Tis Friday morn; the boist’rous cock doth crow,
And down the stairs I spring to take my meal.
The hour grows late and to the bus I go–
I spy my friends and muse on how I feel:
To kick it in the front seat of yon coach,
Or ‘stead to rest my feet up in the back?
To be in front, or be in back the coach,
That is the question (for Rebecca Black).
‘Twas Thursday ere the sun rose up this dawn.
‘Tis Friday now, and if ye hark this rhyme,
I’ll tell thee broadly of my goings-on,
And keep thee posted ’bout the current time.
‘Tis Friday, and with joy we greet this day–
Yeah party party fun fun fun fun yay!
My first exposure to “Friday” was on Tumblr, through a series of then-cryptic posts and .GIF memes — Rebecca mouths, “I see my friends,” pronounced with an elongated short “a”: “I see my Frans.” Cue a couple of teenagers in the backseat of a car, their heads replaced with Fran Drescher’s. Another line, “my friend is to my right, ‘ay” merits a 4chan sadface replacing the head of the poor neglected friend on the left.
On one listen, maybe on a Friday (that would be March 18th), I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. But fuss there was. Matthew Perpetua defended the song in Rolling Stone:
With a voice as strange as [hers], Black probably doesn’t belong in the world’s most generic modern pop song, but here she is. “Friday” is exactly what you expect from teen-oriented pop in 2011, from the sing-song melodies on down to a guest spot from an anonymous rapper who’s only tangentially related to the rest of the song. If the video was intended to be a parody of teen pop convention, it would be on par with some of the best SNL Digital Shorts by Lonely Island.
And thus Black and Ark Music Factory have made a video that forces its audience to reckon with a particular formula for pop music. It’s not as if any of this was ever actually cool, but suddenly it seems as if any legit pop singer goes anywhere near the vibe of “Friday,” it will just seem like a joke.
There was something off about this particular read, even though it handily beat out the waves of snark that greeted the song’s YouTube video — later removed for a legal dispute between producers Ark Music Factory, a cross between the American Song-Poems composers and a pop star fantasy camp, and the Black family — and countless posts online. That’s not to mention the personal pot-shots students made at Black’s Orange County high school, which she has since left in favor of home-schooling, like so many teenpop celebrities before her. Critics both named and anonymous made fun of everything from Rebecca Black’s singing (“When I walk by they’ll start singing ‘Friday’ in a really nasally voice”) to blemishes covered by make-up in the music video.
There’s the incongruous rap cameo from Ark Music Factory producer Patrice Wilson, a European expat who founded the company as a means to offer music and video production services to celebrity-hungry children and teens (and their possibly celebrity-hungrier parents) for the price of a summer camp experience (between $2-4,000). But other than that, contra Matthew, I was surprised at how little “Friday” sounded like a typical teen pop song. Its overtures to Justin Bieber or the Disney-produced simulacrums of R&B and pop from subsidiary Hollywood Records were negligible, aside from some slang (‘ay!) and a few decorative electronic burbles that would be at home on a mid-00’s Hilary Duff single.
The song is a campfire singalong at heart. It’s one of the most basic chord progressions in pop — doo-wop without the swing (I-vi-IV-V). Modern teenpop, at both its most innocuous and its most outrageous, is fundamentally of the now, and usually complex. But “Friday” is not — its arrangement codes as good-natured in a deeply uncynical way, like it’s been culled from children’s songs and novelty records and given a mild studio gloss, including the extraneous Autotune. When Jimmy Fallon (good-naturedly) covered the song with Stephen Colbert and Taylor Hicks in an early April episode of Late Night, the festive arrangement with the Roots brought out, or maybe merely recalled, the song’s earnestness. It was impossible to laugh “at.” (This is probably the defining feature of Fallon’s parodies of Neil Young and Jim Morrison — that they are at the same time so absurd and so respectful.)
