Ruthie's drinking again.
It's the fifth hour of my couch-bound "The Real World Hawaii" marathon, and all I see is one distinctly unlikeable, middle-part, mouthy girl ingesting well brands and excreting credos like "I just like to have fun!" and "I do what's right for me, because I'm all that matters!" and "Leave me alone!" to the worried Abercrombies and Fitches of MTV's "reality-based," false paradise. The other roommates (especially the huggable Matt) proselytize here and there about alcoholism, therapy and ultimately what Ruthie's fate will mean to them, as the turning wheels of "The Real World" enterprise provide the soundtrack for yet another character's ousting.
It makes me laugh and cry -- and then berate myself for doing either one. But most of all, it just makes me still and ponderous. I can't help but think that I could do it all better, inserting a touch of liveliness, ripened pop-culture psychology and colorful mood swings into the swirl of these fish in a bowl. With the imminent arrival of "The Real World's" next big competitor, the locally based project that should be called something like "The Real Orlando Boy Band," I might just get my chance.
On Sept. 30, ABC Television, MTV Networks and Trans Continental Records (see O-Town Motown, Sept. 9, 1998) announced an initially laughable premise, combining the road-tested peep-show of "The Real World" with all of the frosted exploits of the recently resuscitated boy-band phenomenon. No, really. They're going to make a show about being in a boy band: about rehearsing, soul-searching, courting sexless admiration and settling down in Orlando to the same routine that has the two former (sorta) Trans Con alumni Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync licking their wounds over legal ramblings and begging for sympathy. Think of it as the really fake world, where the existence of five multitalented pin-ups will be determined by their collective ability to be not real.
I'm not laughing anymore. I want to be a really fake Backstreet Boy.
Moreover, I deserve to be. At 27, I've passed my situational reality threshold, only to find myself grappling with an overexcited want for beautiful distraction. I want to be part of something bigger, some powerful but innocuous force, driving eyes away from precision and into the hazy glow of unrestricted celebrity. I want girls to scream. I want boys to grumble. I want eternal pop life. Really. Plus, I'm over 18, capable of holding a tune (see all-state choir, 1985), and more than willing to relocate (ahem) to Orlando to live with four equal talents for several months of bubble-beat self-actualization.
An open casting call of other willing male subjects over the age of 18 -- wherein said hopefuls would perform no more than two songs on videotape, paying special attention to lighting (they want to know whether you can dance or play an instrument) and a five-minute time limit -- concluded on Oct. 27. For the first half of November, "big poppa" Lou Pearlman and other Trans Con representatives toured key markets around the country, auditioning 100 callbacks in person. A further narrowing to 20, and then, alas, to five, takes place this month in Orlando, with production beginning almost immediately thereafter. During the course of the as-yet-unnamed show, the group will record two singles and perform a live gig. "We give aspiring artists the tools, the support and the love to accomplish their goals," explains Pearlman. "It is our belief that this project will accurately portray that process."
According to a Trans Con spokesman, success is no guarantee. But with a nation of cynical millions gleefully awaiting failure, it's fair to say that success will be encouraged. The show seeks to highlight the real work that goes on behind the scenes in the creation and sustenance of a teen phenomenon. ("We're trying to stay away from the term 'boy band,'" says the publicist, Jay Marose.) All of the sweat and ardor, the exhaustion, the futility of repetitive rehearsal, and all of the Pearlman love will help explain the genre's success. This will counter the "put-together" criticisms that have plagued the label since its first string of successes.
It should also help redeem Pearlman in the public eye, where his empire has been sent crumbling under accusations of extreme unfairness from the 'N Sync camp. Last year, the Backstreet Boys collectively fought for control of their Backstreet Boys Inc., over which Pearlman had previously ruled. With some hushed secrecy, things were worked out, and The Backstreets moved on to their zillion-selling "Millennium" without Trans Continental involvement.
Altogether more saucy are the allegations issued by 'N Sync this fall. The act attempted to leap out of its arrangement with Trans Con and RCA Records for a more fortunate deal with the Backstreet's Jive imprint. Pearlman responded by producing the papers on which 'N Sync signed over their name -- and the merchandising rights to it -- worldwide. 'N Sync allege that Pearlman knowingly overworked and underpaid his second-string breadwinners throughout their huge successes of 1998-99. Having sold more than 6 million records domestically, the band still only received a reported $25,000, plus a weekly stipend for living expenses. A proposed 'N Sync sophomore set has been held out from the Christmas-release roster, marking a huge missed chance for band, management and label alike. There is, indeed, trouble in paradise. Could LFO be next?
In "The Real World," reality is reaching a similarly absurd peak, with show creators Mary Ellis-Bunim and John Murray grasping at controlled situations with which to make their overfed sociological experiment more lively.
In its first year, "The Real World" somewhat realistically placed seven post-teens (one gay, two black) in an oversized, Ikea-draped New York City flat. Barring the inconceivability of a place that big in the city or the unlikelihood of these particular seven life-representatives even being in a room together, the show was a reasonably believable success. Conflicts of race, religion and other interactive debris showcased the growing sensibilities of idealism called to task in hypercommunicative anonymity. Julie was from Alabama and found unrealistic ambition in the glitz of Broadway. Eric was a self-conscious bodybuilder and found short-lived notoriety on MTV's "The Grind" dance show when "The Real World" closed its doors. Everybody was better for knowing each other, for knowing New York and eventually for knowing themselves.
