“We left you the best part. We left you the humanity. Try not to lose it.” —Alan Moore (Swamp Thing Issue #22)
The fifth of July will mark 19 years since CBS premiered the U.S. adaptation of Dutch reality game series Big Brother. Almost annually, five men and five women have volunteered to live and compete sequestered from the world in hopes of winning the half-million-dollar prize. Essentially, the concept married MTV’s Real World and CBS’ Survivor with one big twist: 24-hour surveillance.
To enter the Big Brother house is to be underneath the all-seeing eye of hundreds of cameras. Since CBS only airs two half-hour, crash-edit recaps, and one live episode every week, the series has created two different kinds of viewers: those who watch what is shown on television, and those who pay for complete, unedited streams that display three months worth of everyday life. Nearly every minute of every hour is being viewed by someone.
Surveillance, access, and Big Brother all came to mind each day I returned to the studio for Dreamville’s Return of the Dreamers III recording sessions. It was like entering a unique environment that teetered between public and private domain. Instead of hidden cameras, the footage recorded from cell phones allowed videos to exist outside the recording setting. How artists curate moments to share on social media is no different than CBS airing the most entertaining and exciting clips from the plethora of footage being captured at all hours in the Big Brother house. Eliminate the mundane and exemplify the sensational is what reality television has taught us.
Being inside the studio, able to see everything rather than just what is handpicked to be shared, allows for complete and proper context. Certain jokes will never be told, debates never shared, mistakes never known because they lived and died in those moments. After the first few days, what wasn’t shown and said online became more interesting than what was. Realistically, because cell phones cameras aren’t able to be ever-present capturing every waking moment of an entire day, absolute footage is impossible. Unless private, hidden cameras are employed, life will always appear only in thoughtful slices.
Every day my phone rang with a new person inquiring about what was happening. They would ask who was present in the studio, what the atmosphere was like, even question what food was being served. I began to understand why superfans of Big Brother pay for the access; it’s an investment in totality. They care more about the show’s reality rather than simply what is deemed worthy for television. The Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions became just as important as the album itself.
Reading all the commentary on social media allowed me to see how the outside perspective was formed based on the little information shown from within. It’s something I’ve certainly done in the past, building a structure with the bricks that were given while never allowed access to the entire blueprint. There was reality, and then this warped version. What was and what was thought to be. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but how many of those words are true?
When you sit down at a restaurant, it's ordinary to order a meal without knowing the chef. The food’s quality has precedence over who the chef might be. Over the last week, in most sessions, there was an unshakable feeling that I was looking over the shoulders of chefs while they were preparing dishes for a bigger feast.
I watched each session as an observer, a friend up against the nearest wall, not a journalist searching for his next story or what would make for a great headline. I thought about Almost Famous, the acclaimed comedy-drama film written and directed by Cameron Crowe, a former music journalist. William Miller, the story’s main character, was often referred to as the "enemy" by members of the fictional rock band Stillwater.
"Enemy" is a harsh description of someone who is writing a cover story for Rolling Stone, but I understand the need for a sense of separation. Dave Hickey said it best in "Magazine Writer," a story about the transformation of music journalism during the age of rock 'n' roll and former peer, the late rock journalist Grover Lewis:
“Somehow, in a twinkling, 'celebrity” had become a class in America, not an aberration, and celebrities themselves were no longer cool people, no longer edge-walkers like Ray Davies and Dennis Hopper, amazed and bemused by their new ludic status. Suddenly, they were hopeless, helpless dweebs, nervous and afraid of losing what they knew they didn’t deserve; and the people who worked for them in the celebrity game (who used to lay out lines for us and let us borrow the limo) ceased to be cool, as well. More and more, Grover and I found ourselves dealing with hysterical, defensive bureaucrats—guardians of the inner temple—who wanted to write our stories for us.”
There is no other position in music able to alter the perception of artists to their audience like a journalist, thus a very unique power is given. William Miller had access but what he wanted to share was an issue for Stillwater. He did the job expected of his title: tell the truth, write all that he saw—the good, the bad, the ugly—while the band just hoped he would make them look cool. Frank Ocean's recent GQ interview shows the potential results when friendships and journalism aren't thoughtfully separated. More than ever I understand the weight of two opposites that must coexist.
Unlike William Miller, I got to spend time in the space of artists without any power, without the weight of the title, changing the dynamics of the space, the dynamics of my presence. In my company everyone was natural; they were all cool. I realized watching each artist interact how rare it is to spend almost two weeks with so many others who share similar titles, who exist in that unique situation of being viewed as a person and persona, and how space can be altered based not only on the person but their title.
Authenticity constantly changes when consideration is given to who is watching. It's no different than how the dynamics of an office can change simply because upper management decides to arrive for a surprise visit.
Which begs the question: are we ever seeing people for who they are, or are we viewing an image created by perception? Future admitted to Rob Markman in an interview for Genius that he was afraid how the world would react if they knew he stopped drinking lean. Sheldon Pearce wrote in his recent Pitchfork profile of Earl Sweatshirt that during their time together, Earl called his hip-hop moniker an “operation, a 'thing.'”
We all desire the truth. The absolute truth. To desire knowledge is as natural as the desire to share knowledge. The recent Surviving R. Kelly docuseries is access at its most powerful. By exploring and detailing the serial sexual abuse allegations against the famous singer, the series' producers proved that secrecy can be used as a weapon to harm when artists and those around them hide their human transgressions behind the music. May every artist hiding such wickedness have their day in the light.
Yet, in the context of creativity, separation and secrecy are necessary. It's less about there being too many chefs, and more so, which chefs are present. The kitchen, much like the studio, must never risk internal implosion.
As much as we want to see everything, to experience art in its totality, artists need space—space where big brother's eyes can see, but can't stare. Clips of their lives are provided in song and in interviews, and in their hearts on stages, but any more access changes the relationship between creator and consumer in the way reality can become reality television.
I left the studio each day thankful for the access, impressed by the creative environment created, but aware why certain doors are only cracked, and never fully opened.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Does Not Exist, aka @Yoh31