport to its list of entertainment options with a wonderful new venue (Allegiant Stadium) to boot. This comes on the heels of getting the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL in 2017.

If anything, Vegas was slow to add a pro sports team. After all, it is the city most synonymous with sports betting. Make no doubt about it, sports betting would not be what it is today in America if Vegas didn’t normalize it first. It used to be that if you wanted to place a bet, you had to go to a Vegas sportsbook or get your own bookie (legally or not).

Now, many of us can pick up our phone and instantly place a legal bet thanks to the Supreme Court overturning PASPA in 2018, which gave power back to the 50 states to decide if they want sports betting legalized or not. Many have decided they want it and they need it.

But the phrase “Vegas knows” when people talk about betting lines is respect to the old-school oddsmakers in Vegas who set the lines for decades. The rest of the country has just caught up in recent years and sports betting is turning into a huge cash cow for some companies in America.

A Different Kind of Show

Las Vegas Showgirls

New York has Broadway plays. Hollywood in California is where movie magic happens. But if you wanted to go see a different kind of show, especially for adults, Vegas cornered the market on that too.

There is no shortage of strip clubs and show girls in Vegas. If you want something a little classier, they have that too with the residencies they award to outstanding performers in music, magic shows, or entertainment groups like Cirque du Soleil.

The musical residencies in Vegas have been legendary. Instead of catching a singer on tour in your city, you could go to Vegas and see them perform multiple times if you wanted to.

Some of the best to ever play Vegas include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Cher, Britney Spears, Elton John, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, and Adele.

Vegas’ Impact on Music

Las Vegas used to have a more direct impact on popular music as two of the biggest stars of all time, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, were certainly fond of Sin City.

Sinatra’s song “Luck Be a Lady” was a classic with references to gambling, and he and the Rat Pack often played big shows in Vegas. They also starred in the original Ocean’s 11 film in 1960, which was about a casino heist.

Years before his Vegas residency when he was a heavier man, Elvis had one of his biggest hit songs (and subsequent films) with Viva Las Vegas, arguably the most famous song ever made about the city.

There have since been other great songs or albums with references to Vegas. The Cocteau Twins album Heaven or Las Vegas (1990) is considered one of the best dream pop albums ever made.

Other notable songs from mainstream artists about Las Vegas:

  • “Bright Lights” by Matchbox Twenty
  • “Leaving Las Vegas” by Sheryl Crow
  • “Sin City” by AC/DC
  • “Waking Up in Vegas” by Katy Perry
  • “Vegas Two Times” by Stereophonics
  • “Elvis in Vegas” by Meat Loaf

The Films and TV Shows Inspired by Vegas

Oceans 11 2001

Las Vegas can inspire many different feelings and states of being in people, including hope and euphoria as well as despair and addiction. This makes it ripe for storytelling and filmmaking, and there have been no shortage of great movies and TV shows about Vegas.

You could say movies about Vegas peaked in the 1990s.

While The Godfather had a subplot involving Las Vegas and the mafia, Martin Scorsese took things to another level with his 1995 film Casino, which was basically Goodfellas set in Vegas. It was based on a true story of Ace Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro, running a Vegas casino for the Chicago mob in the 1970s and 80s. No film has done a better job of showing the dark side of Vegas.

Also released in 1995, Leaving Las Vegas was an Oscar-winning role for Nicolas Cage as he played a suicidal alcoholic who plans to drive to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. Along the way, he meets a prostitute, played by Elisabeth Shue, who is also looking for a way out of her situation. It is dark, depressing, and wonderfully acted, based on a semi-autographical book by a writer (John O’Brien) who died by suicide before the film was released.

On a lighter note, there are more comedic tales about Las Vegas too.

  • Vegas Vacation (1997) was the final installment in the popular Chevy Chase comedy series as he took the Griswold family to Vegas, complete with Wayne Newton playing himself.
  • There were some memorable Vegas casino scenes in the 1988 classic Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
  • Swingers (1996) and The Hangover (2009) are two seminal comedies about taking a trip to Sin City and the hijinks that can ensue.
  • For a walk on the wild side, you can always watch Johnny Depp in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), which is based on a book by Hunter S. Thompson.

We mentioned the Ocean’s 11 film before, but in 2001, a remake with an all-star cast led by George Clooney kicked off a whole franchise of films, and the first one actually did improve on the original heist film starring the Rat Pack.

TV is also no stranger to featuring Vegas in both scripted and reality shows. The original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was set in Las Vegas, and that popular series ran for 15 seasons and 337 episodes.

Las Vegas was a 2003-08 series on NBC that starred James Cann (The Godfather, The Gambler), based on people working at a fictional casino on the Vegas Strip.

MTV’s groundbreaking reality series The Real World has used Vegas as the setting for multiple seasons in 2002 and 2011. Pawn Stars is one of the longest-running reality series with 21 seasons and 675 episodes, and it is set in a Las Vegas pawn shop owned by the Harrison family.

Vegas has also been used as the setting to build a narrative in some of the most popular video game franchises of all time. Fallout: New Vegas and Rainbow Six: Vegas (and its sequel) are popular titles in the highly successful Fallout and Rainbow Six franchises.

What Happens in Vegas…

There are some cities that could try emulating what Las Vegas has built, but it would be hard to do that without it feeling like a cheap imitation. “What happens in Tampa Bay, stays in Tampa Bay” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Nevada has some certain charms to it that you just couldn’t recreate in Florida or New York. For example, Area 51 is about 80 miles from Vegas, and that always draws huge interest and curiosity with the possible existence of aliens and other secrets.

Nevada is truly unique in that it has a history of showing that you could get away with things you couldn’t in other states. While that is slowly peeling away in regards to gambling and some recreational drug use, Vegas is still the go-to answer in our culture when someone wants to go somewhere to risk it all.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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