In its subsequent seasons, the show has countered its Gen X predictability with far-fetched projects to keep the kids busy. The Miami season had the ensemble struggle to start a business (think of when "The Facts of Life" kids opened "Over Our Heads") amid the sundry vanities of distracted misanthropes on TV. Tantrums seemed a bit louder -- and better choreographed -- as you got the idea that the kids knew what they were doing ... and for whom they were doing it. The fact was, it wasn't real anymore. But neither was it as canned as its network sitcom sisters. Even a hint of reality was better than no reality at all.
To keep our heads busy, MTV later created the show's retreatable sister, "Road Rules," chronicling the same sort of proximity issues, only this time with wheels underneath and virtual obstacle courses awaiting in every city. Today, the formula seems tired. This year's unreal "Real World" finds a mass of overwrought emotionalists trying to maintain a concert-promotion business in sunny Hawaii. Of course, when Ruthie's alcoholism explodes into full drama, the job falls by the wayside. Everybody has to have time to record their private (televised) confessionals, you see. In reality, there is no time for reality.
There's barely even time for auditions.
Auditioning for a "documentary," wherein even your audition is being documented, is predictably confusing. You've got to be on top of your game, know your New Kids history and have at least the ability to pick up a top hat from the chair in front of you, twist it on your head and do a spin for the lovelorn musical coda.
Me, I've rehearsed the morphing scenes from the Backstreet Boys' "As Long as You Love Me" video, attempting to contort my face to at once resemble the pubescent glow of natural-blond Nick, and then the fiery countenance of studly Kevin, without ever losing a chair-to-foot-to-chair-again step. Then there's the thoughtful gesturing of 'N Sync's ballad "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You," reaching the right hand first to the sky (where God is) then down to the ground, and then back up and across, pointing to everybody in attendance in some grand love assurance. These sorts of demonstrative hand signs are essential. That peculiar charisma of one boy wooing thousands of girls doesn't come easily without the hands.
As a Florida native only recently exiled to New York City (OK, New Jersey), my presence could be extremely beneficial to the ways and means of boy-band living in Orlando. Years of being all boy, no band, have taught me just the right balance between presentation and self-preservation. Like, if any one of us needed a therapist, I know a couple in Orlando. Maybe a pair of silver platforms for that rousing '70s throwback number? I've got a couple of friends who might lend them free of charge! Places to drink and not be noticed? Know 'em. Rock girlfriends? I've got plenty of girlfriends. And perhaps most importantly: hair.
Judges should note that I already get my hair done by the same person who did Chris' twirly white extension hair for 'N Sync. Skotti Pitts, resident stylist to the stars at The Wave on Colonial, is Orlando's best-kept hair secret. His Trans Con links run deep, with a history that also includes a touring stint as hair-and-makeup artist for European Trans Con smash hits Solid Harmonie, and even some fabulous knotting and plucking for '80s heroine Dale Bozzio (of Missing Persons). I spent long Saturday afternoons with Skotti removing any trace of nasty pigment from my hair, to reveal my platinum-selling, platinum-blond innocence -- roots first, then bitter ends. I also drink beer (marking my rebellious side, and honoring Ruthie) and look pensive. I'll be the pensive one. The other guys can choose different affectations (and colors) to suit their roles.
The fear, of course, beyond blisters and split ends, is the exploitation from above. With J.C. Chasez of 'N Sync teething along about Pearlman posing as a benevolent father figure while abusing the rights of those who believe in him, it's hard not to question just what pressures the proposed new group will be subjected to. Then again, with the proceedings televised over a short period of time for all the world to see, there might be fewer instances of miscommunication. As with the more challenging episodes on MTV's "Real World," the band and the directors will be forced to consider their actions a little more deeply in the televised reflections that pepper the reality-based format.
Whatever anyone says, premeditated or not, will likely be seen by all parties involved. Mediation has never seemed so entertaining. Meanwhile, it should be interesting to see just what parts in the group dynamic of five young, reasonably expressive males with musical ambitions come to define the obvious spectacle. Will it be an inspired cohesion or a difficult antagonism? Will there be other life issues, such as emotional estrangement, physical exhaustion or even sexuality (a subject almost necessary to "The Real World" by now) applied to an industry that has previously held its subjects identities to that of the group and the brief press release?
Until now, Pearlman and Trans Con have had only perception to deal with. Demographic studies and a roster of songwriters have created a remarkable track record (65 million units can't be wrong); plenty of money helps to remove the guess work from pop-chart ascension. Record-label and sponsorship interest is already confirmed for the show, according to Marose at Trans Con -- and who wouldn't expect that? The trick will be seeing whether or not people want their escapism deconstructed from the bottom up. Do they want to know the problems of pop musicians, or would they rather just hear the songs and dance along?
Me, I would embrace the chance to do something as ridiculous and potentially life-changing as spinning in unison to the sound of teen-age heartbreak. And honestly, I wouldn't question Lou Pearlman (Repeat after me: big poppa, big poppa, big poppa. Rinse.) Yeah, I like fairness, too. But I'd be willing to settle for fame and fortune. Who wouldn't?