In Defense of Rebecca Black
11:25 AM, Mar 29, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
There's a pretty good chance that you are one of the 63-million-plus (and counting) people who have watched 13-year-old Rebecca Black's video version of "Friday," a three-minute pop number recorded in January and posted on YouTube earlier this month. Rebecca Black is a California middle school student, not a professional singer, and "Friday" was written by two men who own a vanity recording studio in Los Angeles where, for $2,000, Rebecca Black's parents paid for a video of their daughter performing the song. The Black family expected friends and relatives to see "Friday" on YouTube, and that was about it.
Until a show about the Internet called Tosh.0 offered a bilious review entitled "Songwriting Isn't for Everyone" on March 11, and Rebecca Black, in the manner of modern social media, went viral. Within days, "Friday" had been seen by hundreds of thousands, and then tens of millions, of viewers. Song and singer have been the subject of coverage in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Forbes, and innumerable other outlets. And like the nearly one million comments posted (thus far) on YouTube, the reaction to Rebecca Black and "Friday" has been almost uniformly hostile. "Friday" has been described as "hilariously dreadful" and "the worst song ever," and one typical YouTube comment suggested to Rebecca Black that she "cut yourself [and] get an eating disorder so you'll look pretty."
I confess that I had heard of neither "Friday" nor Rebecca Black until they were well on their way to household status last week, but not wanting to be hopelessly behind the curve, I immediately tuned in. My immediate reaction was surprise—but of a slightly different order than the standard response.
"Friday" is a banal pop song which counts down the days of the school week until Friday which, of course, anticipates the weekend. Rebecca Black bounces amiably around various scenes—sometimes by herself, but usually not—and in the song's only deviation from chronology, she is obliged to choose between sitting in the front or back seat of a friend's convertible. The music is repetitive—the same notes, chords, and sequences are endlessly repeated at brief intervals—and Rebecca Black's voice has been altered by Auto-Tune, presumably to stay on key. This gives her delivery a characteristically metallic quality which, combined with the song's Twitter-quality lyrics (Fun, fun, fun, fun/Lookin' forward to the weekend), has scraped a sensitive nerve in cyberspace.
Now, I would be the first to admit that "Friday" is not my kind of song, and whatever genre it represents is not my favorite music. I might also mention that, in my 61st year, I am old enough to be Rebecca Black's grandfather. But while I am willing to accept the judgment of those who think "Friday" is dreadful—to each his own, no accounting for taste, etc.—I fail to grasp how it is self-evidently "the worst song ever," or "bizarre," and why this of all songs, and Rebecca Black of all pop warblers, have been singled out for universal Internet obloquy. Indeed, after the initial over-reaction, some observers (Entertainment Weekly, OK!) have conceded that, all things considered, Rebecca Black's "Friday" does have a certain hypnotic charm.
No one would mistake Fun, fun, fun, fun/Lookin' forward to the weekend for Cole Porter, but how much worse is it than Fun, fun, fun/Till her daddy takes the T-bird away? One observer of pop culture, whose opinion I respect, reminds me that the problem with "Friday" is "the totality. Note how completely literal the video is. She sings something as she does it." And I cannot disagree. But no songwriter was more literal than, say, Irving Berlin (Oh, I love to go out fishing/In a river or a creek), and one of the traumatic memories of my own youth is the numbingly repetitive, multi-million-selling "Saturday Night" (1976) by the Bay City Rollers (Do it all, have a ball/Saturday night, Saturday night). For that matter, while Rebecca Black, at 13, is not likely to be mistaken for Anita O'Day in her prime, is her (studio-enhanced) voice all that distinct from the (studio-enhanced) sound produced by Ashlee Simpson or Justin Bieber or Britney Spears or Pink?
Rebecca Black, I suspect, will have the last laugh on this one: She's got the look, the sound, and now the notoriety. In the 1950s and early '60s, Steve Allen used to get substantial laughs from the studio audience with his slow, deliberate readings of rock 'n' roll lyrics (Who put the bomp in the bompa bompa bomp/Who put the ram in the ramma lamma ding dong) as if he were reciting Wordsworth. But of course, a half-century later, the author of that lyric (Barry Mann) resides in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and who now remembers Steve Allen?