Saturday, 2 April 2022

Book review: Very Important People

New York’s nightclubs are the particle accelerators of sociology: reliably creating the precise conditions under which exotic extremes of status-seeking behaviour can be observed. Ashley Mears documents it all in her excellent book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit. A model turned sociology professor, while researching the book she spent hundreds of nights in New York’s most exclusive nightclubs, as well as similar parties across the world. The book abounds with fascinating details; in this post I summarise it and highlight a few aspects which I found most interesting.

Here’s the core dynamic. There are some activities which are often fun: dancing, drinking, socialising. But they become much more fun when they’re associated with feelings of high status. So wealthy men want to use their money to buy the feeling of having high-status fun, by doing those activities while associated with (and ideally while popular amongst) other high-status people, particularly beautiful women.

Unfortunately, explicit transactions between different forms of cultural capital are low-status - it demonstrates that you can’t get the other forms directly. So the wealthy men can’t just pay the beautiful women to come party with them. Instead an ecosystem develops which sells sufficient strategic ambiguity to allow (self- and other-) deception about the transaction which is taking place, via incorporating a series of middlemen.

Specifically, wealthy men pay thousands at these nightclubs for table charges and “bottle service” - already-expensive alcohol marked up by 5x or much more. The nightclubs pay “promoters” to scout out and bring along dozens of beautiful women each night. Those women get access to an exclusive venue with many wealthy men - but by itself that’s not enough to motivate regular attendance, at least not from the prettiest. And most are careful not to ruin their reputations by actually accepting payments from the promoters. Instead, in order to bring enough girls, promoters each need to do a bunch of emotional labour, flirting, relationship-building, and many non-cash payments (food, transport, even accommodation). I’m strongly reminded of Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy - the intuitions about the corrosive effects of money are the same, they're just applied to a much less high-minded setting.

Some interesting features of this system:

  • At a top club, a promoter might get paid $1000 a night to bring out a dozen models or women who look like models. Notably, model-like beauty is much more highly-prized than conventional beauty - e.g. the clubs don’t allow access to women who aren’t unusually tall. Everyone selects for models even when they don’t personally find the model look as attractive, because the fashion industry has established this as the Schelling look for high-status women. (For more on how this happens, see Mears’ other book, Pricing Beauty; and the responses to my tweet about it).

  • The markup on increasingly large champagne bottles is determined less by the amount of champagne, and more by how ostentatious the purchase is. The biggest purchases, costing over 100k per bottle, therefore come with incredibly elaborate fanfare: all music stops, spotlights shine on the buyer, a whole train of staff bring out the drinks, etc.

  • The nightclub profits by creating an atmosphere of “suspended reality” where a large group of people who all individually believe that buying status in this way is tacky can still convince themselves that all the other people don’t think it’s tacky. Most of the profits don’t actually come from the biggest spenders, but rather the next tier down, who are inspired by the atmosphere, and anchored by stories of the biggest purchases.

  • In contrast to the predominantly-white clients and models, promoters are disproportionately black. Mears talks about them having “colour capital”, and using some stereotypes to their advantage in order to catch attention. They need to be very charismatic and attractive in order to consistently convince girls to come along with them while not making their relationship seem too transactional.

  • In some sense the whole system is grounded in the models’ sex appeal, but I think that the models’ prestige is just as important - as mentioned above, models are preferred to women who most men find more attractive, as well as preferred to women who have more transactional attitudes towards sex.

  • Basically the same dynamics play out internationally as well - promoters offer girls free flights, food and accommodation in exchange for attendance at nightclubs in St Tropez, etc. On those trips the transactionality is usually a bit more obvious.

  • How can promoters afford to regularly wine and dine so many girls? Often they have deals with restaurants who give them leftover food in exchange for making the restaurant look more glamorous. Other times, wealthy men will host the dinners before the parties start. At the nightclub itself, they all drink for free.

If I were a bit more cynical I might also say that the “fun” part of high-status fun is also mainly a strategic ambiguity which helps facilitate the status transaction - if people couldn’t convince themselves and others that they were having fun, their attempts to seem prestigious would be much more obvious. Perhaps it’s worth considering what differences you’d expect in a world where this is true vs false. (For example, might you expect that the highest-status men actually don’t spend much time dancing, drinking, or even socialising?)

The same might be true, to a lesser extent, of other types of high-status fun - which, in my circles, often involves quick-witted exchanges on arbitrary topics. Overall, though, after reading this book I do feel much luckier that silicon valley is largely disdainful of conspicuous consumption and other negative-sum status games; long may it stay that way.

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