The Unreal World
Denver-based singer-songwriter Rebecca Blasband shakes her head. "It's a terrible thing to be famous and broke," she says.
She should know. As a cast member of the original, 1992 edition of The Real World, a fictional/nonfictional series that's now a permanent segment on the MTV schedule, Blasband (who was called Becky on the show) became an instant youth-culture celebrity. Millions of people tuned in weekly to witness her interactions with other MTV-generation types who, like Blasband, had agreed to subject themselves to thirteen weeks of voyeurism in exchange for room, board and $2,500, and many of them drew unflattering conclusions about her. "The producers wanted to make me into this flirtatious, bitchy person, and when I realized that, I decided to play it up," she notes. After a pause, she adds, "It backfired on some level. No one got out of that show clean."
Not Blasband, anyhow. Four years after the first episode of The Real World aired, she's still dealing with its repercussions. Of course, the notoriety has had its positive aspects. She acknowledges, for example, that her Real World exposure helped gain her a hearing with music-industry heavies such as the folks at Warner Chappell, who signed her to a publishing contract and financed a surprisingly solid extended-play CD cheekily entitled The Rebecca Blasband. But she indicates that she's still having trouble convincing some people that the woman they think they know so well doesn't have much in common with the genuine item. "I became friends with one of the producers on the show, and once she said to me, 'You're a really great person. I wish they could get to know you and see you how you really are,'" she recounts. "But the other producers really didn't care. They had this little picture of me, and that was all anyone was ever going to see."
Locals haven't seen much of Blasband even though she's been living here since March 1995. She opened for Edwyn Collins at Boulder's Fox Theatre and performed one gig at the Mercury Cafe last year, but she's spent the majority of her stay in Colorado hanging with current paramour John Robinson, former lead singer of the Fluid. "We don't really go out all that much," Robinson says. "Usually we just stay home and watch videos."
That may change next month: Blasband divulges that several area performances are in the planning stages. But shortly thereafter, she and Robinson hope to pursue their various professional and personal goals in New York City. "The time I've spent here has allowed me to tend to my emotional life, but now I'm ready to get back to dealing with lawyers and labels and managers," she asserts. "Because I know I can handle it now. Those guys on top don't scare me anymore."
The thirtysomething Blasband was born and raised in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which she describes as "a little Greenwich Village out in the country. There were lots of painters, writers and musicians around. Like, I went to school with [late rock promoter] Bill Graham's kids." Her parents were among the less overtly arty New Hope residents; her father is a psychiatrist, her mother a German immigrant who runs an antique store in Philadelphia, where the family moved when Blasband was thirteen. Other relatives nurtured young Rebecca's interests in music and drama. She later enrolled at New York University's film school and worked as an actress with playwright David Mamet's theater company. But the music she penned during her hours offstage began taking precedence over acting. She ultimately put stage work on the back burner and formed a band with Adam Schlessinger, now the leader of Ivy, a Seed/Atlantic signee. "It was sort of Manchester-pop stuff," she says of that group's sound. "But after a while I started getting into Bob Dylan and things like that, and my direction kind of changed."
It was around this period that Blasband was chosen for The Real World, which was inspired by a bizarre series of documentaries featuring a single family, the Louds, that ran on the Public Broadcasting System during the Seventies. The Loud kin allowed a film crew to trail them everywhere as part of an effort to compose a portrait of the typical American clan, but they wound up anxious and upset, mainly because son Lance Loud chose to come out of the closet about his homosexuality during filming.
The completed Loud opus, which comedian Albert Brooks satirized in his amusing directorial debut, 1979's Real Life, was both undeniably intriguing and rather silly--a perfect combination for MTV. By gathering under one roof young people from disparate backgrounds, the Real World creators hoped to provoke Lancelike conflicts that would divert cable viewers bored with videos in which cock-rockers flipped their tresses and glasses broke in slow motion. "I think some of the producers entered into the whole thing with a sociological point of view," Blasband says. "But the producers who came from soaps and trash journalism saw it more as a soap opera where they didn't have to pay the actors." This last factor is important. Because Real World cast members are ostensibly just being themselves, they do not receive residuals routinely paid to actors whenever a TV show on which they appear is aired and/or replayed. Had the rules been otherwise, The Real World would have made Blasband a very wealthy woman.
