Real World Keep on Hassling Me If you love drugs, if you really love drugs, you might use them until they stop working. That?in an extremely reductive nutshell?is what I did. So I gave them up entirely. And it's pretty good. As I type this, I am 12 hours away from turning 30. It was a more difficult boundary to face when it was one year and 12 hours away. But now, I know that I'm just going to keep on being alive, that the me that is me will stay in the same body, that there will be no spiritual dissipation in which the soul exits and the physical self continues to function professionally, if not exactly personally. You do grow up. When you do grow up, your self does not just turn into a marker for a teenage flame since extinguished. Life continues to be life.
I am obsessed with teen culture. The economics of youth entertainment when we are, as we are now, in a cycle where the conventional wisdom believes the teenagers to be controlling what everyone listens to and watches, are fascinating and deliciously horrifying. Because teen culture isn't created by teens?teen culture is the culture of people in their mid-30s who are savvy enough to know what will make the teenage hand pause on the remote control: for instance, the supposed teen pop craze might be redefined as a popular mania for the songs of a Swedish producer named Max Martin, a bona fide pop genius, who wrote BSB's "I Want It That Way," NSYNC's "I Want You Back," Britney's "Crazy" and dozens of others, all the way back to Ace of Base, whose "I Saw the Sign" I heard covered many times in soundchecks by They Might Be Giants' John Linnell, who couldn't resist its hooky charm.
But selling a kid what a kid wants to hear is by no means a direct commerce. Before the entertainment product gets to the teenagers, it has to pass through legions of adults in every echelon of the entertainment industry?network executives, producers, promo guys, guys that sell ad time, the assistants of all the above. Before the product gets to the teen, these people must be convinced that the product has sufficient momentum?i.e., that it's gonna be a hit?for everybody else to think it could be a hit. Really, teen culture is a bunch of adults convincing a bunch of other adults that teens want what they're selling.
I don't buy the notion that after the revolution, the kids, tired of having Britney shoved down their throats, will all go out and buy Neutral Milk Hotel records. But what would teen culture be if there were such a thing as actual teen culture? Christina Aguilera used to say constantly in her interviews that her A&R guy prevented her from virtuoso ad-libbing through the entirety of her songs?what she really wanted to be was a kind of hellish hybrid of Mariah Carey and Yngwie Malmsteen. And Britney is prone to casually mentioning that, when she got her record deal, she was hoping to make music in a Sheryl Crow kind of jangly, adult alternative style, when bigger brains prevailed and pushed her toward recording Max Martin songs. Who knows whether this stuff would have sold, or, more precisely, whether it would have convinced the people who buy records to stock in record stores and who program radio stations that it would sell. And maybe?I doubt it, but maybe?everybody would've bought Britney records no matter what she sang, just because her boobies were attached to the voice singing. Maybe the kids really are suckers.
One thing I can tell you for sure: I'm a sucker. Nobody knows better than I that if MTV shows something once, they'll show it twice a day every day for two weeks. And yet I skipped out on a rendezvous with an ex-girlfriend to catch the season premiere?the "casting special"?of the new, New Orleans season of The Real World. If I still had roommates, we might have?as we did for the San Francisco and Los Angeles season premieres?gathered around the bong and made a short list of the cast members and made bets on who'd come out on top for the season. The show seems ever more cognizant of being halfway between a soap opera and a sporting event. The casting special was framed by five former cast members gathered at an MTV studio, watching monitors that played the interviews conducted by producers?some of whom were themselves former Real World and Road Rules cast members!?of 16 hopefuls, and the panel mulled over their odds for making the cast between segments.
The camaraderie between former cast members fascinates me. There have been eight seasons before New Orleans, which means 56 people have all shared in the trauma of being surrounded by cameras, which turns the generally contentious atmosphere of roommatehood into a totally combative pressure-cooker. Add to this that the show's producers are constantly trying to create conflict in the house?I know from somebody who worked at the semi-staged radio station "job" of the Seattle cast that when the cast members were separated for individual weekly interviews, the interviewing producers asked sometimes preposterous questions of whether so-and-so was trying to get with/undermine/plot against/gain the confidence of so-and-so, to create an atmosphere of paranoia in the house?and any reasonable person has to wonder why the kids line up in droves to sign up for this mindfuck. I mean, dig this: the cast members make no residuals. MTV sends them out on high-paying lecture tours, and many of them get job opportunities they otherwise would never get (Colin, the bovine-gazing fratboy of the Hawaii season, for instance, has an NBC sitcom, and Kevin Powell, the boilerplate angry black man of the New York season, has had a modestly successful career in music criticism despite being just a little more obtuse than the average Vibe writer), but residuals, which are a huge source of income for anybody who is the star of a show aired as often as The Real World? No way. Why don't these cats unionize?
