I never thought I would be arrested by MTV.

As a kid watching Tom Petty, Van Halen and, of course, Michael Jackson dancing on the glowing streets, I remember suspecting, in the faint way a child suspects, that this voyage with MTV was to be a long one. I suppose I was right. After the haze of Kurt Loder and Martha Quinn subsided, MTV was part and parcel of a personal education in the politics of the culture industry.

I hate to make generational generalizations, but many twenty-somethings have grown up with an acute awareness that their entire way of life has been packaged. Critical in this has been MTV, which, using the hypnotic allure of beats, rhymes, angst and sex, has successfully digested a diverse range of countercultural tendencies. Every energetic youth-culture creation--punk, hip-hop, techno, indie rock--all have had their consumable moments at the table. Burp!

And so when MTV's The Real World, the pioneer "reality" show in which jubilant,


well-exercised multiracial youths discuss their emotions, began filming its 11th season in Chicago in early July, many of us were looking to give it a hardy unwelcome. The show set up shop in the now-gentrified arty enclave of Wicker Park, almost three months after Starbucks had settled in down the street. The MTV/Viacom mothership had landed.

And so, on July 21 at 11:15 p.m., Sergeant Crawford of the Chicago Police Department's 14th District Gang Tactical Unit was arresting me for scrawling, in chalk, in front of the door to the Real World house, "What is Real?" Sixteen others were also carted away for, in police lingo, 720 ILCS, 5/26-1, or "disorderly conduct." As I was handcuffed, Kafka never felt more like a sitcom.

Why mess with The Real World? It wasn't that we had a deep analysis so much as a deep pit in our stomachs. On a sunny July 10, some of us pranksters, equipped with a bullhorn, invited the cast to quit their jobs. We were trying to liberate the actors from unreality. "Free the Real World 7!" We shouted. "We have a safe space waiting for you where you will be deprogrammed." Our pleas for mutiny went unheeded. Up in the three-story superloft, the cast could be seen staring down in wide-eyed confusion.

The following Saturday, (Bastille Day, incidentally) a plethora of grievances were to pile up on the Real World doorstep. The word had gotten out that an action was to take place at 11 p.m. that night. The response was amazing. People from all over the city crowded together to take a jab at this "home." Some were screaming "Music Through Viacom," some simply berated the actors, some felt the show was intrusive in the neighborhood, some felt it was an advertisement for Mayor Daley's urban renewal, and some were utterly confused. Bogus flyers had been circulated two hours prior advertising an "extras party" at the house, leading star-struck enthusiasts in Urban Outfitters regalia to wander amid the giddy culture-jamming crowd, which grew to 350 people as an adoring bucket of red paint was splashed on the front door. I wrote on the sidewalk, "Everyone has the right to be famous."

Since the arrests, I have been questioned by many beguiled seasoned activists: Who cares? This is a perfectly legitimate concern. With the G8 demonstrations happening at the same time, such "causes" feel like an activist's worst nightmare. Global debt vs. MTV: Which gets you angrier? Besides, after 11 seasons, the show's producers must be giddy to see a modicum of controversy on their doorstep. Any press is good press.

But the extreme police response to merry-prankster antics put a publicly coercive face on entertainment. We hit a nerve. The city of Chicago will not allow us to complicate The Real World, and is quite serious about maintaining a one-block reality-free zone around the building; the show is a living, breathing advertisement to the global viewing audience that Chicago is a hip urban playground worthy of Seattle or San Francisco. Glossing over the gentrification wars of the past 20 years, an agenda hides behind the camouflage of a trivial youth reality show. The advertising never ends.

As many of the protesters chanted, "This is what the real world looks like."

Nato Thompson is a freelance writer and curator in Chicago. He can be reached at


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