So why did Blasband agree to enter The Real World? "I just thought it would be a little publicity for my music," she concedes. "It turned out to be a lot of publicity--and sometimes it went in the wrong direction."
True, Blasband got an opportunity to play some of her songs on one episode, at a contrived solo showcase conceived by MTV. (She says she initially resisted the notion and regrets how it turned out: "I wasn't very good.") But dedicated viewers remember her primarily for two incidents--a brief tryst with a Real World cameraman, who was fired for the transgression, and an argument with African-American housemate Kevin Powell during which they traded accusations of racism. The latter, she insists, "was completely blown out of proportion. It was two o'clock in the morning when it happened, and I was kind of cranky, but the way they edited it, they made it seem like we'd taken extreme sides and were completely unreasonable." She claims that she and Powell, now a contributor for Vibe magazine, are on very good terms.
The rest of Blasband's experience was hardly more pleasant. Once, she says, producers paid a guy to ask her out on a date: "They gave him $100--which was a real ego boost for me." (Blasband found out about the plan in advance and squelched it before it happened.) Neither did she enjoy being bombarded with boneheaded questions by representatives of every major media organization in the country. But she feels that, in the long run, she was luckier than several others on the program. "Some of them ended up really psychologically damaged by it," she says. "The people on the shows after us knew what to expect, but we really didn't have any idea."
After being paroled from The Real World, Blasband was courted by various labels, but she says, "They were taken aback by the music. I think they wanted it to be cheesy pop, but it was more organic than that. If it had been cheesy, I'd probably already have a record out, but it wouldn't have been me." During the next several years, she played some acoustic dates, opened for national acts (including Squeeze) and tried to hold on to her integrity. She was rewarded by Warner Chappell execs, who she feels are more interested in her songwriting than in her MTV past. The Rebecca Blasband, produced by Warren Bruleigh (whom 16 Horsepower hired to produce its latest disc following a recommendation from Blasband and Robinson), is evidence that she's worth the investment. While she was portrayed as a folkie on The Real World, Blasband comes across as a more fully rounded performer on the EP's five cuts. Backed by a band that stars Violent Femmes leader Gordon Gano, she melds a Byrdsy melody and a hallucinatory lyric on "Silver Room," rocks convincingly throughout "Down in the Underground," and pulls off a mid-period Beatles tribute with "Alfred." The piece as a whole suggests that anything Aimee Mann and her peers can do, Blasband can do just as well.
Whether record companies will give her a chance to prove it is another matter. However, Blasband believes that time has become an ally. "When I'd meet people right after I was first on The Real World, they'd be like, 'You bitch,'" she says. "But now, they're like, 'Cool, you were on the first one. That was the only one I watched.'" She's also got the support of Robinson, whom she met through her manager. After the Fluid split two years ago, he's worked on compositions that are completely unlike that band's proto-grunge attack: "They're very pretty, piano-based songs that I want to record with a heavy dose of strings and horns," Robinson says. But don't expect to hear them until Robinson has moved East. "From the beginning, I've been very conscious of not giving myself an excuse to stay in Denver," notes the Texas native, "but I didn't know it would take me two years to get out of town. The first six or eight months after the breakup, I was stagnating, but since then, I've been rotting. I'm very eager to get to New York and get some inspiration that will kick me in the ass to get going."
Strange as it might seem, the upcoming move is being made possible by MTV. Last October, the network flew Blasband to Universal City for a Real World reunion show that's still cropping up regularly on the prime-time lineup. In addition to a desperately needed $2,000 appearance fee, Blasband also received a bizarre perk. Among those present at the taping were representatives from the office of the U.S. Surgeon General who'd been charged with cajoling (Blasband's phrase) "Real World kids" into making anti-smoking public-service announcements. When the bureaucrats approached Blasband, who smokes like a '75 Nova with a bad muffler, she told them that their mission was a huge waste of taxpayers' money. But a few weeks ago, she received a plaque from the Surgeon General thanking her for her assistance.
This award has quickly become one of Blasband's prize possessions. Taking a drag on her cigarette, she laughs as she says, "At least I got something out of that show.
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