One of my favorite sketches from the popular and missed-more-every-second Chappelle's Show was called "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong". The sketch basically satirized the whole sensibility of "Uncle Tom" and "Keeping It Real" and "Politics of Authenticity/Identity" that can lead to denying your come-up in the world, i.e when success = sellout. And ... well let me not explain when we can watch it; it's only a couple minutes and well worth it:
[quick aside: in my first days at college i was a little notorious for breaking out animated-recitations-of-hip-hop-refrains as non-sequitur answers to normal class conversation, aka rapping in class. so for example, in my freshman seminar, i don't remember if this was the exact line, but imagine something to the effect of:
Teacher: "So, Patrice, what do you think about the summer reading? Could you relate to the protagonist's struggle in Manchild in the Promised Land?"
TAN: "I'LL THROW IT DOWN YOUR THROAT LIKE BARKLEY. YOU SEE THE CAR KEYS??? YOU'LL NEVER GET THESE!!" and then just look at the teacher like nothing out of the ordinary happened. it was pretty much the mid-90s college version of "when keeping it real goes wrong."]
So as with most good comedy, there's some other darker stuff lurking underneath.
In this case, Chappelle's bit felt timely and zeitgeisty because everyone was ready to laugh at black folk "keeping it real". Through the 80s and 90s much of hip hop's public facade was a circus act: in one ring you have riots at every single live performance; in the second you have murder from east-west coast beef (is there any art form, let alone music, where hometown pride gets this serious?); in our third ring you have the epidemic of silly screwface posturing and posing/clowning and whatnot. All this convoluted affectation stemming in large part from an ethos of "keeping it real".
So yeah, that bubble was prime for popping. And Dave was rza-rza-rza-razor sharp with the execution. And, boom; all of a sudden, "keeping it real" was a joke. And it still is. One example would be the recent epidemic of spoof rap songs and videos that frame Wall Street in a hip hop context. The joke in these videos often comes from *uptight-finance-dudes* meeting the keep-it-real street sensibility.
Of course that premise kicks black people in the nuts/vijay a little, mainly because it conflates the art of hip hop with the corporate schtick used to sell hip hop as signifier of "keep it real" authenticity. That's why the best of those clips are simply well written songs/sketches, and the ones that fall flat do so because they're borderline racist (if not outright).
But the best of Chappelle's sketches were awesome because they used a Black lens to satirize what were in fact American issues. Which is to say the "keeping it real" bubble is not a black thing, it's an American thing (or maybe a "capitalist" thing). And I guess what I find funny/interesting is that while the black version is a joke now, the american or capitalist "keep it real" bubble still exists; instead of popping it might just be deflating at a much slower rate.
In American or capitalist terms, "keeping it real" is a function of business. It's selling a product. It means having conviction about your business model. When companies hire ad people to keep their message on point, they are essentially hiring "keep it real" consultants.
The magazine industry now seems to be going through its own keep-it-realness correction. All the photoshop of horrors episodes are sort of like what The Smoking Gun has done to hip hop artificiality. Magazines started with a well-intended spirit of keeping it real, but then money eventually led to keeping it real meaning doing what you needed to attract more fans and eyeballs.
Same with hip hop. When rap started "keeping it real" meant having skills, talent, persistence, etc. It wasn't a joke ripe for parody. It meant being about something, and staying on message. Having integrity within your artistic-business persona. In the early days of rap, the "business model" was simply having a couple hot verses in your pocket ready to go: That was your product, rocking a party was your advertising, and if you didn't keep it real you would not survive in the market.
It's an old school principle. Way older than hip hop. And the joke amounts to laughing at the immersive nature of people who give a fuck. Who care about their thoughts, actions, words being representative of who they are. Nick Sylvester sniffed this out as the engine of Hipster Runoff's post-irony. Hipsters, as a sketch, might be "when keeping it real goes wrong" for white people.
If you think about the spot above, Chappelle colors the universally felt impulse of rebellion and independent spirit with a black brush. But he doesn't have to shout "Wu Tang!" to make the joke work (though it is kind of perfect). You could have a white guy in the same position, say, at a Starbucks corporate HQ, and maybe this guy grew up on Green Tea, or Yoo-Hoo. So when the *CORPORATE* character pushes his buttons (as all *corporate* types do), he might stand up and scream: "Who you f'ing talking too?!!? I DRINK GREEN TEA. F this Starbucks bullshit. YOO-HOO, BITCHES!"
This is on my brain because I think all this "keep it real" authenticity stuff is a big part of Jay's "DOA" song. Both the song itself and the feedback/criticism. It's a big part, as I see it, of how we evaluate talent and superior art. Jay clearly wants to pen a clear-cut fatality for auto-tune. But he's conflicted because he has friends and peers using the tool. And he's very familiar with catering to pop-music impulses himself. And other reasons. This is real. But it's not "keeping it real".
His song, I think, is a good snapshot of this conflict. It's a song intended to be hard, alpha, but he holds back from really cutting the throat. Some might call it lazy, but it's probably more just the consequence of being intelligent. Being aware of the bigger picture. Being real about it all. This is the difference between DOA and Takeover, where he goes after Nas in a very personal fashion. The difference from a line like "but my bills are through the roof, can't do numbers like The Roots"-- a line brilliant in its particular detail, not the broader oft-heard distinction between so-called commercial and conscious artists.
In the Negropedia Brown mystery I wrote about Jody Rosen's review and DOA, the piece suffered a bit because I was conflicted in the same way. I couldn't keep it real. Rather, I tried to be real. I meandered and went to lengths to try and explain my opinion. But my piece, like DOA, from the artist perspective are not premised on thoughtfulness. They succeed only if style is as important as substance. I know Jody's no hip hop idiot; but if I have the bullets I should shoot first, ask questions later. If I kept it real, it'd be a sharper edgier edit that cuts right to the chase. If Jay mixed in some actual auto-tune and maybe spoofed a couple t-pain lines, it'd probably be a song that sparked more across-the-board appreciation.
But to do that there's an element of grandstanding, of the schtick you see in the chappelle sketch. In my case, you keep it real and start too much beef with "bosses" and you might end up a window wiper. In Jay's case, he's already conquered the industry; there's no more gained from "keeping it real" only being real.
So there's a lot more to explore here. This notion of what we value: true to life versimilitude, or a synthetic Pixar-perfect pristine reality seems to be the heart of the question. We look for artists/writers/creatives to keep it real. We look for irrefutable genius. But we also know none of that is "real". And it's also easier to "keep it real" when you're young. And, so, well, ... I guess we'll save some fodder for another post.
For now the point is time and again as Americans, as capitalists, we put our money behind "keeping it real" over reality. Even though we see "keeping it real" go wrong again and again. And even though we all can laugh at Chappelle's sketch, outside of the realm of hip hop it doesn't seem we get the joke. We're not perfect. We don't strictly occupy supply or demand. We're not paragons of "Street" or "feminine virtue" or "snark" or "people who wear pleated khaki pants". We're complicated. But complicated doesn't sell (typically). Real doesn't sell. "Real" does. So as a writer/artist/real person I just wonder -- as I finally segue back to the headline -- when will keeping it real ever go right? Or something like that.