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Did you see it?

If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed it. I’m surprised the cameras even caught it. But last night at the AMAs during her performance of “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” Selina Gomez closed her eyes and mouthed the words, “Thank you Jesus.” I admit that I am not the most devout man in the world, and I normally roll my eyes when some millionaire pop icon plays the God card, but there was something different about this. Maybe because it was so subtle. It was almost as if she was asking for and receiving strength mid-performance. It just felt genuine.

I won’t pretend to know all about Selina Gomez, but I’ve watched enough Hollywood Extra to know that she is the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Justin Beiber. I’m assuming that “The Heart Wants What It Wants” is about him, but I don’t know. I do know that great art is supposed to draw you in, to make you feel, to move you. And last night, it wasn’t Ariana Grande’s vocal acrobatics that moved me the most, or Taylor Swift’s brilliant choreography, or even JLo and Iggy Azalea’s booty popping. It was Selena Gomez, beautiful, elegant, vulnerable, standing before the world, leaning on her God and whispering “Thank you Jesus.”

The case for not being a lick

Do you know what a lick is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here. For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a “lick” is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking: “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant.

At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain. The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture; it’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn; it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song “Already Gone” – “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

Form vs. substance

We’ve all known loudmouths. There’s one in every hood, every club, every schoolyard, every basketball court, every prison dorm. They’re everywhere, beating on their chests, threatening, bullying, shadowboxing, trumpeting their own toughness. And most of the time, we believe them. So it’s always surprising when someone comes along and knocks them on their ass. They were all form and no substance.

How about that dude who’s constantly spouting off about politics? He’s brilliant and he wants to make certain that you know he’s brilliant. What’s this guy even doing working a 9 to 5 job? He should be hosting Face the Nation. Yet when engaged in conversation with him, it becomes clear that he’s merely repeating the opinions of others, that he’s woven a mask from the words of Fox News analysts and talk-radio blowhards. And underneath there is no substance.

Have you ever met a beautiful person whose good looks were nullified by a selfish, shallow personality? An intellectual with no common sense? A loyal church-goer with no compassion? Form is vinyl siding; substance is a house’s foundation. Form is candy paint and chrome rims; substance is a V8 engine. Rippling muscle, hairpieces, tats, piercings, boob jobs: form. Courage, honor, faithfulness, sixteen-hour workdays during Christmas: substance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing form. There’s something to be said for a nice body, a sparkling white smile, a sick tattoo. But if there’s no substance, then all the shiny outside stuff is basically expensive wrapping paper over a pair of tube socks.

How would I know? What qualifies me to speak on this subject? The short answer is: I’m a master of form. I am all of the above (minus the hairpiece and boob job) and after spending the better part of 40 years creating the illusion of instead of being, my chameleonic ways have left me feeling empty, phony, insubstantial. That’s what has led me on this fantastic journey of self-exploration, of spinal fortification, of reconciling inner with outer. Form never lasts. Pretty words evaporate. Skin sags, teeth rot, hair eventually falls out. It’s inevitable. When I’m 90, do I want to be a miserable clot of fears and complaints and regret, or a beacon of light? The relentless pursuit of character is Botox for the soul. Choose substance.