I started responding more positively to other earnest takes on the song. Katy Perry covered the song without any more fanfare than her usual fare in concert in late April. A month before that, a YouTube novelty group called Bad Lip-Reading left the original alone and instead crafted a new song around misinterpreted lip-readings of the music video. That song, “Gang Fight,” is an indie-pop trifle reminiscent of under-the-radar indie novelties like the Mae Shi or Jesus H. Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse. The joke was squarely on the lip-readers — Black was now supplied with lyrics like “Gonna get you with my pleasant Nazis, am I right?”
The timeline of “virality” is astonishing:
On February 10th (a Thursday), the song is uploaded to the YouTube channel of Ark Music Factory (with inauspicious handle “trizzy66”) alongside other AMF productions like Alana Lee Hamilton’s drippy love ballad “Butterflies” and CJ Fam’s precocious (and premature) kiss-off to haters “Ordinary Pop Star.” Unlike “Friday,” most of AMF’s other songs did engage directly with Disney-sanctioned and parent-approved pop styles taken from, and thrown back into, the pop mainstream.
On March 11th (a Friday), pop culture blog The Daily What, tipped off by someone named “shawn,” posts the song. It’s picked up shortly thereafter by the Tosh.0 blog. Less than a Friday later, the song has 13 million hits.
On March 18th (a Friday), Rebecca Black appears on Good Morning America along with her mother, the Ark Music Factory producing duo, and a few high school friends. Under the chyron “Worst Video in the World?” Andrea Canning asks Black whether or not she feels bullied. Black is then asked to perform the National Anthem a capella to “prove” she can really sing. George Stephanopolous notes in his transition, “It’s bad, but it’s not the worst song ever.” Co-host Robin Roberts adds, “She says it herself — she’s not the worst singer. Not the best singer, but not the worst singer, either.” A poll, Stephanopolous informs us, says that 76% of GMA viewers think “the attacks are justified.”
On March 25th (a Friday), Black and her family hire a publicist, Debra Baum, to manage her career. Future interviews with Black include the publicist providing a second parental role (along with Black’s own mother), leading to pieces like this one. Black’s reticence to answer questions like, “What [have you] done to invest in [yourself] as an artist, now that the world is watching. More singing lessons? Dance training?” is met with interviewer Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s snarky observations about Black’s tendency to distraction, reading text messages with her head on the table during the interview, and her self-evidently misguided career priorities:
She tells me that she’s been watching a lot of celebrity interviews. “I grew up being the girl who would always tune in to watch famous people talk about their careers, how they handled scandals and megafame. I’m trying to pick up tips,” she says without a trace of irony.
That interview was conducted after Black’s appearance on a CBS morning show in July to announce the release of her second single, “My Moment,” which debuted July 19th (a Saturday). In the span between the two singles, Black was featured in a Katy Perry music video, for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”, appeared at the 2011 Video Music Awards, and was hailed as a “genius” by Lady GaGa.
When her mother describes the post-“Friday” ordeal, it sounds like a lesson in media literacy gone awry. According to Georgina Marquez Kelly (Black’s single mother):
“I thought it would be a good experience and would give her a glimpse of what it takes,” Kelly says. “I wanted her to see that the only glamour that comes with this career is when you go to a function and they roll out a red carpet. In a way I was hoping to discourage her, and to send the message that maybe she should have a backup plan. This certainly has been much more than what we ever bargained for in terms of teaching her the downside. And she still wants to do this.”
The diverse and often contradictory field of media literacy has a history of protectionist approaches to media use, from rules in the home to government intervention to limit or shape children’s exposure to media. Kelly describes something that media literacy theorist Len Masterman refers to as “the technicist trap” — a tendency for students to get discouraged when their amateur productions cannot match the high production values of mainstream media they love. For Kelly, falling into the technicist trap is protective.
The aesthetics of viral media in the YouTube age, paired with rapidly decreasing costs for high-quality production tools, have perhaps made the technicist trap irrelevant. One reason that Kelly’s plan backfired was not just that her daughter’s fame spiraled out of control, but that, in fact, “Friday” is a perfectly competently-produced song with a video that, while not particularly flashy, is not categorically distinguishable from professional music videos. That this process now costs $4,000 at most (via the Ark Music Factory experience) is as much a testament to the changing face of production and distribution in the music industry as it is to how much work goes into creating a song and video. If anything, Rebecca Black’s story might do more to discourage professional singers, who now have to deal with something like the “amateurist trap” of viral marketing and scant professional resources or support for their work.