Presumably they sign their rights away the moment they get there. Watching the casting special, one sees those young people almost paralyzed with a desire to please the producers interviewing them. And the producers?unabashedly, considering they're broadcasting this behavior?behave about as cordially as an average casting person for an average show. Which is to say: they're assholes, they know that they've got these people by the balls, but they're generally pleasant. Except for Piggy, from the Australia season of Road Rules, and Kameelah, from the Boston season of The Real World, who attack their interviewees like they're extracting revenge. Which they are. There's a remarkable incident in which Kameelah accuses an applicant of being a "privileged white boy." When she leaves the room, the guy refers to her to a couple of other producers as "Shaka Zulu." Cut to the studio panel, who gasp. When handicapping the hopefuls, this guy, Jamie, gets low marks. Which is a curious blind spot on the part of the Real World comrades. The casting special fronts like no one will know who makes the cast until the first episode airs, but before every commercial are clips from the upcoming season, showing who's in the cast. And there's Jamie. Of course. He's a fight with David, the hugely muscled guy with the bull-ring through his nose who wants to be the first black president, waiting to happen.
Also making the cast: Matt, the sweet, straight-edge breakdancing white kid from Hiawassee, GA; Danny, who makes the women on the panel coo with desire, but who a Rolling Stone story revealed is actually a gay guy who'll come out during the season; Julie, a Mormon from Wisconsin, who, when asked delicately by producers what'll happen when the episodes airs, predicts confidently that she'll get kicked out of Brigham Young University; and Melissa, the half-Filipino, half-black girl who gets told by David to "pipe the fuck down" in a clip, and who responds by throwing a chair. It looks like a good season.
Being obsessed with the transitory nature of youth culture, I immediately wonder what happens to these people once the moment has passed. If David gets old and his muscles devolve to fat, will he be overcome with grief when he watches himself? Will Melissa regret forever having a youthfully indiscreet temper tantrum on television? Will Julie look back and wonder why she needed to take such a roundabout path to teen rebellion? And more than these guys, my mind turns to the past cast members: Jon Brennan, the 18-year-old country singer who grew pudgy and red-faced and never broke into Nashville; unextraordinary musicians like New York's Becky, London's Neil, San Francisco's Mohammed and so many others, whose mediocrity shall remain ever-documented and their subsequent careers never noticed; New York's Heather B., who put out a very cool rap single called "All Glocks Down" that didn't really make a lot of noise. It's too easy a convention to say that Real World casthood equals subsequent failure. Maybe if some talented kid happened onto the cast and played her cards right, she'd work the show to her advantage and gain a career. But I don't think so. And I can't really tell you why. It just seems like a logical impossibility.
If popular culture in 20 years looks anything like popular culture today, we will be treated to specials on what happened to these people. Like whether Kaia from Hawaii, who, on a reunion special, seemed to have been psychically mauled by the experience, will regain her arrogance, or whether her castmate Teck, the big winner from that cast, constantly cohosting on MTV, seemingly in a state of unabating?and rather tiring?enthusiasm from his success, will hit a wall and end up in Kaia's boat. But I don't know. The notion of Where Are They Now? is a relatively modern conceit. What if the teenagers of today?and remember, by 2010 there's gonna be more of them than at any time since the late 60s?are unlike their parents, and don't hold their youthful crushes in such esteem?
Maybe this is a Colosseum for our time. But instead of a blood sport, our glee comes from watching the young and beautiful inflicting actual psychic damage on each other. Our glee. What I should say is: my glee. In these 2000 words, I still haven't really determined what the damn show means to me. Or if I have, I'm too proud to consider myself so hooked on televised cruelty.
At least weekly, I return to high school in a dream. In the dream, there's just a simple, shrugging notion of: Oh. I guess I didn't finish this the first time around. And I go and walk around the halls of my high school, bumping into my fellow students, who are a mixture of college and postcollege and high school cohorts, bosses from old jobs, ex-girlfriends and famous people. And among them are always Real World cast members, who are surprised and happy to see me, and ask me why I've been gone so long, and maybe they'll see me at lunch. One night, I'm in the cafeteria, a part of which happens to be a candlelit French bistro. I'm dining with David, the Seattle cast member who spoke in an hilarious South Boston accent, and who dated a Real World producer, who?for reasons that just absolutely baffle me?actually hung out with her young paramour in the Real World house, on camera, making out. "That'll be realer than anything you fuckin' have!" cried David memorably on the show, defending his perhaps psychotic lover, who cast him on the show in the first place.
In the dream, David leans in over the candlelight and confides in me something I can't remember now. Then he pauses, remembering I've got a writing gig. You're not gonna write about this are you? he asks. Oh no, I stammer, no of course not. That would be ungentlemanly.
I'm sorry Dave. I meant it at the time.