“You’re a sellout!” We would say when we wanted our fellow teens to cower. It’s what we did in the 1990’s. Back then, sellout, and its various derivatives, were the most powerful words in the English language. No one could pinpoint what those relative and arbitrary terms meant, but everyone could. Everyone knew how to move the couch to suit their situation, but no one knew where the grooves in the carpet were. We didn’t know what keeping it real meant either, but to paraphrase a Supreme Court Justice’s statement on porn, “We knew it when we saw it.” The only thing we knew for sure was that our favorite musicians, actors and writers were all about keeping it real.
The term sellout was not as ubiquitous in the halls of our high school, but its derivatives haunted us. Calling someone a suck ass, kiss ass or phony was as damaging to us as calling a punk rocker a sellout. We did everything we could to avoid someone dropping these terms on us. It was our equivalent to the cinematic portrayals of the red scare from the 1950’s in which everyone did everything they could to avoid being called red. We avoided superficial conversation, for example, fearing that someone somewhere might unload a derivative on us.
There were several shows and movies that taught us how to be real. We had iconic figures who could teach us how to be real, and the prototypes also lived among us. It was up to us to find our role models, but they were out there, keeping it real. If you haven’t spotted the flaws inherent in our system, we didn’t either. We were were scared, confused young people in the 90’s, and just like every kid of every other era, we sought some form of identity to escape that confusion that we hoped others might accept.
Jennie and I worked for an online company. She informed me that she had utter disdain for our boss. I found her screed funny, righteous, and all that. Then that boss (who was actually a nice fella, but he was the man) walked by our desk and dropped a polite, somewhat humorous anecdote on us. Jennie nearly fell out of her chair laughing. What a fraud, I thought. I maintain that she failed to act in a consistent manner, but who cares? Jennie was constantly getting in trouble for falling asleep at her desk. She probably feared losing her job, and she probably thought a little laughter would ingratiate her to the man, or she might have thought the polite, somewhat humorous joke was a lot funnier than I did. Who cares? To my mind Jennie was a sellout, a phony, and a fraud for sucking up to the man. Her laughter shaped what I thought of her forever after, because I thought she wasn’t being real. I thought her laughter was for sale, and she was commodity.
One of the job duties of my new job as a front desk employee at a hotel was to engage our guests in polite, superficial conversations. I was to make them laugh, feel comfortable, and make them feel at home. “I’m not going to talk to every guest,” I said, believing the boss was shredding my integrity.
“Well then, you’re fired,” she said.
“It’s one of your job duties,” she said. “When a guest tells you a story, you are to respond in a way that makes them feel interesting. If they tell a joke, it’s the funniest damn thing you ever heard. If you’re not willing to make an effort in this regard, tell me now, and we’ll start looking for someone who is.”
It was difficult to shed the artistic personae I spent so much time manufacturing, but I learned to tap into the superficial side of my personality for eight hours a day, five days a week. No one was paying me for my artistic personae anyway, so why was I clinging to whatever arbitrary definition of what it means to be real? No one really cares either. No one dropped to a knee when they heard me pontificate the virtues of the real. They probably considered me a scared little kid who was looking for pointers on how to be a cool individual in an otherwise dark, unmapped location of my life. The breadth of that took me a while to fully appreciate. I thought they appreciated my ability to stay true to the Keeping it Real commandments. They didn’t. When we were sitting at a breakroom table of real people, and someone expressed real virtues, people yawned and moved the conversation forward. If we dared express a view that they might view as the fraudulent, phony view of a sellout, all conversation stopped. We could hear the clinking of glasses and the sizzle of a griddle in the wake of such comments, but no one knew why it was so important that a service employee at a restaurant keep it real during the Sunday breakfast rush.
I learned to start chit chatting up every hotel guest about every stupid thing I could dream up, and it wasn’t that hard. In some dark recesses of my mind, I would never reveal in closed locations, I actually enjoyed it. My high school buddies probably would’ve turned seven different shades of red if they witnessed it. They would’ve been embarrassed for me, and angry that I sold my soul for a buck, or they might not have noticed it at all. It’s possible that no one was paying half as much attention to me as I thought, and I dreamed up all these elements and definitions of those elements in my head.
I initially refused to take this newly manufactured ability to tap into the “chat chat, chit chat!” part of my personality out into the real world. My initial vow was to “keep ‘em separated”, until I saw my friends engage in superficial conversation with strangers who weren’t female. They just enjoyed superficial chit chat, talking about nonsense, and they appeared to be having a whale of a good time. “Wait a second!” I wanted to scream. “Didn’t you guys see that one movie, with that real, cool one who refused to chat nonsense? He said that Americans talk too much, and he said that we should all learn to shut up for a minute. Who cares?! What are you talking about? You are in violation my friend!”
That composite character of our movies, shows, and songs removed himself from pedantic concerns, and he was the quiet, cool prototype dragon we all chased. He effortlessly managed the center of attention by letting his supporting actors fill in the blanks for him and fluff his image. We wanted one person, somewhere, to confuse us with this archetype.
There was no specific actor, movie, or show we consciously mimicked, but if we built a pyramid, Matt Dillon’s role in The Outsiders might have sat somewhere near the top. It might have been the initial spark, but we didn’t consciously mimic him or any of the other actors who played similar roles. We absorbed these undefined, intangible qualities, however, movie and movie, show after show, song after song, and book after book, until we thought we created something others might buy. When no one did, we probably should’ve put together a different sales strategy, but what would Matt Dillon, Kurt Cobain, and Johnny Depp think? We were brooding shoegazers who didn’t care what anyone else thought, and we repeated that so often that we revealed ourselves as composite caricatures.
One of the most famous quotes of all time from the Old Testament of the Keeping it Real bible occurred in the movie The Wild One. In that John Paxton, Ben Maddow script, the Mildred character reads the line: “What are you rebelling against Johnny?”
The Johnny character reads the line: “Whaddya Got?”
In the real world Mildred would not say anything to preserve Johnny’s reply in a cool liquid that real worlders might want to bathe in. In the real-world Mildred says, “I’m sorry to say I got nothing Johnny.”
“If you got nothing, don’t say anything Mildred,” the real-world Johnny might say. “You saying something just killed my whole mystique. Imagine if you said nothing. Imagine how powerful that line would’ve been.”
“I’m sorry Johnny,” Mildred says, clearly shaken. “I’m just a bit actress in this scene.”
“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been real, instead of a service industry worker, which is what I am.”
Tag lines such as keeping it real, selling your soul to the highest bidder, and the more concise sellout are evergreen, of course, but those of us who were hit with them way back when now see the illustrative and inconsistent dichotomy of trying to become real.