So what skills might have prepared Rebecca Black for the onslaught of so-called haters that followed the release of her song and video? Maybe none — Black’s case is extraordinary, the kind of popularity “cascade” that, as Duncan Watts notes, has a strong element of randomness to it after a small initial push (say, being picked up on the blog of a Comedy Central program). Watts noted the tendency for popularity to cascade at random after a random inciting spark in a 2006 study of audience preferences of music selections [EDIT: The Watts study explores the concept of cumulative advantage, the tendency for people to cluster around things that the people in their networks also listen to, like, or use. Watts’s key insight is that “introducing social influence into human decision-making, in other words, increased not just inequality, but unpredictability as well.”]. But what he failed to account for, and what little media literacy seems to account for, is the comparable arbitrariness of passion in relationship to music we hate.
In his book on celebrity culture Fame, Mark Rowlands calls this kind of fame stemming from hate “v-fame” (essentially, virality) which he describes as “being famous for being famous.” This is a critique that goes back to Daniel Boorstin’s seminal book on celebrity culture, The Image. What both books miss, though, is an analysis of what exactly about their posited change in perceptions of fame (the collapse of fame and infamy) is actually connected to “work.”
“Work” is a nebulous hedge concept that allows commentators to deny that the kind of image-crafting that Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or Snooki do are in any way equivalent to the mastery of a skill or art. But I’m not convinced that fame absent of mastery of art and skill are specifically a feature of modern media (after all, Paris Hilton has been intriguingly compared to Marie Antoinette by no less of a celebrity/artist than Sophia Coppola) any more than I’m convinced that we can prove that seemingly artless, skill-less celebrities aren’t actually doing any work.
The nexus between celebrity and due-paying, usually a moving target that reflects audience’s expectations of a particular celebrity rather than a system through which an artist might actually become famous, is particularly ironic when we see Rebecca Black as the victim of an outmoded media literacy lesson. The exercise was precisely for Rebecca Black to pay those dues, and in so doing inoculate her against the drive to become famous. The result was that she became more famous, and exponentially faster, than she possibly could have otherwise, and for so doing was criticized for her amateurishness, and then for failing to pay her dues.
Perhaps the real media literacy lesson is for audiences, as diverse as they are, to better or more thoughtfully reflect on what exactly they want from music and why music is or isn’t giving it to them. The trick is that music often creates its own new contexts — essentially telling you what you want before you’re able to identify what it is. So Rebecca Black’s “Friday” fills a need for something its audience would never recognize as a need prior to its existence. And yet passion for the song, whether pro or con, or both in equal measure (the source of the “guilty pleasure”), suggests that “Friday” both creates and fulfills the need in the same moment, in the same object. That is to say, Rebecca Black will never happen again precisely because Rebecca Black happened.
That’s just the way pop music works, when it “works” — an idea — a melody, a phrase, a gesture — nestles its way into the everyday lives of people. Successful pop songs function as successful memes; the transmission from person to person, whether top-down (mass media) or bottom-up (viral media), is one important barometer for the song’s success. This leaves out some pretty key elements of pop songs — messages, sounds, feelings, social uses. But the precondition of all of these things is that someone heard the song in the first place. In that sense, “Friday” is the most successful song of the year for me personally (after all, it meaningfully, if minimally, changed the way I think about one-seventh of my existence) and probably for the U.S., and maybe for other parts of the world, too. Perhaps the biggest lesson for Rebecca Black and her mother to learn is that sometimes stuff just happens, for no particularly good reason at all. To paraphrase Jay Ruby Dai Vaughn, songs may be “about” something, but reality is not.
