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Really real?
Mya, Common, and Eugene McDaniels
BY JOSH KUN

The bonus track on R&B singer Myaís new Moodring, "Real Compared to What," is the story of a song that became a commercial that became a song. A duet with the rapper Common, it was first recorded not for Myaís album but as a commercial jingle for a Coca-Cola TV spot thatís been airing since March, in which both Mya and Common appear performing the song in a smoky bohemian nightclub. "Real, real, yeah, letís make it really real," the two sing without really specifying what theyíre talking about. (Is Coke real? Are they real? Is Coke keeping it real? Are we keeping it real if we buy Coke because Mya and Common keep it real and they sing about Coke? Am I a punk if I like Dr. Pepper?)

Thereís even less "there there" when the full version of the song shows up on Moodring, with Mya and Common using the words "real" and "really" every chance they get. "Compared to this, yíall, ainít nothiní real," she declares before threatening, "You better recognize itís real." Whereas Mya (fresh from her gig as Carson Dalyís lapdancer during his MTV roast) just sounds silly, Common comes off as a joke, hip-hopís bearded poster boy for the end of ideology. "The real canít be bought or sold," he says in a rap he was paid to write by a soft-drink company. "Itís a trip how the real now is mainstream." Itís a trip that heís not being ironic.

But the real trip of "Real Compared to What" is that its cluelessness evolved from Gene McDanielsís 1969 soul classic "Compared to What," a song penned in protest of both Vietnam and domestic civil-rights abuses. McDaniels wrote it after he left the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the same year that found track stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their black fists in black gloves at the Mexico City Olympics during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." McDanielsís song (which first appeared on Roberta Flackís 1969 First Take) railed against a valueless "God-damn nation" that had become a slaughterhouse full of blind hate. He saved his most pointed words for Vietnam: "Folks donít know just what itís for/Nobody gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason."

That Mya and Common would agree to turn these sentiments of black anti-war protest into an advertisement may not be surprising ("Everyone wants money," Danny DeVito howls in The Heist. "Thatís why they call it money!"), but itís jarring given the political situation in which the song was recorded and the political situation itís now re-entering. The latest war with Iraq was so rife with misinformation and manipulation and so invested in the suppression of dissent and progressive thought that McDanielsís song still resonates, and itís exactly the kind of musical protest that our pop charts have yet to see this year (this might change if the Black Eyed Peasí new hook-up with Justin Timberlake, "Where Is the Love?", gets enough Justin fans to agree that the CIA folks are terrorists).

If I didnít know any better, I might think that this duoís depletion of McDanielsís politics (and, by extension, their lack of interest in developing any relationship between the civil-rights past and the civil-rights present that goes beyond pushing product) could possibly be a clever commentary on just how arbitrary "reality" has become elsewhere in American culture. The ever-proliferating reality-show takeover of prime-time ó from Paradise Hotel to Who Wants To Marry My Dad? ó banks on realityís entertainment value. "Are we really real or are we acting," Common asks in the song, and in this case, at least, itís a good question. After all, the best reality shows are the best shows, the ones with the most devilish casting, the quickest edits, the most manufactured drama.

"Where has escapism gone?" a recent New York Times headline asked about reality shows, without offering the obvious answer: reality is the new escapism. But Mya and Common shouldnít have wasted their time with Coke. They should have sold the song to the White House. "Real Compared to What" is a perfect anthem for the current administration. A war fought over weapons of mass destruction that nobody can find. Five hundred tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent that never materialized. African uranium that never existed. The day after the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency told Bush that none of this was real, Bush told us that all of it was in his State of the Union Address ó a dangerous work of fiction that launched a real war in the name of things that werenít ever "really real."

Even the real way in which Jessica Lynch was rescued wasnít real enough. NBC is planning to make a TV-movie about the event, a movie that will be based on a true story that isnít true, a movie that will become real because we have nothing to compare it to.


Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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