The Real Worldpremiered on MTV in 1992, the idea was to have regular strangers that lived regular lives be brought together and filmed under the same regular roof. No actors were needed, no scripts were written, just the day-to-day lives of ordinary people that varied in race, gender, and background – the story would write itself. Critics cringed but their cries went unheard over the loud cheers, viewers couldn’t get enough. This was the beginning of a revolution that promised to be televised, one that would be a direct reflection of reality.
The program wasn’t literally the first reality show, but it will be remembered for snowballing an era of television dominated by regular lives. Average Joes and Janes began singing in front of America hoping to reach idol status, average Tyrones and Tamaras competed for survival on deserted islands, and, of course, all those brave souls who looked for love and faced rejection in front of millions. With the change of television, a new age of celebrity was ushered in – the wives of famous men suddenly mattered, offspring of the renowned were center stage, even the washed and forgotten who fell into the dark depths of the D-listed were given a second chance in the spotlight.
Almost 25 years later, MTV is now a channel known almost solely for its reality shows and not music videos. The times have changed, the reruns of Jersey Shore will bring in more ratings than premiering Jump Off Joey’s latest. Reality television is enormous, popular, a genre that has transcended all expectations, but it is everything but real. Or in the words of former Real World houseguest Judd Winick, “Reality in context.”
When comparing the early seasons of The Real World to the later ones, it’s very apparent that the original ethos has been compromised. Clips are edited, fights and arguments are staged and instigated – these things could have been going on since the beginning. The major change is awareness, the houseguests that enter the home now know the power of the cameras that watch them. The regular can become famous, you just have to stand out by any means necessary to gain your 15 minutes. It’s an awareness that was made the clearer when American Idol became a sensation, singers that have the singing voices of Mariah Carey suffering from strep throat and the vocal range of a horse would stand in front of the judges and sing their lungs out. They want to be the joke, the truth is William Hung will be remembered more than some of the actual winners. Talent isn’t a requirement to get noticed, the terrible has a chance to be remembered.
Drama became a central angle to infatuate viewers, reactions to fights, arguments, any kind of memorable tension brought good ratings for bad television. The same magnetism that draws you to the circle in the school yard where two brats are on the brink of battle is what makes these shows captivating. It birthed series that still vowed to be script-less but are more soap operas than reality shows. The lines between real and fake are thinned just enough to the point it doesn’t matter, entertainment trumps authenticity.
The impact of reality television goes beyond cable programming, the self-awareness that the camera is always watching and the possibility of status elevation always being present has been one of the biggest influences on the social media age. The all-seeing eyes aren't on the dollar bill but on our cell phones, able to capture any and everything with the possibility to be uploaded and watched by millions. YouTube, WorldStar, Snapchat, Vine, all mediums where regular people can put on a show for whoever cares to view. You don’t need a TV network anymore, recording yourself is the first step to creating your own Truman Show.
Joe Budden is an example of someone who stepped squarely into the reality television arena, but before being cast on Love & Hip-Hop and Couples Therapy, he had Joe Budden TV. It was Joe Budden almost 24/7, people tuned in to watch him and occasionally Tahiry. Their lives and relationship were documented, all the way down to the big breakup. It was far more real than anything the two did on MTV. Similarly, for years Wiz has been releasing episodes of his DayToDay series, the first dates back to 2012. It’s mostly smoking and shows but fans are able to watch the ongoing evolution of their chief Taylor. Originally, when a season was in syndication a new episode was released every week on YouTube just like a reality show. As he progressed the video quality and editing improved. A new episode was uploaded just a few weeks ago.
IceJJFish didn’t reach his low level of fame through an American Idol audition, what got him notarized is recording himself singing as if a cactus was stuck in his throat. He made it to Nick Cannon’s Wild N Out without a record deal, get enough people to watch you and television will be calling. Isn’t that Cardi B’s secret? Instagram was her major network and each video is another episode into the mind of Cardi. With over two million followers and averaging around 30K likes per upload she didn’t need Love & Hip-Hop, Love & Hip-Hop needed Cardi. She’s a personality that found the perfect platform to blossom her brand, the same way The Westbrooks family took their lives from being watched on smartphones to B.E.T.
There’s no reality show quite like DJ Khaled’s Snapchat. He went from being a voice that you wish to skip at the beginning of songs to a motivational personality who conquered social media. When he was lost at sea he continued documenting his turmoil, just another episode in his ongoing reality show. Through Snapchat, his brand has been rejuvenated and Khaled is now the biggest he has ever been (fame-wise). Relevance has always been an issue for reality stars, being away from the camera is no different than being on the back of a milk carton. One of the reasons why people are still keeping up with the Kardashians is because they are dedicated to living in the spotlight. You can’t escape them. Kim has never been important but since the days of Paris Hilton her face has been staring down a camera. From porn to the red carpet, she is never out of sight and so she's never out of mind. For some, reality TV and social media has become a portal to the promised 15 minutes that Andy Warhol predicted, but for a select few it's the mediums that keeps the good times rolling.
Like the critics of 1992, social media can be cringe-inducing, but those that love these personalities can't get enough. Much like the reality shows recorded by MTV, even the ones of our own creation aren't completely real. Videos, pictures, tweets, nothing is made without the self-awareness that someone is watching. It could be one or one million, the thought is always lurking in the back of your mind. A perfect photo could bring immense attention but a bad picture could turn you into meme of the week. When Michael Jordan cried at his Hall Of Fame Induction, he never imagined the ugly face he made during a moment of overwhelming emotion would become an endless joke six years later.
It’s even worse for celebrities, social media has allowed us a connection with the famous that can risk shattering their mystique. They want to keep our interest, keep our attention, creating this illusion that they are being natural and real. The reality is, what they say, how they look, their entire aesthetic, is created for the purpose of never breaking character. They’re more careful than us, whenever they stray from the curated personality you notice how quickly tweets, pictures, and videos are deleted. Those that are the most famous have the most to lose and have to be the most cautious. Keeping it real could cost you endorsements and sometimes your career - at the very least reveal just how petty of a genius you are.
Drake swore off press after an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014. The article is still online, it's an overall good read. The profile was published around Nothing Was The Same when Drake was first enjoying the success of a bountiful career, the piece showcasing the rapper enjoying the fruits of his labor. The writer depicts Drake in a way that shows his more shallow, more pompous side. The superstar rapper who is infatuated with giant, residential pools, medieval castles and not above criticizing his peers choice of lyrics is captured and written about. It’s a good story, but not the story Drake would have wrote. He would never make himself look less than perfect and humble. It’s like when a friend uploads a less than pleasant picture of you and you wish it could be deleted – it’s not the picture you would take. His character didn't look any less shallow and pompous when he tweeted his disgruntled feelings about losing the cover to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had just passed away and was given the cover as a testament to his life. Fittingly, those tweets have been deleted, but the internet never forgets.
Drake isn't the only one who wants to control their image, remember when Beyonce’s publicist went on a mission to delete some unflattering pictures that made their way to the internet after her Super Bowl performance in 2013? She would hate for us to think she woke up like that.
To those that wish to always be depicted as flawless, the media is their biggest enemy. Social media allows the renowned to always appear immaculate, always hold the camera, always tell the story, and that’s why it will always be a bit fabricated. When your world is constantly being deleted, cropped, edited, and modified, it's far from the real thing. It's the times that we live in, entertainment trumps authenticity, which is why we continue to live in a world that is really starting to resemble what we see on TV more than what we see in real life.
By Yoh, aka Rick Rubin's Beard, aka @Yoh31.
Photo via Instagram.