Hands down, end of discussion, no contest, the single shittiest phrase of the ’00s—even over “webinar.” “Hater” emerged in the ’90s, but it seeped its way into pop music’s bloodstream during this decade and shows no signs of going away. It’s the ultimate cop-out, equally applicable, and specious, whether you’re a megastar or a wannabe. Don’t want to own up to your own bullshit? Call everyone a hater! No one knows about your piddling little rap career yet? Bitch about all your haters! Selling millions of albums (despite the fact that “albums” are fast going the way of the dodo) and impressing critics all over the damn place? Goddamn world’s still full of haters! Somebody disagrees with you about—oh—anything, and you don’t have a cogent response? Haterhaterhater! Keep hiding behind your mediocrity by using this stupid term and you’ll deserve as many of them as you can get. (And no, “Stop hatin’!” or some variation thereof is not a clever response.)
Yeah, “hater” sucks. But its emergence in the mainstream is also linked to the ease with which the paranoid (or the bullshit-prone) can seek or be sought by the words of others. There’s an existential dread associated with Googling yourself — I’ve experienced it. If you’re reading this online, or probably anywhere else, you’ve likely experienced it.
But I’m lucky. I was 20 before I had my first taste of being publicly called out for bullshit, when I started reviewing records semi-professionally online. No one “deserves” abuse — bullying is a thing, and it happens; I’ve done it myself — but adults need, or at least are expected, to respond to criticism of all kinds, whether founded or not, whether hurtful or not, like adults. But how young is that really an appropriate expectation? How about 15, when other music writers, and plenty of precocious musicians, started publishing and/or performing regularly? How about 13, when many performers enter the spotlight? How about toddlers in tiaras?
No one is helped when anyone who produces anything is entirely sheltered from responses. For one thing, this would limit positive responses as well as negative ones. For another, failures are often as instructive as or more instructive than successes. But there is a particular variation on criticism that is hard to pin on the producer herself. It’s the trespassing of a line between critique and malice, one that is inseparable for many artists (Lady Gaga navigated the line poorly in a memo to NYT fashion correspondent Cathy Horyn claiming that critics should try as hard as possible to avoid negativity, an impossible and unfair expectation).
The expectation of reacting like an adult is unfair to ask of someone who is not an adult. It has rarely been noted how well Rebecca Black handled her rapid ascent to fame. When Rebecca Black’s alleged Twitter account, @_RebeccaBlack_, began publishing eloquent tweets about taking the experience in stride, and making commentary about bullying not dissimilar to what danah boyd has said about the language of “bullying” and “cyberbullying” obfuscating the (IRL) sources of children’s antagonism, I wanted to believe it was real. (It wasn’t.)
But talk show appearances and a later-verified Twitter account (@MsRebeccaBlack) all played into what I saw as a young woman who managed not to let what must have been a traumatic experience sour her outlook on her own life, regardless of “what it said” about celebrity or pop culture or any number of abstract concepts. I can easily do the victimizing in my head, turning the Rebecca Black story into one for an ABC Family after-school special instead of the VMA Awards Show — girl and mother plan “pop fantasy camp” experience, girl is mercilessly mocked online, chaos ensues. Fade out on any number of tragic endings. (Protectionists have already made that movie — Cyberbully, in which Emily Osment is saved at the last minute from suicide because she can’t figure out how to unscrew the child-proof cap on mom’s pills.)
Performers and artists themselves aren’t abstract concepts, comforting though it may be to think and talk about them that way. Despite the myriad ways images are shaped and mediated and disseminated, music performers are still uniquely vulnerable to personal attack — they usually act as synecdoche for the entire apparatus of music production, video production, advertising, marketing, and any number of other “undesirable” media machinators, who are blessed with a more anonymous role in the process. When things get personal, it’s only felt as personal in one direction, for one person, who, perhaps necessarily, must adopt a warped view of the world to continue to function in it.
But this isn’t a call to Leave Britney Alone (even though I would love to see more people leave Britney Spears, an actual human being, alone and instead focus on Britney Spears, synecdoche for the entire apparatus of etc.). It’s a call to reflect on the how and why of sensationalism — to better understand and analyze every cog in whatever machine we want to blame our problems on, perhaps especially when the cogs are us. “Friday” might be a text, but Rebecca Black, the person, is not.
