Monday, May 5, 2014

In Defense of Rebecca Black...

Some thoughts on the phenomenon of negative fame

As though it were some sort of catastrophic event, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard it—“It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday…” It was the Spring of 2011, and I was sitting in a classroom at Southern Adventist University with a friend of mine. As we were waiting for class to begin, my classmate, with characteristic vehemence, expressed his almost incredulous disbelief and amusement at a terrible little song by a young teenager—a video of which had, for no apparent reason, just gone viral on YouTube. Pulling it up on his laptop, he insisted that I watch it. And the rest is history…

For all the “buzz” that song has created, I don’t think I have heard one good thing about it from anyone. The criticism has died down some in the three years that have elapsed since its explosive introduction into cyberspace, but even now it finds its place in the arsenal of those who wish to irritate their friends with its repetitive strains. It’s a surefire way to generate some groans—“It’s Friday, Friday!” And that underlines the irony of the situation: the great fame the song has attained seems almost entirely negative. In other words, Rebecca Black is rich and famous not because people like her and her song, but because they don’t. YouTube statistics further underline this. As of May 5, 2014, the official “Friday” music video was up to 67,529,086 total views and its 361,061 “likes” were completely outweighed by a staggering 1,336,308 “dislikes.” Something is very wrong here, and the absurdity of all this is likely indicative of some serious underlying societal issues.

The greatest of these issues is the general public’s inability to “Let it Go” (as has recently been illustrated by all the covers and parodies of songs from a certain Disney movie). If it’s really all that bad you’d think people could’ve just ignored it and moved on to bigger and better things. But the sad truth is we tend to exalt in the negative—there is a part of our inner being that enjoys making fun of things. How else do we account for the age-old problem of childhood bullying? Our world is full of people that long for attention and recognition, and sometimes people resort to making fun of others as a slightly sadistic means of increasing their own sense of self-worth. A 2011 interview on ABC News shows Rebecca Black reading hateful criticism online. Outside of the predictable opinion that “Friday” is the “worst song in the world” and Rebecca Black is a terrible singer, people have told her that she is fat and ugly. Worse yet, she has received death threats. What is our world coming to?

I suspect another reason for the song’s negative fame is that people are easily swayed by popular opinion. If all their friends say it’s bad, they say it’s bad; if the media says it’s bad, they say it’s bad (i.e. if every news station but Fox tells America that Republicans are antiquarians, the democrats somehow stay in office). In this case, it may have had more to do with the former: peer pressure. A lot of people probably made fun of Rebecca and her song just because nearly everyone else was doing it. Some people just don’t think for themselves.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the most obvious reason people have for disliking the song—that it simply is bad. Yet unless there were some universal standard by which the song could be judged as worse than all the other bad songs out there, its “badness” alone does not account for its fame. And can we really say that Rebecca Black is a bad singer? I don’t enjoy listening to her, but since she was only 13 years old when “Friday” went viral on YouTube, I suggest that we cut her some slack. She’s just a teenybopper.

Concerning the song itself, before watching the ABC interview, I was unaware of a couple of important details that are often overlooked: Rebecca Black’s mother payed an organization called the ARK Music Factory $4000 to produce the recording and music video—and write the song. In other words, Rebecca Black did not even write the “worst song in the world,” professional songwriters from the ARK Music Factory did. The word “factory” here caught my attention, the implication being that music is a product to be “cranked out” and sold with the primary purpose of making money. In fact, ARK apparently specializes in “teen pop”; Rebecca Black is merely the most successful of many teenagers they have promoted. The songwriters, Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson, clearly knew what they were doing when they wrote “Friday.” As repetitive and irritating as it is, it’s catchy; as much as people hate it, they can’t get it out of their minds. This brings to mind something I once heard Alice Parker say: “Good music empowers us; commercialized music seeks to exert power over us.” That it has done, and it has made Rebecca Black, Clarence Jey, and Patrice Wilson very rich.

Clearly, if people could have just ignored it as the silly, trifling song it is, it would have been better for everyone, including Rebecca Black. No matter how calm and collected she acts on TV, the excessive ridicule is bound to have taken an emotional toll on the teenager. Kids don’t need to be famous; that kind of attention does them harm. Justin Bieber is certainly a case in point. That is why I disapprove of organizations like ARK—a “factory” that’s out to sell you music. Do they really care about the kids they promote? I doubt it. The real oxymoron here, from all outward appearances, is that the harshest critics of Rebecca Black and “Friday” have unwittingly promulgated the very commodity they so vehemently deride. We live in strange times.