The fact that Rebecca Black was 13 when the song was written, recorded, and distributed is irrelevant here, then. Rebecca Black, the human being, must be irrelevant when we talk about “Rebecca Black,” the image and the idea. Call it the intentional fallacy if you need to, or just call it empathy. It’s hard, and it needs to be more a part of our celebrity culture, especially as celebrity becomes a normalized (if rare) function of casual and accidental interactions in the world.
SAY A LITTLE PRAYER
“Friday” by Rebecca Black is the best song of 2011 on no greater authority than my own, take it for what it’s worth. I sing it to myself at least once a week (you know what it is), if not more. I’ve memorized it. I know every shot in the video, I think, and not because I’ve studied it carefully. It really is a miraculous little thing. Literally, it’s a song about a girl who wakes up, eats her cereal, catches the school bus, and rides to school thinking about how great it is that it’s Friday (despite the use of the convertible in the video, the song only references the bus, and use of the car was improvised the day of the film shoot when the bus fell through; the rap cameo makes more sense when you realize that Patrice Wilson, the rapper, is passing the bus that Rebecca Black is on, a nifty little spatial gimmick).
This squares with my feelings about Fridays, of course. On Friday, you look forward to the weekend. Saturday followed by Sunday. There’s reference to partying, sure, but partying of no specific kind. I’m reminded on most listens of Party Cat, who wakes you up at night to party. Which is what cats do when they’re not sleeping. By cat logic, “partying” is anything that is not being asleep. And that’s the logic of the song, too. Cereal — party. Seeing your friends on the bus — party. Just thinking about partying — party.
Fun, fun, fun, fun. Thinking ‘bout fun.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.
This music is made to be re-made. There’s a GarageBand preset hi-hat! When sixth grade students I work with argued about the song — they all knew every word, even though half claimed love and half claimed hate — they decided that, in their own parody version (“Wednesday, Wednesday, gonna graduate on Wednesday!”) they would re-make the music themselves. And they did! It took two weeks. They worked with the music teacher. The result was just as competent as Ark Music Factory’s, and it was theirs.
“Friday” is a very easy song to make “ours.” It can be played by anyone who can play “Heart and Soul” on the piano (just double each set of “da-da, da-da’s” in the bass, two C, two A, two F, two G, since you’re probably playing it in C). The verses can be sung by anyone who can sing a single note (and the chorus is designed for a group anyway — yeah!). The lyrics don’t matter. You can sing about anything! Anything that can happen on Friday — love, loss, doing the laundry, sleeping with your best friend’s wife. Whatever. You’re still looking forward to the weekend, aren’t you?
This music is made to be sung. And not like karaoke staples are fun to sing. I mean when it’s in your head, you need to start singing it aloud, letting your voice be heard in the world, for better or worse. And then your voice will spread, and other voices will join in, and they will be able to join in, because it’s as easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3. And I’m not talking about the Jackson 5 song, I mean reciting the ABC’s or counting to ten.
This music is made by nobody, for everybody. It is a folk song in the deepest sense. It’s “Greensleeves.” It’s “Twinkle Twinkle.” You could get down to it in your car, on a bus, at a rollerskating rink, on your iPod. Or you could just sing it acapella and it will be diminished none. This is a song that is always enriched when robbed of its original context.
It’s a special song. It will never be repeated — can’t be repeated. Calling Rebecca Black a “one-hit wonder” is like calling the composer* of “Happy Birthday” a one-hit wonder. We made this song, continue to make it; after all, we own it, we being the folk. Calling it an “event” cheapens it; calling it a “meme” is, ultimately, facile. It’s a ritual that transcends borders, differences. Everybody is looking forward to the weekend. Everybody wants to be happy. It’s Friday, Friday. Let’s cherish it.
* EDIT h/t Kat, Patty and Mildred Hill, copyright still active — a common pain in the ass for Hollywood films and other potential licensers, even though most “recordings” would probably fall under fair use.